If there is ever a time when setting boundaries is necessary, it’s the holiday season. Every year comes with high expectations of love, cheer and good vibes ― but that is not the reality for many people. It can also be a time of intense stress.
And as nice as it is to have family in town and holiday parties to attend, this can often mean violations of personal space or uncomfortable dinner conversations that turn into arguments. Setting boundaries can help stop some of these problems before they start, but can be a challenge for many people to implement.
However, it’s a “really important part of healthy relationship functioning ... and I think in general we’re not so skilled at it,” said Jessica Borelli, a professor of psychological science and a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. Borelli said that “boundary setting occurs between one or more people when one person has to make a statement or set a limit regarding something they will not do within a relationship.”
The need for boundaries varies depending on the person and can be anything from spending less time with someone, not attending an event you don’t feel comfortable going to or setting rules around how much family members are allowed to spend on holiday gifts.
According to Borelli, “what seems like a reasonable or sensible boundary for one person might seem completely unreasonable to another person,” which makes this really, really hard.
Even more so, the act of setting boundaries with loved ones can result in an immense amount of unavoidable guilt, experts say. For example, you may start second-guessing your decision after witnessing your family’s reaction. Or you may feel deep sadness after disappointing a friend.
If this happens, there are ways to manage your guilt and points to remember to make the guilt a little less consuming.
First, know that the guilt you feel isn’t necessarily a bad thing or even possible to totally stop.
Guilt is certainly not a great feeling. That said, it may be an inevitable emotion as you have uncomfortable conversations with loved ones that likely won’t make them happy.
“I don’t know that there’s a time when guilt is not warranted, because warranted to me means validation for your feelings,” said Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City. “And I think whatever you’re feeling is valid.”
She added that it’s normal to feel guilt when setting a boundary with a loved one, and it’s perfectly normal to have thoughts like “Is this an overreaction?” or “Am I being too sensitive?”
But you’re the only person who knows when a boundary is right for you. It isn’t dictated by someone’s opinion or someone’s reaction. In fact, when someone does have a poor reaction to a boundary you’ve set, it’s likely a sign that it is necessary, Henry added. “Otherwise, they would continue to mistreat you or cross that line with you.”
Though guilt may come when you set boundaries, it’s important to remember that by creating limits in your relationships, you’re making sure you’re treated in the way you want.
Without this, “you would then wrestle with feelings of enabling their behavior and feeling complacent in their negative treatment of you,” Henry added, which would add a whole different level of frustration.
Someone who respects you won’t make you feel guilty about setting boundaries.
It’s important to remember that the people in your life who want to be in your life for the right reasons won’t react badly to boundaries. Even if they have a questionable reaction at first, they’ll be able to come back to you with a fresh mind and understanding viewpoint.
“The people who really love you and care about you and have your best interest at heart will be happy about you creating this boundary,” Henry said. “They are going to want to do whatever they can to make you feel loved and respected and cared for.”
To help combat the feelings of guilt, you can affirm your relationships as you set boundaries.
“It can be really helpful to affirm how important the relationship is at the same time you’re setting a boundary,” Borelli said. This way, you’re sharing how much a relationship means to you to help ease any pain that can come with boundary setting.
For example, if you are having a difficult conversation with your partner and need a break before hashing things out, you could say something like “This conversation is so important to me, and you and our relationship are so important to me. I don’t want to mess this up. In order to do this right, I need an hour to get my thoughts straight, and I’m going to come back to this and do the job I want to do with this conversation,” Borelli added.
Not only are you listening to your own needs when setting this boundary, but you’re affirming to your loved one that you do care about them, which in turn can also help if you are dealing with feelings of guilt.
“If you can affirm the value of the relationship ... going back and revisiting that in your mind when you start to feel guilty can also be a way of guarding against those guilty feelings,” she said.
It’s a way to remind yourself that you didn’t reject the whole person, you just set an important boundary, Borelli said, and by affirming the relationship, they know you still care about them.
To further combat guilt, remind yourself of your intentions.
You aren’t setting boundaries to intentionally hurt another person; you’re doing it to protect your mental and emotional well-being.
“The best approach to handle feelings of guilt is [to remind] yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. If your intentions are really about your self-respect, about self-preservation, about protecting yourself, then I think you can focus on those aspects of it,” Henry said.
While that doesn’t mean the guilt will just go away, it does mean you can learn to embrace it as part of the process, she added. “You don’t have to get over the guilt to then have an effective boundary.”
It’s OK to feel bad about having to create this boundary, but you should remember that you are doing this for your own mental health, which is not a reason to feel guilt or shame.
“You aren’t doing this to this person, but rather they’re requiring you to set this boundary because of their inability to respect you or to acknowledge what you need from them on their own,” Henry said.
Try thinking about your guilt in extremes.
For many people, guilt is a default emotion. No matter what you do or what you say, you’ll be faced with guilt about the way you handled a situation — and that isn’t fair or accurate.
Borelli said to combat the guilt you may feel after setting boundaries, figure out if you’re someone whose default is feeling guilty after tough situations.
“Playing out counterfactuals about setting boundaries [is helpful], so if you’re someone who has a lot of difficulty with setting boundaries, you might have difficulty in all kinds of situations,” Borelli said, adding that it can be helpful to mix extremes into your thinking by asking yourself questions like “Do I deserve to be able to have a bed?” or “Do I deserve to decide when I eat?”
You can even ask yourself if there’s ever a situation when you’d be able to set a boundary and not feel uncomfortable about it. If your answer is no, it’s clear that this guilt is “not serving you well,” she said, and is a feeling that may come up no matter what you do. This can be a helpful thing to remember and can help take the power away from the guilt you feel.
Keep in mind that you’ll probably feel more guilt if you are a people pleaser.
Boundary setting is going to be particularly tough for those who are people pleasers or if your self-worth tends to come from meeting the needs of other people, Borelli said.
“Those people may have an especially hard time with setting limits [or] setting boundaries because this is a direct threat to their sense of self-worth,” she said.
For people who fall into this category, it may be hard not to think in extremes, which could include “Is this person still going to want to be friends with me after I set a boundary?” Borelli added.
And this could even bring up concerns like “maybe the relationship only works because I elevate [someone else’s] needs all the time,” she said. And, in the case of boundaries, you’re doing the opposite of prioritizing someone else’s needs ― you’re making your needs the priority and leaving a loved one’s needs unmet.
It’s easy to see why this is a hard situation for a people pleaser and why anyone in this category should cut themself some extra slack when setting boundaries.
And not everyone in your life needs boundaries.
Just because you’re ready to set some boundaries doesn’t mean you need to do so with everyone in your life. Boundaries are intended for those who are violating your self-respect or your inner peace, and not everyone will fall into that category to the same level (or at all).
Some people require just a few boundaries while others require none, Henry said.
“That goes to show there are people who can treat you the way you want to be treated,” she said.