What to Do When You Feel Guilty About Setting Boundaries
You set a boundary with someone. You say you can’t attend their party. You say you can’t loan them money. You say you won’t hang out with them when they’re drinking. You say you can’t take them to work every day anymore. You say they need to move out.
You set your healthy boundary—but then the guilt starts setting in. And you start ruminating. You start ruminating about the effect of your boundary on this person and the effect on your relationship. You start to question your boundary, and maybe even backtrack.
Sometimes, we feel so guilty that we break our own boundaries. We make exceptions. We spit out a slew of I’m sorrys. We start insulting ourselves. For instance, according to marriage and family therapist Jen Lum, you respectfully decline an invitation. As soon as you do, you can feel the other person’s disappointment, which causes your guilt to rise. You promise to rearrange your schedule so you can attend. Or you poke fun at your abysmal time management skills for not being able to join such an essential event.
Often Caroline Leon’s clients feel guilty when they think they’re prioritizing their own needs over someone else’s needs. After all, our society glorifies self-sacrifice, and caring for oneself first may be seen as selfish (versus what it really is: healthy).
In some families, boundaries are interpreted as disconnection, as disrespectful, as unloving, said Julie Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships. “Closeness in unhealthy families is often experienced as sameness, or enmeshment, so boundaries feel scary and uncomfortable.” Which prompts people to push against our boundaries and say things like: I can’t believe you’d do this to me. Obviously, you don’t care about me. Your sister never misses a gathering. You’ve moved so far away, and now you can’t even make it to my party. I feel so lonely when you don’t call every day.
“For some, setting boundaries can feel like we are rejecting others and being uncompassionate in their moment of need,” Lum said. In reality, however, “maintaining successful boundaries kills resentment and nurtures our compassion for others.”
Below, you’ll find expert suggestions on reducing guilt, so you can keep setting your healthy boundaries.
Use reminders. When you feel guilt coming on, Hanks suggested telling yourself statements or mantras like: “It’s OK to set boundaries” or “You did a good job setting a boundary even though it’s uncomfortable” or “Just because I feel guilty doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong.”