Do you ever feel like it’s mean or selfish to set boundaries? Do you feel guilty — like you’re doing something wrong — when you set boundaries? If so, read on to learn how to set boundaries without being mean and without the guilt and icky feeling that your needs don’t matter.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries create physical and emotional space between you and others. They show people how you want to be treated – what’s okay with you and what’s not.
Boundaries are essential in all relationships – with your parents, children, friends, boss, and so on. For example, you need to set a boundary with a coworker who repeatedly eats your yogurts from the office refrigerator and you need a boundary with your mother who goes on and on about the problems she’s having with your father. Without boundaries, you may feel suffocated, unable to express your true feelings and needs. And boundaries protect you from being mistreated or taken advantage of because they communicate your needs and expectations.
Boundaries are good for everyone
Sometimes, boundaries are met with anger or resistance (hence our reluctance to set them). But it’s not wrong or mean to set boundaries. Boundaries aren’t meant to punish or control other people. We set boundaries for our own wellbeing, but they aren’t just good for us – they’re good for everyone involved.
Boundaries actually make relationships easier. If this seems confusing, think about what it’s like when other people set boundaries with you. Don’t you appreciate it when your boss sets clear boundaries and tells you specifically what she expects and wants? The same holds true in other relationships – kids do best when parents set clear boundaries and intimate relationships and friendships are easier when both parties are clear about their needs and expectations.
And when we don’t set boundaries, we often become resentful and angry – which isn’t good for us or our relationships. Boundaries communicate our needs and expectations – and it’s kind, not selfish, to tell others how you want to be treated, what you need, and what you expect.
To learn more about the benefits of setting boundaries, read this post.
However, even when we understand the importance of boundaries, we don’t always set them.
Why are you afraid to set boundaries?
People avoid setting boundaries for many reasons, but fear is one of the biggest reasons.
Common fears about setting boundaries include:
- Fear of angering people
- Fear of disappointing others
- Fear of being seen as difficult or selfish
- Fear of being mean
- Fear of ruining relationships
Often, we’re afraid to set boundaries because we don’t want to be mean or seen as difficult or selfish. Most of us were taught the importance of being “good girls” or ”good boys” – that we needed to be agreeable, kind, and selfless. And further still, the message we got as children was often that we had to be good or even perfect or our parents (and others) wouldn’t love or want us.
As a result, we feel like we have to make others happy (or at least not displease them). In other words, we became people-pleasers. And in doing so, we compromise our boundaries out of fear. We consistently put other people’s needs before our own. And we sacrifice our right to safety, respect, individuation, and the freedom to be ourselves, which essentially tells others that their needs are more important than ours and they can mistreat us to get what they want.
Obviously, this isn’t the message that we want to send to our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We want to value ourselves enough to ask for what we need, to be treated with respect, and allowed to have our own feelings and ideas. And we need to set boundaries in order to do this.
How to set boundaries with kindness
Let’s begin by remembering that setting boundaries kindly doesn’t ensure that others won’t get angry. You can’t control how other people respond to your requests. However, using these communication tips can reduce the likelihood that others will respond angrily.
- Keep the focus on your feelings and needs. Setting a boundary is about communicating what you need and expect. In the process, it may be important to gently call out someone’s hurtful behavior, but that shouldn’t be the focus. Focusing on what someone has done wrong is likely to make them defensive. Instead, lead with how you feel and what you need.
- Be direct. Sometimes in an effort to be kind, we’re wishy-washy and don’t clearly ask for what we want or need.
- Be specific. Ask for exactly what you want or need. Specificity makes it easier for the other person to understand your perspective and what you’re asking for.
- Use a neutral tone of voice. Your tone of voice may be even more important than your choice of words, so pay attention to how you’re saying it as much as what you’re saying. Try to avoid yelling, sarcasm, cursing, and other signs of anger or contempt; this turns people off from your message — they stop listening and start defending.
- Choose the right time. Avoid the temptation to impulsively say things without considering whether the timing is right. Ideally, choose a time when you’re both calm, sober, well rested, and not distracted by the television, phone, other people or problems. In reality, there isn’t always a perfect time to discuss boundaries and if you wait too long, you run the risk of having resentments pile up. So, choose the best possible time. (Please note, some boundaries need to be set in less than ideal circumstances. If you or someone else is in immediate danger, you will need to go ahead and set a boundary immediately (such as leaving a dangerous situation.)
- Consider the other person’s needs. When you’re setting boundaries with someone you care about, you may also want to consider their needs. In other words, sometimes compromise is appropriate. Real compromise is important in relationships, but be mindful that you’re not the only one compromising, and that you’re not giving up what’s most important to you. People-pleasers have a tendency to concede rather than compromise, which is why we need boundaries!
A few thoughts about anger
Anger is an uncomfortable feeling for most of us. And because it’s uncomfortable, we try to avoid it. But when we try to avoid other people’s anger, we do things like not setting boundaries, overextending ourselves to please others, or tolerating mistreatment. And, of course, even when we try to avoid other people’s anger, we can’t. We can’t control how other people act and feel and some people are bound to be displeased no matter what we do.
Instead of trying to avoid anger, it might be helpful to pause and ask yourself why anger feels so uncomfortable. Try answering the following questions to get started.
- Were you allowed to be angry as a child? What happened if you were angry?
- Have people hurt you when they were angry?
- What’s the difference between anger and violence?
- Is it possible to be angry without being violent or aggressive?
- Do you associate anger with being out of control? Why?
- Does getting angry make you a “bad” person?
Examples of how to set boundaries with kindness
Below are a few examples of what you might say to set a boundary with kindness. You can adapt these scripts to fit your needs, personality, etc. We’re all different, so we need to find the words that feel right for us, but as I said, these examples will give you a place to start.
Situation #1: You feel embarrassed and hurt when your husband jokes about you to his friends. You’ve asked him to stop in the past and he told you to “lighten up”, he was just joking.
Setting a boundary with kindness: Honey, I’d like to talk to you about what happened when your friends were here last Friday. I felt embarrassed when you were joking about my cooking. I know you didn’t mean any harm, but it really hurt my feelings. I felt like a failure, like a real loser. I’d like you to stop putting me down in front of your friends. It would mean a lot to me.
Situation #2: You’re in a newish relationship with someone you like a lot. They want to get more physically intimate, but you’re not ready.
Setting a boundary with kindness: I’m really enjoying our time together…and this is hard for me to talk about, but I think it’s important. You matter to me and I don’t want to hurt your feelings or have there be a misunderstanding, so I want to be upfront about my feelings. I’m not ready to have sex yet. I want to take this slow and savor where we are in this relationship right now and not rush ahead.
As you can see in both of these examples, they are the beginning of a conversation that hopefully leads to mutual understanding and both people feeling heard and valued.
Now, it’s your turn to put it into practice. What boundaries have you been afraid to set? Try describing the situation and writing a practice script for yourself to start thinking about how you might kindly and directly express your needs.
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Originally published on PsychCentral.