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How To Set Boundaries Without Feeling Like a Jerk


how to set boundaries


Nowadays, it seems like everyone (or at least a lot of people) are talking about boundaries.  I credit Brene Brown, but the truth of the matter is, the topic of boundaries is as old as the Garden of Eden. In my years as a therapist (and as a human!), I’ve found that the main concern people seem to have is figuring out exactly how to set boundaries without feeling like a jerk.  There, I said it.

In a way, this is heartening news.  It means there are still lots of big-hearted, sweet souls out there who truly would not dream of hurting someone on purpose.  That’s awesome.  I’m a huge proponent of not hurting people on purpose, of course.  However, those sweet little people-pleasers of the world begin to face a big problem when they start to feel resentment towards the people in their life who don’t seem to operate in the same way.  Perhaps they have no problem whatsoever asking and asking and asking of you because they know you’ll always say yes.  Or maybe they just keep doing things their way (even though you have tried to set a boundary with them, or at least make your requests known in the past).  There are a million different scenarios that play out between a myriad of people when it comes to boundaries, but the truth of the matter is this:  the sooner we learn how to set boundaries without feeling like a jerk, the better off we will all be.  Therapist’s honor.

Whether you’re feeling the need to set boundaries with your time, trust, or something else altogether, you’re in the right place.  Read on to discover just how it’s done.

Rule # 1: Practice Makes Progress

If you want to be able to set boundaries without coming across as mean (or possibly saying something you’ll regret), you must practice.  You can practice exactly what you’ll say in the mirror, to a trusted friend,  or to your therapist, or your dog for that matter.  Usually it’s helpful to write out what you want to say and then practice it and tweak it until it sounds normal and natural, not like you’re auditioning for a play.  This requires work, of course.  The easier thing by far is to just say whatever comes to mind at the time and risk flying off the handle.  But if you’re truly concerned about setting boundaries without feeling like a jerk, practice is key.  The best thing is to role play different scenarios with someone you trust so you can get a sense of how you would feel and what you would say no matter how the other person in question responds.  You can also get their feedback on whether or not there are any parts you need to tone down or even kick up a notch.

Rule # 2: Figure Out Who Your Safest People Are

If there are multiple people you need to set boundaries with in your life, start with the people you feel safest with.  Start by telling the people who you know love you tremendously if and when there are things you would like them to do differently in the future.  Think about any times resentment has popped up for you in these relationships and start to address them first.  Once you begin this work with your innermost circle, you will start to gain confidence and in turn, that will spur you on toward continuing the difficult work of boundary setting with others that might not feel quite so safe.

Rule # 3: Develop a Proper View of Yourself

When I work with clients on boundary-setting, one major roadblock becomes apparent pretty early on.  They don’t have a proper view of themselves.  What do I mean by that?  Simply that they tend to minimize their own importance or desire to take up space in the world in order to make sure everyone else is happy.  They typically feel that anything else is selfishness, and that is something they certainly never want to be – or at least, they don’t want others to perceive them that way.  I get it, and I’m inclined to agree – selfishness is bad.  But, I would also argue that not giving yourself room to feel what you feel and honor those feelings by setting boundaries or making other necessary changes in your life (whether with yourself or with others), is just as bad.  Think about it:  does it seem fair or right that 50% of the population gets to walk around, doing and saying whatever they please, and the other 50% feels they have to tiptoe around on eggshells so that they don’t come across as selfish?  My friend, tuning into your self-talk and your feelings is not selfish.  It’s healthy.  And to be honest, it’s necessary to stay mentally healthy.  You can only walk around with that resentment festering in your mind and heart for so long before it bubbles over like a river of liquid hot magma (is anyone else thinking of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers right now??).  No bueno.

Start to shed light on the things you have wrongly believed about yourself, by talking to a therapist or a trusted friend.

Related:  Get your FREE Guide to Reducing Negative Self Talk

Above all, remember this:  you are here for a reason, and you feel your feels for a reason.  They are valid.  You are important.  Just as important as everyone else.  You can still be a selfless, loving and kind person and someone who sets boundaries.  Please stop believing the lie that those two things are mutually exclusive.  I promise you, they aren’t.  In fact, I would argue that just the opposite is true.  Setting boundaries is an act of love; by setting a boundary, you’re communicating that this relationship is so important to you that you would like to commit to the hard work of improving it.  You’re telling the person in question that they matter to you, and that you want to continue to have them in your life while at the same time telling yourself that you matter, too.  And you certainly do.

Well, my loves, I could go and on talking about how to set boundaries without feeling like a jerk, but this post is probably long enough for the time being.  Please feel free to let me know if you have more questions about boundaries or particular hangups about setting boundaries without being mean.  I’m here for you!

  1. Lesley Poulton says:

    May I share this with my Bible study leadership team?

  2. Babs Cashetta (Jones) says:

    I have a very hard time making boundaries with my kids. Especially the one that suffers now and then from addiction. I start off good and then a few weeks go by and the guilt ( Catholic?) creeps up on my and is debilitating!!!!! absolutely debilitating

    • Cathleen Bearse says:

      Boundaries with older kids can be especially tricky, so you’re definitely not alone! And the guilt is SO hard to deal with. Let me know if I can do anything else to help! You’re an amazing mama!!

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