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.”
The last statement is really about you thinking that you’ve done something wrong, said Leon, a business and mindset coach to purpose-driven female entrepreneurs, and founder of the Female Business Academy. But what you’ve really done is misunderstood what boundary setting is, she said. (More on that below.) “[W]hen we can investigate those thoughts, we can uncover our conditioning and choose a healthier way.”
It’s also important to remind yourself that you’re not responsible for other people’s feelings or comfort level, Hanks said. In fact, trying to take responsibility for someone else’s feelings actually keeps them stuck in a victim space, Leon said. “When we can honor the fact that each individual ultimately has responsibility for themselves, we empower everyone to look after their own needs.” We can support others in meeting their needs, but we can’t be responsible for meeting them.
Set boundaries clearly and compassionately. “Though you cannot control how others feel and react to the boundaries, you can do your part in delivering your message in a warm and clear way,” said Lum.
Hanks stressed the importance of empathizing with the person and labeling what’s happening—while firmly maintaining your boundary. She shared these examples: “It seems you’re disappointed and angry that we are going to be out of town over Christmas and will miss the family party. I can understand that. We’ll still be going out of town.” “I know you’d like me to make all of the food for the get-together; however, I am unable to. I can bring the turkey if others can bring the side dishes.”
Lum shared this example of a clear and compassionate boundary: “Mom, I’ll be able to go to attend the family function on Saturday but will unfortunately need to miss Sunday. As much as I wish I could attend both, I know I’ll only have energy to be fully present for one function. I also need a day to myself in order to recharge and handle my errands before I begin work again on Monday. I know you would really appreciate my presence at both parties, and I am sorry that you will be alone. I’ll be thinking of you and hoping you are enjoying yourself.”
Acknowledge the power of boundaries. Setting boundaries is healthy and actually serves everyone, Leon said. “Putting others first leaves you feeling depleted, resentful and with your needs largely unmet, which means you are then likely to turn to others to get those needs met, which they will then try to do out of a similar sense of obligation and to avoid guilt.”
Identify your personal reasons for setting a boundary. Lum stressed the importance of picking reasons that speak to your personal values—and writing them down or telling them to a good friend. When feelings of guilt start to surface, reconnect to your own reasons. For instance, your reasons might be: increasing my self-worth; reducing stress and resentment; and strengthening my relationships, Lum said.
Understand your limitations. “As humans, we need to manage our internal and external resources well in order to thrive,” Lum said. “Sustaining a healthy flow of giving and receiving resources is important for our individual health and the health of our relationships.”
For instance, external resources include: time, money and energy; internal resources include: attention, compassion and vulnerability, she said. Using our resources affects our mind, body and soul. Which is why it’s vital to consider how much time, attention and energy you have to devote to an activity so you can do it well and be in a good mood, Lum said.
Setting boundaries is a skill, which gets easier the more you practice. And the more you practice, the less guilt and fear you’ll feel—and the more accustomed people will become to your boundaries, Leon said. “Essentially your boundaries are your way of telling people how you would like to be treated and as you become more skilled at setting boundaries, you’ll find a huge shift in how people treat you.”