How to set boundaries without becoming consumed by guilt

Photo: Yuvraj Singh

You might have to deal with other people’s disappointment, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong to do it, says Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

Whenever I think about “boundaries”, I can’t help hearing the voice of Dr Frasier Crane berating someone on his late-night radio show. It sounds very old-school psychoanalysis, very New York, very Freud. But, even if it’s a concept that can sound a bit too “therapy-speak”, it’s an idea whose time has come. Who doesn’t wish boundaries were easier to set when we are all tired and over-committed and completely overwhelmed both digitally and in real life?

A simple example about a good time to set a boundary? If a friend phones you at 1am, crying (for the seventh time this year) about a break-up, the day before you have an important meeting. Either turn your phone off, so that you are not available, or say to your friend, “You can’t call me at this time.” That’s boundaries for you. Easy to understand. Not easy to set. But essential.

Now, this concept is becoming more urgent and therefore more mainstream, thanks to what the authors of a New York Times bestselling book on the subject call “today’s always-on, always-connected world”. There has never been a more important time for us to decide what we tolerate in our lives and what we won’t. But how do you do that without feeling guilty?

Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend have been writing about this subject for two decades and have covered it in detail from every imaginable angle: Boundaries In Marriage, Boundaries In Dating, Boundaries With Kids. Their most simple and wide-ranging guide to the subject – Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How To Say No, To Take Control Of Your Life – has sold over two million copies and was reissued in a new edition last month.

The guilt message is simply a way to get you to change your mind. So set the boundary. Do what you want

Cloud and Townsend’s take is extremely American (and they also come at everything from a religious perspective, which can take some getting used to, to put it mildly), but their advice is sound. And where they work best is on the topic of guilt. A lot of us struggle to set boundaries because we feel too guilty. Because surely you should be there for your friend at 1am if she has just had a break-up? What sort of friend are you if you say no?

But they argue that it’s just not possible to be “always there, always on” for anyone. They have basic guidelines: “Know yourself. Be firm. Know that you’re worthy. Change your role in your relationships. Make time for yourself. Apply the boundaries. Don’t expect to become a master at setting boundaries overnight.”

When it comes to guilt which is often connected to feeling selfish (and not being able to set a boundary as a result), try to see the difference, they advise, between “being” guilty of something (when you have actually done something wrong) and “feeling” guilty (when you are just making yourself feel bad because someone else wants you to behave differently).

As Cloud and Townsend put it, the difficult thing to accept is that when you set boundaries, you will have to deal with other people’s disappointment and anger. That might make you feel guilty. It doesn’t mean you actually are guilty. Often, these feelings come when someone else “wants something from you and is angry you aren’t providing it. The guilt message is simply a way to get you to change your mind.” So set the boundary. Do what you want. Own the “guilt” (because you know it isn’t really guilt, it’s just a feeling). Repeat the message: Know yourself. Be firm. Make time for yourself. Dr Frasier Crane would be proud.


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Photo: Yuvraj Singh
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