If you engage in any kind of inner-work – emotions, relationships, your relationship with yourself, limiting beliefs, etc. – you’ll come across the concept of “boundary setting”. From coaching to therapy, everyone talks about boundaries and how they’re good for you.
Then, why do we feel bad for setting boundaries?! I’ve heard time, and again, questions like, “Why do I feel mean when I set boundaries?”; “How do I stop feeling bad for setting boundaries?”
Why does setting boundaries create anxiety for some of us? How do you build boundaries without guilt?
This article will present you with some perspectives of boundaries that you may not have yet considered.
Why Do I Feel Bad/ Mean/ Anxious When I Set Boundaries?
We feel bad when setting boundaries because we have learnt from evolution, our culture, our families, and our own experiences that it’s “wrong” to say no, or to ask for something that only serves us. Our judgment of “bad” and “wrong” is closely tied to emotions of guilt and shame. Those of us who haven’t learnt to work with these two (usually experienced as) heavy emotions, struggle with setting personal boundaries. There’s more nuance to understanding what makes us anxious or judge ourselves when we set boundaries.
What Is A Boundary?
A boundary is a real or imaginary line between two entities beyond which the other has limited rights. While a physical boundary can seem clearer as it will likely be visible, psychological boundaries are less clear.
For the purpose of this article we’ll focus on these psychological boundaries that you can think of as an idea of standards by which we would like others to relate with us – through body, mind, &/ emotions.
Cherilynn Veland, LCSW, MSW, states(1) that, “Boundaries constitute a series of tools we use to set limits, expectations and responsibilities with others and for ourselves.”
Hanna Stensby adds to the above definition the component of having clarity on our priorities and values.
“Boundaries are all about becoming clear on your values and your priorities, and then setting limits around people or activities in your life that don’t bring you joy or don’t make you feel fulfilled.”– Hanna Stensby, Gottman Institute-trained Therapist
Boundaries can be as simple as saying “no” to a party invitation during a hectic week, and as complex as sharing with your parents a particular ask of theirs that you no more want to adhere to, or telling your loving romantic partner what you’re okay and not okay with in bed.
I think it’s important to understand that a boundary in and of itself isn’t good or bad, rather it is how we set our boundaries that make them healthy or unhealthy for us, and our relationships.
In fact, setting healthy boundaries isn’t a luxury, but a basic core need to maintain & nourish any relationship in the long-term. I love this quote by Prentis Hemphill:
“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”– Prentis Hemphill, Founder, The Embodiment Institute
Boundaries are healthy when we feel nourished by them. This means that when by deciding to say a “no” your quality of life improves – even though you may not “feel” great in the moment of saying the “no” – it’s a healthy boundary.
Cheryl Richardson, the author of The Art Of Extreme Self-Care, says, “If you avoid conflict to keep the peace you start a war inside yourself.” Thus, it is extremely important to be able to state your boundaries with clarity & assertiveness.
Clarity doesn’t mean your boundaries are written in stone & can’t change over a period of time, and being assertive doesn’t mean bullying the other and/ not creating win-win solutions.
A healthy boundary doesn’t have to be one statement with zero conversations.
An unhealthy boundary is a boundary that is too rigid, or too lose, leading to you feeling like your energy is being sapped.
For instance, an article(2) in The Candidly, states that “posts like this are constantly popping up on our feeds:”
“They are the new “shoulds” of how to create better relationships with the people we love. But how do we translate these theoretical ideas that we “like” in an idealized, digital world, into pragmatic, relational ideas we can actually use in our non-digital lives?
Because while boundaries can seem helpful and freeing and smart and rational, in practice, summoning the courage to say to our moms “no, we’re not seeing family this year for the holidays” seems, uh, well, terrifying?”
It’s an unhealthy boundary when it’s coming from a space of manipulation – of wanting to control the other by bullying, or emotionally hurting, or people pleasing, or gaslighting.
When we engage in unhealthy boundaries, the guilt we experience could actually be the “good” guilt telling us that we’re misaligned with our values – good guilt eventually leads us to make ammends.
A healthy boundary is based on the intention of wanting to create space and safety for one’s needs, while owning up to them, & also not blaming anyone. We’ll talk more about this in how to set healthy boundaries.
The catch here is that, like all other inner-work, boundary work too is a complex process. Each individual is a complex being, and when in a relationship (both, platonic, and romantic) there are two individuals bringing in their unique complex worlds, creating a yet another complex world, it can be a tad confusing!
Evolutionarily speaking, humans have always lived in communities. Back in the day our survival literally depended on our acceptance or rejection by our community.
These communities operated in an explicitly symbiotic way where each member’s role was clearly defined, and usually followed – if you didn’t follow it you’d be cast out, and most likely die since surviving on your own in the wild wasn’t easy.
Today, despite living very different lives – where roles are less clearly defined, & not being accepted doesn’t mean death – our amygdala, or the reptilian brain, still reacts in the same way. It drives in us the strong need to be accepted by those around us, and an even stronger fear of being rejected by them.
In fact, we have created our societies with inbuilt mechanisms that protect us from straying away from communities. We’re all very familiar with these inbuilt mechanisms – they are Guilt and Shame.
According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist, “One of the main impediments to boundary setting is guilt.” She says:
“People feel guilty setting a line, and are afraid of hurting feelings. We’re also reluctant to set boundaries for fear of being disliked or rejected.”
As such, creating boundaries – that could potentially upset others, and in some occasions push them away – does not come easy to us.
Primary Defense Mechanism
This quiz helps you understand how you typically respond to emotional overwhelm and stress by identifying your primary defense mechanism.
Different cultures perceive different values to be important. Taking a gigantic leap of generalization, broadly speaking, indigenous cultures prioritize community, and western cultures prioritize individuals.
