Many of us avoid setting boundaries because we feel guilty when we set a limit or ask for something. Feeling guilty is understandable. However, not setting boundaries can lead to bigger problems.
Boundaries are important for several reasons. They create healthy relationships and clear expectations. Boundaries protect us from being hurt and taken advantage of. And they ensure that we use our time, energy, and money for the things that matter most to us.
Learning to set boundaries without feeling guilty can be challenging, but it is possible. It involves changing the way you think about yourself and your boundaries. We need to move away from a people-pleaser mindset that lets others dictate what’s right for us, and begin to prioritize our needs.
Everyone needs boundaries
Boundaries are limits and expectations that we set for ourselves and others. They help both parties understand how to behave—what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t.
If you don’t have boundaries, people can treat you however they want; there are no rules or guidelines. They can touch you, ask intrusive questions, yell at you, or call you in the middle of the night. You’re likely to overwork, and allow others to take advantage of your kindness; eventually, this will negatively impact your physical and mental health.
It may seem laughable, but without any boundaries, a stranger could come into your house, eat your food, wear your clothes, and take a nap on your sofa. Most of us wouldn’t be okay with this. You’d tell them to leave – and you wouldn’t feel guilty about it. So, why do we struggle to tell our friends and family members how they can treat us or how they can behave in our homes?
Why do we feel guilty when we set boundaries?
Guilt is the feeling or belief that you’ve done something wrong. When you’ve truly done something wrong, the discomfort of feeling guilty can motivate you to change and do better in the future.
But if you feel guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong—like setting a boundary—guilt causes problems and can be an obstacle to doing something that’s in your own best interest.
We feel guilty because we think boundaries are mean, wrong, or selfish. Who has told you that it's wrong or selfish to set boundaries? Who has shown you that it's wrong through their response to your boundaries?
It's important to remember that others may resist your boundaries, but that doesn't make them wrong or selfish. That is their opinion; it’s not a fact. Often, our lack of boundaries has enabled others to take advantage of us—and it's understandable that they will push back when we start standing up for ourselves.
Boundaries are a form of self-care; everyone needs to take care of themselves in order to be healthy, happy, productive, and compassionate. You can challenge your guilty feelings and see if they’re warranted by asking yourself the following questions, adapted from my book The Better Boundaries Workbook (Martin, 2021).
- Is it really wrong to ________________?
- Do I believe this is wrong or is this someone else’s belief?
- Would I tell a friend that it’s wrong to _______________?
- Is my guilt based on unrealistic expectations of myself?
- Does feeling guilty about __________ help me be the healthiest, happiest version of myself?
- Can I tolerate someone being displeased with me if I’m doing what’s best for me?
Tips for setting boundaries without guilt
Setting boundaries is easier and less guilt-provoking when you keep these tips in mind.
- Boundaries aren’t selfish. Boundaries are good for your health and well-being and they benefit those around you, too.
- Boundaries strengthen relationships. For example, children feel safe and secure when their parents set clear boundaries, and intimate relationships and friendships feature fewer conflicts when both parties are clear about their needs and expectations. Boundaries foster intimacy and connection because they create emotional safety which allows us to be vulnerable. In addition, everyone benefits when you have more energy and patience, are less reactive, and have fewer resentments as a result of setting boundaries.
- Setting boundaries is good for you. You’re less likely to feel guilty if you remember that everyone has needs and that setting boundaries is a healthy way to meet yours. Eating vegetables is a healthy choice; you wouldn’t feel guilty about that. Setting boundaries that help you stay mentally and physically healthy is no different. There’s no reason to feel guilty about doing something that's good for you.
- Tune into your needs. It’s nearly impossible to set boundaries and practice self-care if you don’t know what you need. Tuning in to your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations will help you do this. Intentionally pause several times during the day to ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need?” When you have a better sense of how you feel and what you need, it will be easier to set boundaries.
- Practice, practice, practice. Setting boundaries is a skill, and like any other skill, the more you practice the easier it becomes. Expect that it will feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but stick with it.
- Be kind to yourself. Trying to take better care of yourself and learn new skills is hard work. Be sure to give yourself plenty of self-compassion and encouragement.
Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Setting boundaries and practicing self-care aren’t all-or-nothing endeavors. Don’t get hung up on doing them perfectly. Aim for progress, not perfection.
Martin, S. (2021). The Better Boundaries Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.