Boundary-setting is something that is often talked about these days as a necessary part of self-care. More often than not, the therapeutic work I do with clients includes helping them to set boundaries with others and to recognize their own limits. Most people quickly understand why it is important to set boundaries, but actually doing it in real life can be quite overwhelming and can cause a great deal of anxiety. Why is it so difficult to set boundaries?
A major obstacle to boundary-setting was driven home for me while listening to a podcast episode, “How to Stop Being a People Pleaser” from Good Inside with Dr. Becky . In this episode, she highlighted the idea that to reduce our people-pleasing tendencies, to set boundaries, we must learn to tolerate disappointing others. It got me reflecting on all the ways we might try to avoid disappointing others – We might say yes to something when we would rather not; we might say no but also offer to do something else for that person, appease them in another way; or we might think long and hard about the way we’re going to say no and try to find the “perfect” way to deliver my message. Often, we’re doing these things to avoid the feeling of guilt that comes with disappointing others, and in a sense control others’ perception of us.
So, if the difficult feelings that come with disappointing others are an obstacle to setting boundaries, how can we learn to deal with these difficult feelings and be okay with disappointing others?
Here are some tips:
- Consider where that fear of disappointing others comes from.
If you have people-pleasing tendencies, it’s very likely you learned to be this way for various understandable reasons. As a child, you may have been highly rewarded for being a “good boy/girl”; a kid that never caused any trouble and always went with the flow. In other words, a kid that put their needs aside and prioritized others’ needs. You may have had a parent that was unpredictable in their reactions, so you felt like you were walking on eggshells and tried extra hard to always do what you think they wanted. Instead of judging yourself for these people-pleasing tendencies, it’s important to identify them, and recognize they are based on old fears. It’s helpful to learn some self-soothing techniques, so the fears around disappointing others don’t drive your behaviour. Check out some strategies here https://emotioncompass.org/exercise-library/overwhelming-emotions/ for calming down overwhelming emotions.
- Remember it’s very likely not a catastrophe.
People are allowed to feel disappointed, and most of the time, your friends and family can handle disappointments. Consider all of the possibilities – for example, the person you’re “disappointing” may have no negative reaction at all; they may feel a bit disappointed for a few minutes and then move on; or they may feel quite disappointed and want to have a discussion about it. Ask yourself how you will cope if the worst-case scenario happened, thereby reminding yourself that you’ve coped with a lot of difficult things and will very likely be able to handle this challenge as well. A positive outcome of disappointing others is that friends and loved ones will be able to trust you to set your boundaries and take care of yourself. If your friend or loved one often reacts negatively to you setting boundaries, this may be a cue that they are having difficulty respecting your limits and you might consider addressing this with them.
- Remind yourself of your “whys”.
Why is it important to work on being relatively okay with disappointing others? If you try hard to never disappointment others, you will likely exhaust yourself emotionally and even physically. You will very likely become resentful of the relationship, and this resentment may end up damaging the relationship. If you are often putting your own needs aside; in other words, disappointing yourself, you will likely suffer from low self-worth, and you will feel inauthentic and disconnected from your genuine self. Moreover, people can often sense when we’re doing things out of obligation, potentially leaving them wondering if we’re being insincere.
- Work on not buying into feelings of unjustified guilt.
It’s possible that you were often made to feel guilty when you disappointed others. For example, a well-intentioned parent may have said things to you like, “You made Mommy feel really sad when you did that.” Thus, you may feel guilty quite quickly and easily when you disappoint others. It is important to ask yourself if your level of guilt fits the facts. Would you expect a friend to feel that amount of guilt if they were in your shoes? Guilt isn’t all bad and guilt tells us when we aren’t acting in line with our values. However, if you find you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when you think about setting boundaries, try being curious about whether your level of guilt makes sense in that specific situation.
Next time you feel stressed or anxious about saying no, about setting a boundary, consider that maybe the fear of disappointing others is blocking you. With compassion and patience for yourself, and using some of the tips above, you may be able to set more boundaries, respect your limits, and live more authentically.