Insights for High Stress Professions
When talking about boundaries, I’m often asked how to avoid feeling guilty for setting boundaries. Unfortunately the answer is you can’t. When we set boundaries, we are most likely going to feel guilt. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set healthy boundaries; it means we need to learn to get comfortable navigating the experience of guilt.
Photo Credit: Ryan Moreno
Why Do We Need to Set Boundaries?
Healthy boundaries are essential to a balanced and productive life. Boundaries protect your physical, mental, and emotional resources from being drained by others and circumstances, which allows you to spend those resources in ways more aligned with your priorities. When we struggle to set boundaries, we often feel drained, resentful, and unappreciated for all the (often invisible) effort we put in.
Often, we avoid setting boundaries because it makes us feel selfish or guilty. Like we are bad people for having needs. We were raised (in family systems and in society) to believe we need to give our all, all of the time, to everyone and everything else. This leads us to experience a lot of negative emotions when we try to start setting healthy boundaries in our lives. We can’t avoid that experience. We need to learn to get more comfortable with that.
Choose your hard: learn to weather the negative emotions of guilt and shame we experience by setting and holding healthy boundaries, or continue to weather the negative emotions of exhaustion and resentment by not setting and holding healthy boundaries.
Let’s explore how to navigate the negative emotional experience of setting boundaries. First, name what you’re feeling.
Are we experiencing Guilt or Shame?
We feel shame when we feel unworthy or that we didn't measure up. The focus is on us as a human, parent, employee, friend, etc. We attribute flaws to ourselves as a human rather than to the behavior we engaged in.
We feel guilt when we do something bad. The focus is on the behavior, and the resulting discomfort encourages us to atone, make amends, and do better in the future.
With shame, we feel bad, and there’s nothing we can do about it (if the problem is you’re a bad ____, it’s not really fixable). WIth guilt, we feel bad, and there’s something we can do about it (we made a mistake and can choose differently next time).
We tend to experience shame more when we have perfectionist tendencies that are driven by what others think about us or how we measure up.
Oftentimes when we feel guilty for setting healthy boundaries, we may actually be experiencing shame. Pay attention to the way you’re talking to yourself and describing the situation.
First off, you’re not doing anything wrong by needing healthy boundaries and advocating for yourself to set and hold them. When you hold boundaries, you are saying your needs matter as much as their needs. You don’t need to apologize for having needs and setting boundaries to protect your physical, mental, and emotional resources.
Weathering the Feels
Navigating the complex terrain of guilt in boundary-setting is an essential aspect of maintaining a balanced and fulfilling life. It's crucial to understand that feeling guilty when setting boundaries is a natural response, and it doesn't diminish the importance of establishing healthy limits. Instead, it highlights the need to become comfortable with this experience.
Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House.
Cole, T. (2021). Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free. Sounds True.
Fosslien, L. (2022). Big Feelings. Penguin Life.
McLaren, K. (2013). The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You. Sounds True.
Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2019). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books.
Tawwab, N. (2021). Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. TarcherPerigee.
Check out my the rest of the posts in my series on Boundaries
Firm Foundations: Exploring Various Types of Personal Boundaries
The Silent Language: What Your Boundaries (or Lack Thereof) Say
Respecting Your Space: The Art of Boundary Communication
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