boundary-setting and guilt

Why Do We Feel Guilt When Setting Boundaries?

Do you have a difficult time setting boundaries? If you do, you’re not alone. Setting boundaries in relationships can feel uncomfortable, especially if, growing up, we weren’t shown how to set healthy limits in our interactions with others. Yet, boundary setting can do more than just make us uncomfortable. Statements of “No,” or, “I don’t appreciate it when….,” or, “I’d prefer not to do…,” can bring feelings of doubt, shame, guilt, and even fear, to the person communicating the boundary.

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But why? Why does setting boundaries that serve to protect us feel like we’re inflicting pain upon ourselves? While the reasons can be as unique as the individual, one reason seems to be quite common: social conditioning.

Boundary-Setting and Guilt – Social Conditioning

So, just what is social conditioning? To answer simply, we can break it down and describe it as the way individuals are ‘trained’ by society to behave, act, or follow a certain path, determined by the greater whole as ‘acceptable.’ Remember peer pressure in middle school? We learned if we dress a certain way, speak a certain way, choose certain friends, or even partake (or don’t partake) in something, we will be rejected or accepted depending on our choices. Through the pressure of others, we learned how to present ourselves to elicit particular reactions from the group. This is social conditioning.

Primary Conditioning – Family

When it comes to guilt over setting boundaries, early conditioning often comes from two primary sources. One of the primary sources is our family of origin. Think about your parents, and even the entire family system (or lack of) that you grew up in. What did their boundaries look like? Were they non-existent, balanced, or rigid? What lessons did you learn, both implied and explicit, about what happens when a boundary is set? Maybe you learned that boundaries were bad, painful, or ignored. Maybe you learned that setting boundaries will win you the label of “rude,” or “snowflake,” or even “inconsiderate.” Through social conditioning you learned that setting boundaries was not desirable, and maybe even shameful. Then, as an adult, setting boundaries comes bound with all sorts of uncomfortable feelings, including guilt.

Primary Conditioning – Media

Another primary source that influences our feelings around setting boundaries is the media. When you think about your boundary-setting style, do you find it matches what you see in the media? We are constantly receiving messages from the media about what is acceptable and what isn’t, including the way we approach self-protection. 

Think about the media you consume. How does it portray women who set boundaries? Are they considered “bitches,” or, “cold, or, “too emotional?” How about children? Are they considered “disrespectful,” “out of line,” or “uncooperative” if they set boundaries to protect themselves? How does the media portray men? The elderly? Different races? The media is a powerful social conditioning tool and if you struggle with feeling guilty whenever you set a boundary, consider whether the media you consume has set the stage for feelings of guilt.

Boundary-Setting, Guilt, and Letting Go

It’s important to remember that no matter where you got the messaging that setting boundaries is bad, inappropriate, or shameful, such messages are not true. Setting boundaries is an act of self-preservation; self-protection, and is necessary for one’s mental health and wellness. The next time you find yourself feeling guilty about setting a limit, consider exploring whether you were socially conditioned to feel bad. If the guilt is tied to the messaging you received, you can let the guilt go. It’s not yours.

If you want to explore more deeply your experience of boundary-setting and guilt, a relationship coach might help. Learn to let go of the guilt with a non-judgmental guide who can provide a safe space to unravel the tangle between boundary-setting and guilt.

Learn more about: Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

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