By: Sharon Martin, LCSW | August 29, 2022
"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).
Tips for setting boundaries without guiltSetting boundaries is easier and less guilt-provoking when you keep these tips in mind.