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Guilt and Boundary Setting


Boundaries.   Self-care.   Words of the century. By now most of us must know what these words mean. This is how I define them.


Self-care is anything you do to take care of yourself, that nourishes your soul and your body, with the basic premise that you are important and your time, body and energy matter because you are inherently worthy of this attention. Excuse my run-on sentence.


Setting a boundary is a form of self-care. Boundaries are our limits – parameters that we feel comfortable to live by. These limits clarify what we are willing to accept and what we aren’t. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, verbal, etc., and can be present in various capacities. Examples of boundaries are:

  • Working between 9-5 only
  • Setting up one social activity per week
  • Needing space when you feel too overwhelmed during an argument
  • Saying no to requests from others
  • Wanting to be addressed by your preferred pronoun, etc.


Although it is your right to have and to assert your boundaries it is natural and common to feel some guilt when you do. We can especially feel guilty about setting boundaries when they are unacceptable or resisted by those around us, or when we are made to feel as though our boundaries are permeable.


Considering the first example, guilt may creep up when a co-worker says at 4:58PM, “I know you’re off at 5 but can you please just send this one email, it’ll only take 10 minutes.” Or when your boss says, “Could you please take on these additional projects? It’ll really help out your teammates.” They sound like reasonable requests, right? An extra 10 minutes really isn’t a big deal, and of course you care about your teammates and want to help them.


We feel guilt when we believe we have done something wrong, something that goes against our own standards or moral code. A common standard many of us have is of being helpful and present as a friend, family member, co-worker, citizen, etc. When we feel that our actions have disappointed others, or broken this standard, guilt it often triggered. This guilt simply means that you care about those who are important to you and you want them to be pleased.


When setting boundaries, it is important and necessary to expect that some guilt will creep up. We must be prepared for it. I often hear clients say that the guilt deters them from enforcing their boundaries. For instance, say you’re in a relationship with someone who really values spending time with family. It is important to them that you participate in these family activities too. You, on the other hand, feel exhausted when you have spent too much time with groups of people. You need time on your own to recharge. Choosing to stay home means your partner has to go without you. Maybe they feel lonely because you’re not with them. Maybe the rest of the family thinks that you don’t enjoy spending time with them because you’re attending less and less gatherings. It isn’t easy to accept their disappointment. The inclination to simply stick it out is natural.


So how do we work through this guilt so that we can continue to do what feels right for us?


Firstly, acknowledge the guilt without acting on it. Guilt is a normal and necessary emotion. Sometimes emotions simply contain information rather than a road map for our actions. In all of the above examples, guilt says that we care about the important people in our lives and want them to be happy, and we care about our responsibilities and want to uphold them to the best of our abilities. Guilt does not necessarily need to mean that we must alter our behaviours to our detriment in order to reach these goals.


Secondly, communicate your boundaries with kindness. Make it known that setting these limits isn’t with the intention of causing pain but rather to have your needs met and to feel a greater sense of satisfaction in your life. Explain that you care and that you also need to take care of yourself in order to continue to contribute towards the cause, be it at work, in a marriage, with friends, etc. Kindness goes a long way. If you are still met with resistance, at the very least you will know that you tried your best to explain your intention.


Lastly, regularly remind yourself of said intention for setting these limits. Why you are doing this in the first place? For instance, perhaps you wish to firmly end your work day by 5PM so that you can be home in time for dinner with your kids with some time and energy left over to exercise and read a book. Perhaps you need space during an argument because you tend to say regrettable things in the heat of the moment that cause more harm in your relationship. Whatever the reason may be, regularly reminding yourself of your intention may help to reduce guilt because you know it’s coming from a good place.


You are important. You are worthy. You deserve to feel happy and satisfied. If setting limits allows you to live your ideal life, you are worthy of them. Doing what is it your best interest can sometimes have the opposite effect on someone else, and sometimes it is worth it for the right reasons. Not to be selfish or spiteful, but rather to be self-reliant.




Shezlina Haji, MA, has extensive experience in the area of emotional regulation, personal growth, plus many more. For more information on Shezlina and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.