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Setting Boundaries: Self-Care or Selfish?

Tips for stating your boundaries with kindness.

Key points

  • Boundaries can be seen as limits that protect yourself, others, relationships, and things you love.
  • Someone might view your boundary as selfish, but that doesn't mean it's true.
  • It's possible to say "no" nicely. If you prefer to keep boundary-setting positive, try starting with the "yes" first.
Source: Denise Robertson, used with permission
Source: Denise Robertson, used with permission

The person receiving your boundary may feel disappointed, sad, or even mad. However, their response doesn’t mean that what you said or did was wrong or selfish. Setting boundaries is often an act of care.

What are boundaries? Why are they vital?

Boundaries are limits that typically protect something. They may protect others, such as giving a child the rule: “No playing in the street.” Or they may safeguard you—your time, contentedness, and security. Boundaries also preserve your relationships (e.g., with romantic partners, friends, family, acquaintances, and co-workers).

Some relationship boundaries will feel obvious. Others will lack clarity and make you question if you’re being selfish. For example:

  • A friend asks you to do a favor. You’re tired and stressed already.
  • A family member asks to borrow money. That feels uncomfortable to you.
  • You’re invited to go somewhere or do something. You don’t want to.

In each of these instances, saying “no” might be the most caring, self-protective, and relationship-honoring thing you can do. That is especially the case when any of the following might be true:

  • You’ll resent doing the favor.
  • Lending money might strain the relationship.
  • You’ll most likely regret going.

Admittedly, communicating boundaries can be challenging. You may feel mean or guilty–especially if you're a people-pleaser. Furthermore, some people will push you to change your mind, making holding your limit harder.

Boundary pushing

When someone doesn’t easily accept your boundaries, that doesn’t mean you have to ramp up your energy, get defensive, give details, or justify your limit. Doing any one of those can weaken your stance. For example, defensiveness tends to reveal your discomfort or uncertainty instead of shoring up what you said. Giving details or justifying your statement often opens a debate about your boundary. So keep it calm, kind, and to the point. For example, “I’m sorry to miss X. Thank you for inviting me.” That is much harder to manipulate than "I can't go to X because of this and that and then this other thing…."

If you notice there’s a pattern of people not respecting your boundaries, it could mean that you’re not enforcing those parameters as clearly or consistently as needed. Maybe you’re allowing a person’s persistence (e.g., repeat asks) to change your “no” to a “yes.” If so, you’re behaviorally rewarding their insistence and teaching them they can—and have permission to—change your limits.

Sometimes the best thing you can do with persistent people (and toddlers) is to repeat what you’ve already said calmly. For example, “Thank you, I have plans.” That can be your answer each time that certain someone tries to push or negotiate with you about your boundaries. (If you’re a stickler about honesty, make sure you have plans so you aren’t lying. Reminder: Plans can include spending time alone, watching a show, doing self-care, etc.)

6 tips for setting your boundaries with kindness

1. If appropriate to the situation, sample phrasings and a formula to follow:

  • “I appreciate you and the invitation. And I’m sorry I won’t be joining.”
  • “I appreciate you. And I understand that it might feel bad that I won't be [doing X, participating, volunteering, attending, etc.].”

If you appreciate them or their gesture, go ahead and say it. Start with, "I appreciate [you or this].” Assuring someone you value them feels good and can help them feel secure with your relationship.

Next, why not own the let-down so they know you get it if they’re a bit bummed? For instance, “I understand that it might feel [disappointing, bad, or uncomfortable]” or a sincere “I’m sorry” sentiment. When we feel emotionally understood, it can be validating.

Finally, it’s the boundary. The person inviting or requesting may benefit by hearing that you understood the ask and there isn’t confusion or room for negotiation. For example, “I won’t be [fill-in-the-blank.]."

2. Say “and” instead of “but” when you need either conjunction.

For the boundary recipient, hearing “but” tends to muddy or erase whatever was said before it. If you don’t believe me, think about when you’ve been told the following: “You did a great job, but…” On the other hand, if you say “and” as the conjunction, it allows what follows to add to what was already shared (e.g., “I appreciate you, and…”). When setting limits, every word counts.

3. Instead of “I can’t,” choose “I won’t.”

This vocabulary change is subtle yet powerful. “I can’t” sounds like you’re the victim of forces from outside yourself, whereas “I won’t” comes from within you. Further, saying “I can’t” tends to elicit a gut response of “Why not?” When you have someone in your life who pushes your boundaries, that person could easily interpret your "can't" as merely an obstacle. So they’ll set out to help you find the “can" in the "can't.” “I won’t” conveys your solidity.

4. If you prefer to keep things positive, state a yes instead of a no.

“I’m willing to take on X,” or “I’m glad to do X.” A yes still sets a clear boundary. And if they ask more of you, you can either keep repeating the yes statement or shift to something like, “I’ll be glad to do X, and I won’t be doing Y,” or “I’m able to do X, and I won’t be able to do Y.”

5. Say, "Let me get back to you," if you need to think about your answer or how to communicate it.

Postponing your response is super helpful when you hear your brain screaming, “I don’t want to!” but you're about to say, “OK.” Plus, there are additional perks of using those six words:

  • You open the door to responding via text or email later.
  • You get to avoid seeing their response and the risk of engaging in a live discussion or negotiation.

6. Keep TMI (too much information) out of your boundaries.

When you go to set your limits, keep it short and gracious. Too many details can confuse people or entice boundary pushers to push.

In the end

The above are ideas. As always, pick and choose what feels helpful or hopeful to you and experiment. See how it goes. Keep brainstorming how you can communicate your limits your way.

Finding your voice can feel awkward at first, requiring practice. Please be gentle with yourself. If you haven't been setting boundaries regularly, the process probably won't come naturally—especially during a moment of face-to-face pressure. However, with time and practice, you'll find some ways that feel good-ish to you.

Knowing and using boundaries in relationships creates a sense of safety. How can we freely share our authentic selves with people if we don’t feel safe? Setting limits can help you live a full, contented, loving, and meaningful life.

Please seek support if you struggle with boundaries. Talk to a trusted confidant. Also, therapy may benefit you by helping you figure out your limits and how to best set them with others.

This is for informational purposes and does not provide therapy or professional advice.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, MA, LMFT, LPCC, CEDS-S
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