How to Deal with Guilt when Setting Boundaries

How To Deal With Guilt When Setting Boundaries


Ouch! Healthy boundaries can hurt at first.

No boundary setting article for women would be AT ALL effective without including a How-To for dealing with guilt.

There are tons of great books and articles on boundary setting, but rarely is there an emphasis on how to manage the guilt. The No. 1 factor that causes women to not set good boundaries is the emotional pain — the guilt and shame — they feel when they set them.

What are boundaries? Why are they important?

Boundaries constitute a series of tools we use to set limits, expectations and responsibilities with others and for ourselves. They help us define who we are and what we want in the world. Boundaries help us establish what’s OK in our life and what’s not okay. These limits help us to let the good stuff in and keep the bad stuff out.

  • An example of a boundary might be a woman telling her boss that she      is unwilling to stay late to catch up on last-second requests on Tuesdays      because she has other commitments.
  • Another example of a boundary might be a woman asking her boyfriend      to stop hanging out with his friends most evenings and to start spending      more time with her.

Why do many women feel guilty when they try and set boundaries?

Many women feel guilty when they set a boundary. This can be confusing to the psyche. Normally, when one does something wrong, one feels guilty. This is appropriate and helpful in correcting behavior.

However, some women overwhelmingly report feeling “bad” when they are simply taking care of themselves, facing conflict, or setting healthy limits. (A lot of women I talk to have a much easier time setting boundaries for their kids or for others than they do for themselves.)

Why is that? I think it’s a combination of factors, in particular the social construct of self-sacrifice which is present for women at all times, even when we are unaware of it.

The guilt one feels when setting boundaries is called unearned guilt.

When you set a healthy boundary, you will probably feel good at first, then experience some self-doubt and guilt. This is unearned guilt. Know that this is common. It’s part of the process of setting healthy, helpful boundaries. These negative feelings are not the truth, they are the result of an ingrained self-punishment impulse that you must acknowledge but not let succeed.

Strategies for Unearned Guilt: The Feel and Deal Formula

Feel. It’s common to feel unearned guilt, even OK to an extent. Unearned guilt often gives us bad information. Enter Betty’s thoughts.

When Betty tells her boyfriend she wants him to spend more time with her, she might feel bad and starting thinking along these lines: “Am I being too needy?” … “Did I say it wrong?” … “Uh-oh, maybe I made a mistake.” This is unearned guilt. This type of unearned guilt is unwarranted and socially induced.

Deal. Any time you ignore an emotion, it “works on you.” So, I recommend acknowledging your guilt.

Tell your guilt ( Yes, I am serious!) that you see it, feel it and know it’s there. Tell your guilt you are making a good decision and that you will persevere. Picture this unearned guilt as a childhood friend cajoling you into getting into trouble with them. Tell your companion, this guilt, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Do this each and every time you feel the emotional pain that is so common when setting healthy, helpful boundaries. Eventually, the unearned guilt will dissipate, and the boundary setting will get easier.

Practice. With good boundaries, you are free to enjoy all that life has to offer.

Take care,


Cherilynn Veland is a therapist living in Chicago.

She also blogs about home, work, life and love


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APA Reference

Anonymous. (2014). How To Deal With Guilt When Setting Boundaries. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 10, 2014, from


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