Why is setting boundaries so hard?

Step into the discomfort of sharing what you need.


December 5, 2017

By Jordan Pickell

You are more aware about what you need to feel good in relationships, but actually asking for what you need, even from people closest to you, feels impossible. You feel you have to work up the courage for relatively small requests. Why is this so hard?

What is holding you back from expressing your needs?

For a moment, imagine what it would be like to tell someone in your life what you need. For example, let’s say your friend is consistently late when you are supposed to hang out. We’re not talking 5 or 10 minutes; she has left you waiting for a half hour or more consistently. What do you imagine getting in the way of confronting your friend about her lateness?

Past experience

When you have expressed yourself in the past, you were dismissed, even told flat out that you were being unreasonable, or labelled “oversensitive”. It would make sense that after your feelings are ignored or ridiculed, you don’t dare bring up your feelings now. In this imagined scenario of your friend’s tardiness, it really bothers you, but you don’t directly acknowledge it. Even though you know your friend is a reasonable and caring person, you fear her response. In this case, your ideas about what happens in relationships may not be accurate or useful. Your fear is based in how a past relationship operated. While this keen understanding was useful to protect yourself in the past, it might be getting in the way of mutual caring and respectful relationships in the present.

Second guessing yourself

When it comes time to set a boundary, you question whether your feelings are justified. In the hypothetical scenario, you rationalize that her being late isn’t that much of a burden; that maybe you are being too much of a stickler. You’ve been late before too. And on and on. So, you keep it to yourself. The fact is your time is important too. Sure, sometimes it can be useful to get an outside perspective. You want to ask someone, am I being unreasonable? Ultimately, though, your feelings are valid. If lateness is unacceptable to you, that is likely worth communicating. To someone else, lateness may not be a big deal. Take note of what is acceptable and unacceptable to you, what supports your energy and what drains it.

Avoiding discomfort

Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable. Is the fear of discomfort keeping you from telling people what you need? There is a difference between being uncomfortable and unsafe. Of course, if you have a sense that your friend might become angry or defensive and lash out at you, it may be a wise decision to say nothing. You may then shift your time and energy away from this friendship. But if what you are afraid of is awkwardness, this is something you can push through. If you confront your friend about her constant tardiness, it’s true it might be awkward and that is okay! Embrace the awkwardness.

Fear of rejection

When you take the time to reflect, you recognize that at its core, what is getting in the way of communicating what you are feeling is a fear of rejection. In the example, you are worried that if you say to your friend you need her to be on time, she won’t like you anymore. We want to be liked. It feels good to be liked. As human beings, connection with other people is essential to our survival. If we think disregarding our own needs is the only way to preserve our relationships, we will do it. We will deny entire parts of ourselves in order to stay connected. We will pretend we are not annoyed. The problem is, when our boundaries are pushed and we don’t express what we are feeling, we end up feeling overwhelmed, burned out, or resentful.

You don’t know what to say

You know exactly what you are feeling. For example, you are feeling frustrated that your friend is constantly late. You are feeling resentful that you are wasting your time waiting for her. You need her to be considerate of your time by meeting you at the agreed-upon hour. But when it happens again, your feelings bubble up, you are ready to tell her how upset you are, and then she arrives and you can’t find the words. You aren’t sure how to bring it up. You don’t know what you want to say. So, you say nothing. Similar to it being awkward and uncomfortable, saying what you need is hard, and you can do it! It helps to be thoughtful and plan ahead what you want to say. There is no perfect way of saying what you need. Have some compassion for yourself. Setting boundaries takes practice.

You deserve care and respect

It can be incredibly challenging, scary even, to step into the discomfort of sharing what you need. If the person does not respect or care about your needs, rather than turning inwards and questioning the validity of your feelings, it may be time to reflect on the relationships you are investing your energy into. What are ways you can step back from the relationship? What feels good in relationships and how can you bring more of that into your life? With boundaries, we can understand each other as people with differing wants, needs, and perspectives. Boundaries allow us to be seen for who we are and feel secure in our relationships. When we feel secure, we are able to connect more deeply with the people we care about. If you would like more support to explore what you need in relationships and how to set boundaries with people in your life, think about connecting with a counsellor who can hold space for you to listen to yourself and transform the blocks that make setting boundaries so difficult.

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