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4 Ways to Set Boundaries

... and why you shouldn't feel guilty about it.

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Prosocial behavior—helping, giving, and cooperating—is humans’ saving grace. It counters our selfishness, competitiveness, prejudice, and aggressiveness. Research finds that helping and giving distract us from our troubles, improve our moods, increase our sense of control and usefulness, promote relationships, and meet social needs. Our support helps people recover and it helps people succeed. The outpouring of giving following tragedy provides hope and the courage to carry on. Prosocial behavior promotes the success of individuals, relationships, groups, and societies.

Helping and giving are good.

But most of us have to set boundaries around our helping and giving at some point in our lives. We can find ourselves in a one-sided relationship with a “taker.” Our giving can turn into enabling and promote dependency or addiction. Temporary offers of help can become unexpected long-term burdens. Our helping and giving isn’t always sustainable given our energy and financial resources. Instead of strengthening our relationships, our giving can strain them.

In my book, I provide guidelines to tell when your help or giving has crossed the line from healthy to unhealthy (as outlined in a previous blog post). I also provide techniques for setting effective boundaries with little drama. But I recognize that while it’s sometimes necessary to pull back on our helping or giving, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

The truth is, boundary-setting ambivalence is common when we consider placing limits on our helping and giving, and even after we do so. While some factors shout in favor of setting boundaries, others argue against it and create cognitive dissonance (psychological tension from clashing thoughts). Concerns about what might happen without our support confuse us. We may go back and forth about whether a need for our assistance is real, or whether it’s concocted by someone avoiding responsibility or seeking dependency. We might question whether boundaries are fair given another’s health condition, addiction, or psychiatric disorder. We might struggle with feelings of selfishness for limiting our sacrifice for others. Some people will get angry and resist your boundaries, or reject you when you limit what you do for them or give to them. Setting boundaries, in short, can end relationships.

Boundary-setting ambivalence can prevent us from setting needed limits, or weaken our resolve once we do. The solution is managing the ambivalence, guilt, and loss so we can do what needs to be done. Here are some suggestions:

1. Reduce ambivalence before or after boundary-setting by strengthening the cognitions (thoughts) that support your boundary. Ease your dissonance with a list of the reasons why your boundaries are necessary. Ask yourself:

  • “How is my continued helping interfering with my accomplishing important personal or family goals?" (Such goals may be financial, professional, social, or related to your mental or physical health.)
  • “How is my helping or giving actually unhelpful? How does it interfere with other people’s long-term health, well-being, competency, or autonomy? How does it harm relationships?”
  • “Why did I (or why do I) feel the need to set these boundaries?”

2. Further offset ambivalence and strengthen commitment to boundaries with affirmative self-statements. For example:

  • “It’s their right to be displeased with my boundary but it’s my right to set limits around what I will and won’t do. After all, it’s my money, time, and effort."
  • “Their anger or displeasure is unfortunate and I wish it weren’t so, but I can handle it, and they’ll probably get over it.”
  • “I didn’t make this decision lightly and it’s the right thing for me to do even if it’s hard. I know the status quo can’t continue.”
  • “I’m not a bad or unhelpful person for setting this boundary. Being a good, helpful person sometimes means setting boundaries.”
  • “I hope they’ll manage without my help but if they don’t, it’s their choice, not my fault.”

3. When you feel distressed after setting a needed boundary, remind yourself that discomfort is a normal, but usually temporary, part of the process. It doesn’t necessarily mean you were wrong to set a boundary. And your ambivalence will ease with the passage of time, especially if you follow the suggestions above.

4. When you set helping or giving boundaries, it’s normal to feel sad or even to grieve. When your boundaries are an acknowledgment of someone’s selfishness, immaturity, or willingness to take advantage, you might mourn the person you thought they were (or would become) when you agreed to help or give. You might grieve for the dashed hopes that your giving would strengthen a relationship or help someone progress, or that it would be part of a mutually giving relationship. Some boundaries lead relationships to end or become distant, so you might mourn that loss as well. (But don’t mourn prematurely: If there was more to the relationship that your giving and someone else’s taking, it should recover.) Grief doesn’t usually mean you’re wrong in your limits—it just means you experienced a loss that will ease with time.

For more information on setting helping and giving boundaries see my book Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving. Also available as an e-book for Kindle, iBook, Kobu, and Nook readers.

Related Posts:

Six Hallmarks of Codependence

When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

LinkedIn Image Credit: Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock


Shawn Meghan Burn (2015). Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving. Amazon. Also available as an e-book for Kindle, ibook, Kobu, and Nook readers.

R. Alberti & M. Emmons. Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (2008; 9th Edition). Impact Publishing.

L.A. Penner, J.F. Dovidio, J. A. Piliavin, & D. A. Schroeder (2006). Prosocial behavior: Multilevel perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 365-392.

N. Weinstein & R. M. Ryan (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, pages 222-244.

W.R. Miller & S. Rollick (2002). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change. Guilford Press.

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