The way we’re living today, a huge population in all cultures, is moving towards the western ideology of individualism. However, this move hasn’t been easy across generations.
So while it might be easier for a more individualistically oriented person to create & maintain an assertive boundary without many terms and conditions, for someone else from a community oriented mindset, it might not be so easy.
Who is right? Neither. Remember that a boundary is healthy only when it promotes the quality of your life, and not when it makes you feel terrible!
There’s the role of evolution, of culture, and then within the culture there’s a sub-culture of our families. The values we grow up with in our families play a huge role in how we perceive the world.
I use the word “value” here not to refer to something “good” necessarily, but anything that was valued in the family – if there was constant reinforcement of being judgmental about others then that was the value the family held & cultivated.
So if growing up a child was constantly praised for putting others first, it’s likely that the child will grow up believing that they should keep giving & taking care of others even at their own cost.
Such an adult will find it hard to even think of creating a boundary because they learnt that having no boundaries is what enables them to be seen, accepted and loved.
On the other hand, a child who grew up in an environment where they always had to be on their guard, will grow up into an adult with rigid, impenetrable boundaries because they learnt holding up strong boundaries ensures survival.
Inside all these layers of evolution, culture, and family, lies the individual’s makeup – what the individual was born with – a certain temperament, a certain base skillset.
When this base temperament meets family & culture, a certain personality emerges. You emerge. Depending on innumerable factors – your attachment style, you emotional tolerance capacity, your clarity or the lack thereof, etc. – you may or may not find it easy to create, maintain, and flow with boundaries!
The most important thing you can do here is to begin with understanding your individual context & how it engages with the other contexts.
How To Set Healthy Boundaries
“What I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?”– Audre Lorde
To me, it is clear – I can’t not engage in this meaningful work of boundaries. If I hold them too tight, I suffocate. If I hold them too loose, I lose me. Thus, it’s pertinent that I learn how to set healthy boundaries that nourish me, and those around me.
Following are five critical factors that help us create, maintain, & continually evolve our boundaries. While they are listed chronologically, you’re likely to go back & forth between them as you engage in the process.
Healthy boundary work isn’t possible without owning your needs and wants. The first step is to explore what (the way someone engages with you) you are okay with, and what you’re not okay with.
Once you start understanding this, then you start owning them. Only once you own them to be yours, will you be able to start standing up for them, and asking for them to be met.
These two pieces – knowing what you want, and asking for it – they will go back and forth. Knowing what you want will help you ask for it, and asking for it will help you know better what you want.
2. Meta Emotions
Most of our emotional suffering isn’t because of emotions, but because of meta emotions – emotions that we feel about the emotions we experience.
These meta emotions come from the space of categorizing emotions as good or bad.
As you read the quote from Dr. Durvasula above stating guilt to be one of the main impediments to boundary setting – it’s important to note that it isn’t the guilt itself that is the issue here. It is how we react, or emote, to the feeling of guilt.
An article in the Huffpost reads:
“I don’t know that there’s a time when guilt is not warranted, because warranted to me means validation for your feelings. And I think whatever you’re feeling is valid.”– Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City
And so the next step in this process is to learn to work with emotions – all emotions, yes – and specifically emotions of Anger, Guilt, and Shame, with respect to boundary work.
Just like this work is not possible without ownership, it’s also not possible without being open to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is usually seen as allowing yourself to be weak.
To me, vulnerability is allowing yourself to be seen for you – as you are – all of you, or as much of you as you feel comfortable to share.
Vulnerability isn’t a one time thing – it’s a bit-by-bit process that we work on. We open up ourselves a little at a time – ask for what we want & need, and then a little more, and then some more.
The more we own our needs and wants, the more we learn to work with our emotions, the easier it is to open up and be seen for who we are and what we need.
Relationships are two-way streets. There’s always give and take. This give and take isn’t so much “transactional” as it’s natural. In nature, every single being receives, and gives. That’s just how life is – a two-way street.
So when you spend time exploring what you want, standing up for yourself, and asking for your needs to be met, it’s important to see that you’re doing your bit to keep the relationship balanced. That you’re checking in with the other to see if you’re respecting their boundaries.
Other’s boundaries are not your responsibility, but your actions are definitely yours to own!
Another important piece here is – when you say no to someone you’ve always said yes to, you’re also creating an opportunity for them to work on some of their possible blind spots. Thus, eventually, healthy boundaries always lead to nourishment & evolution of all those involved in the process.
This work isn’t complicated, but it is complex. And since none of us were taught these skills, we’re all beginners right now. And most beginners make “mistakes”. I put the word, mistakes, in quotes because mistake is what we call when we try something and it doesn’t work out.
So really, are there any mistakes? I think there are “tries” that go how we want them to, or not so much! Whichever way they go, the most important thing they do is give us information!
Since we’re all beginners, and we’re all trying, give yourself grace – patience, kindness, and gentleness!
- Boundary work has multiple layers to it.
- Learning to work with emotions is crucial to be able to do this work.
- It is important to own your needs and wants, and cultivate vulnerability.
- Boundaries are about creating win-win situations for all involved.
Do drop in your thoughts/ questions/ suggestions in the comments box below – I’d love to hear from you 🙂
P.S. You might find the article, “Why Do I Feel Guilty When I Get Angry?“, to be a good next read!
(1) How to Deal with Guilt when Setting Boundaries, by Cherilynn Veland, LCSW, MSW. Aspirations Inc | https://www.asafeplacetogrow.ca/how-to-deal-with-guilt-when-setting-boundaries/
(2) Why Do Boundaries Make Us Feel Bad, by Marissa Pomerance. The Candidly | https://www.thecandidly.com/2019/why-does-setting-boundaries-make-us-feel-like-terrible-people