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Boundary Guilt

  • A woman decided she did not want to attend a family picnic because she didn’t feel safe in the company of the family member who had sexually abused her as a child.
  • A man decided he would not have his parents stay at his house, because after repeated visits and conversations about the length of their visits they had consistently overstayed their welcome.
  • A friend decided to no longer have contact with their childhood friend who did not respect their sexual orientation and choice of partner.
  • A colleague decided not to become an outside of work friend with a person with whom they worked.
Silent retreat 1 Nov- 5 Dec 2015 368.jpe

They experienced boundary guilt. It felt hard. In some cases, so uncomfortable that they considered dropping the boundary they had set.

Boundaries are the defining lines around personal and professional relationships. They include boundaries around body autonomy, the level of intimacy you share, the kinds relationships you remain in and what is psychological, physical or emotional safe. Different people have different boundaries. Boundaries can change in relation to experience and the level of trust. People who respect the boundaries of others may find boundaries within the relationship change over time.

Boundary guilt is a name for the emotional storm associated with setting and or changing a boundary. It usually occurs when there is a conflict between two values you hold e.g. psychological safety and keeping others happy. It is normal to experience boundary guilt even when you know you have made the right decision about the boundary you have set. Feelings associated with this kind of guilt may include shame about your need for the boundary; fear of other people’s responses; sadness about what has been lost by setting the boundary; and anger towards others or yourself for the discomfort you feel in the relationship.

Over time the difficult feelings lessen and in time may be gone completely. Some boundaries may remain uncomfortable because the other person does not respect them and challenges or manipulates to get their desired result in the relationship. It can feel awkward or very uncomfortable to hold your boundary even when it is the best way of taking care of yourself.

Jana’s Journey with Boundaries

Jana had attended fortnightly counselling to address the chaos she experienced in relationships. She’d been brought up to try to please everyone, prioritising other people’s well-being and took responsibility for the feelings and reactions of others. This had left her feeling overwhelmed and depressed. Initially she took time to understand her patterns and how they were affecting her. She learnt about taking care of herself and had a idea of how she would like her relationships to be. She began to notice that resentment in a relationship indicated that a boundary was needed.

Jana practiced boundary setting, starting with relationships where she was less emotionally invested and a negative outcome would have less impact on her personal life. Jana began by setting a boundary around the pronunciation of her name. She corrected people when they pronounced her name incorrectly. In the past she’d said nothing and felt resentful. She had mixed experiences, some which left her feeling grumpy and frustrated when people didn’t make any kind of effort. She noticed when people reacted negatively to her request, that she would become unkind and hopeless in her thinking, “What’s the point?” “I’m making a big deal out nothing” “What I want is not that important” “I’m selfish to ask for what I would like.” Jana also found that many people responded positively. She noticed she felt better about herself for setting a boundary around what people called her.

After a while Jana decided to set a more challenging boundary with a friend who often asked her to help them on the weekend with tasks they had the skills and time to complete. She was so used to saying yes, it took her a while to notice she dreaded hearing from this friend. In the past she had tried not responding, but found the friend became all the more insistent. Jana decided to try saying no without giving a reason for not being available. The first time she did this, she felt terrible, she didn’t have anything else on and could have helped, she didn’t want to. Jana valued being generous and kind, and it felt awful to say no. She almost changed her mind because the feelings were so uncomfortable but decided to journal about the experience and take it counselling.

Over time Jana grew more comfortable with setting boundaries and noticed the flow on effects which included an increased enjoyment of her life, more energy for the relationships she wanted to prioritise and better work/life balance. She continued to experience boundary guilt when setting or changing boundaries, but learned to expect it and found ways to support herself through the discomfort.

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