When Guilt Keeps You From Setting Necessary Boundaries in Your Relationships

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“If you avoid conflict to keep the peace you start a war inside yourself.”

–Cheryl Richardson

Beliefs about what it means to be a good person are very powerful. They can keep us from having and maintaining fulfilling relationships with other people. People whose beliefs are motivated by guilt often fail to set necessary boundaries in their relationships. This guilt comes from believing that prioritizing oneself over others is wrong.

A recent client of mine reminded me of how powerful our beliefs and ideas are in determining how we identify ourselves. My client was telling me that when she wants to speak up to certain people in her life, a stream of guilt-based commentary starts pouring in her mind saying, “Now that isn’t nice,” or “You should just say yes and do what they want,” or “Come on, is it really that out of your way?” Most of the time, those thoughts convince her that she’s doing the wrong thing if she doesn’t comply with other people’s requests. But she’s really just trying to do the right thing for herself. As an exercise, I asked my client to write a letter to guilt. I had her do this in order to practice how she would set boundaries in her relationships, starting with her relationship to guilt. Here’s what she wrote:

Dear Guilt,

You have found countless ways to make me feel like a bad person for not complying with others’ every wish and whim, even if it isn’t something that I want to do. You burn within my gut when I say “no” to someone even when I know saying “no” is the right thing to do. You sometimes go as far as to convince me that I am a bad person, even when I know I am not. You have your way of wiggling into my life, you take control of my actions, and you allow me to comply with doing things for other people to please them instead of myself.

I am finally going to take a stand and begin to set boundaries in my relationships and that boundary setting starts with placing limits around you. You sometimes make me feel like I don’t have a choice when really I do. I have noticed by giving into you, I become resentful because I let people walk all over me. Somehow I have been led to believe that I am only a good person if I do that. Guilt, I am not a mean person. I am actually a good person; you may never see that in me, and that is okay because that is your job. I just wanted to let you know that I cannot let you run my life decisions anymore. You are harming my relationships and my ability to be my own person. So I apologize but I will be ignoring you when you try to sneak your commentary in and I don’t agree with you. I will be available to hear you out when I am in need of your opinion.

Like my client, we all can benefit from recognizing the ways in which guilt tries to keep us trapped, preventing us from setting limits in our relationships. This is especially important because guilt will convince us that saying yes in order to please others is a good thing that doesn’t need to be changed. The main intention behind feeling guilty is a good one—to live life in the “right” direction—but sometimes all it really does is damage your relationships and keep you from being your own person. People-pleasers are especially affected by feelings of guilt and a need to be needed. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and are compelled to be a good person all the time, which feeds the urge to say yes, even when they really want to say no. Guilt can trick us into thinking we can successfully ignore our needs and take on other people’s responsibilities; but after a while, those people will rely on us more and more, weighing us down.

When you set appropriate boundaries and stop taking on other people’s responsibilities, they’re left with no choice but to complete their own tasks, resolve their own problems, and find their own resources. At first, you’ll probably feel guilty about this, but it will help to remember that this means other people will take more responsibility for themselves, which will improve their functioning and ability to do for themselves.

Thinking about your relationships this way can help you gain some objectivity about the emotional processes within those relationships, helping you make decisions that aren’t motivated by guilt. You have to be self-full enough to put boundaries in place and hold other people accountable for their decisions and actions. If you step in and take that responsibility, you’ll quickly feel worn out, undervalued, and resentful. As Brene Brown states in The Gifts of Imperfection, “It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.” You must set boundaries in your most intimate relationships so that you can feel accepted, heard, and loved. Part of feeling connected to someone is allowing him or her to truly see you and what you’re all about. If you live to please everyone and don’t speak your truth, you’ll feel alone and invisible. And guess what? You’ll have been the one who put on the invisibility cloak.

A big part of figuring out who you are is learning about your limits. Once you know what they are, you can set appropriate boundaries with other people. Below is some advice on how to build boundaries. Let this serve as a reference when you need to be reminded of this in your relationships. I will get into more details of how to apply each of these boundaries in later articles. A good book on setting boundaries is Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

  • Know your limits.
  • Be firm.
  • Know that you’re worthy.
  • Change your role in your relationships.
  • Make time for yourself.
  • Apply the boundaries.
  • Don’t expect to become a master at setting boundaries overnight

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier

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