How to set boundaries in relationships without feeling selfish
Answering commonly asked questions about boundaries and relationships and outlining five ways to help you live a happier life.
• Do you find yourself saying “yes” repeatedly when you’d rather say “no”?
• Do you take on so many responsibilities to please others that your health suffers?
• Do you secretly experience resentment, anger, and self-loathing, wondering how you can escape the tangled web of responsibility?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are not alone. In an increasingly busy world, many of us are taking on more and more responsibilities, feeling unable to say “no.”
These situations can occur in any aspect of your life — family, friends, work — and the more you take on to please others, the more likely your health is to suffer, making you feel trapped and unhappy.
Setting boundaries can feel selfish when care about others and want to maintain harmony in all your relationships. You want everyone to like you and go to great lengths to keep everyone happy. You like being known as dependable and reliable — being valued and accepted are core to how you see your place in this world.
When you attempt to set boundaries, it can feel as though you are somehow betraying the mantle of trust and dependency your colleagues, friends, and loved ones have placed upon you. It can challenge deeply held notions of your place and contribution to relationships. It can create uncomfortable situations where you are afraid of letting people down and generate problems that disrupt the harmony you have worked so hard to foster.
Despite these assumptions, boundaries are vital for our health and for managing our relationships. Our abilities to successfully set boundaries can improve once we realise how we see ourselves in relation to other people and the world around us.
To do this, let’s go through some commonly asked questions about boundaries and relationships.
Are boundaries valid in all relationships, even our closest, most intimate ones?
Yes. Every relationship needs boundaries to be healthy, happy and whole. When you enter an intimate relationship, you do not go from being an individual with your own set of values, beliefs, and needs to become a single entity. You are close, loving, and responsive to each other’s needs but you still possess a self-identity and need to function competently as a stand-alone individual in all other relationships and interactions.
When you begin a new intimate relationship, it can be tempting to see it as the exception to all rules. In many ways, this is not surprising. Those of us who feel emotions deeply have experienced the intense pain of rejection, of being vulnerable, and the courage it then takes to open our hearts to new people. When we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, we want it to last, we want it to be our happily ever after, and this means we will do everything in our power to keep our partner happy.
The danger in this scenario is completely losing our self-identity, forgetting our values and beliefs, and losing touch with anything or anyone that does not understand our devotion. Without boundaries, we leave ourselves vulnerable to manipulation, to coercion and becoming isolated from our friends and family. This may sound extreme but for countless people experiencing intimate partner violence — in any form — the lack of boundary setting is one of the many ways they find themselves being exploited.
Setting boundaries in intimate relationships allow our partner to see us as another human being with values, beliefs, interests, and other relationships. It gives them the chance to appreciate who we are and what we do in the broader context of contributing to our communities, our society, and the world. It fosters healthy respect and understanding that we are more than this relationship and we bring our unique mix of skills, abilities and experiences to the relationship.
Does setting boundaries mean saying “no” to everyone, all the time?
No. While there may be instances where a “no” will be the best response, setting boundaries is more about realising that you will gain the space and freedom to offer an authentic “yes.”
Think back to an interaction where you felt compelled to say, “yes” even though your heart really wasn’t in it. Do you remember how you felt internally — suppressing your own needs, putting aside the concerns of your own body, and ignoring the warnings from your brain reminding you of your already full to-do list?
Now think about an interaction where you agreed to help someone by offering a genuine “yes.” Remember how you felt committed to offering your support, how the person’s values aligned strongly with yours, and how your body responded with enthusiasm and energy?
The boundaries you set will vary by person, relationship and situation. This unequal distribution requires flexibility and understanding of the context within which something is asked of you and how you busy you are at the time.
Do I have to be aggressive when setting boundaries?
No. For those of us who feel high levels of sensitivity, empathy and compassion, the use of violence, aggression and intimidation are the least favoured ways of communication.
If anything, the use of aggression is an indicator of poor boundary setting since it suggests that a person is unable to cope with the situation and the loss of control leads them to react with extreme negative emotion.
Creating boundaries does not mean getting into arguments, shouting at others, or behaving in ways that people find intimidating or frightening. It means realising that although you may wish to help everyone, there is only so much you can do as an individual. Your time, energy, and resources are finite. And as you offer to look after everyone, you also have a duty of care towards looking after yourself.
Will people still like me after I have set boundaries?
Yes. Some of us care deeply about how others perceive us. We measure our sense of self-worth by the way people respond to our presence. If you haven’t set boundaries in your relationships, the shift can come as a surprise to some people.
Change can be difficult for some people; especially if they have come to rely on you to get things done. Those who are adept at manipulating situations may try techniques such as emotional blackmail to make to you feel bad. Others may suddenly realise that they have been asking so much of you, without even considering how you are faring under the weight of the collective responsibility that comes from different parts of your life.
When you begin to set boundaries, people may take some time to adjust to the “new you.” There may be confusion, attempts at manipulation, and some may even distance themselves from you. These situations can feel challenging, especially for those of us who have worked so hard to keep the relationship boat steady.
Having the courage to set boundaries means that you also give the people in your life the opportunity to examine how they view you and the expectations they have of you. It allows them the chance to see you in your different roles, rather than only the relationship they have with you. The truth is, you are more than a parent, a partner, a colleague, and a friend. You are the sum of all these relationships and so much more.
As people see you in this new light, they begin to respect you for gently but firmly pushing back. They notice the shift in your demeanour, commitment and passion as you contribute to projects where you offer an authentic “yes.”
You will not be able to keep everyone happy by setting boundaries but think of all the interactions where you took on tasks and responsibilities and delivered half-heartedly. Your performance in these instances may have painted you in a less than ideal way. Isn’t it better to let go of people, relationships and situations that seek to take advantage of you?
And in cases where you can’t fully let go because of close familial ties, setting boundaries offers the opportunity to dialogue about what matters to you. This may feel daunting, but the truth is, it is only when we begin to see life from others’ perspectives that we realise our depths of empathy and compassion both towards our loved ones and ourselves. The space this creates opens the chance for a better life where you are valued, respected, and loved. Isn’t this what you have wanted all your life?
Ready to set boundaries in your relationships? Here are five ways how to do so without feeling selfish:
1. Check in with your body
When you interact with someone, check in with your body. Do you engage with them with open arms, a genuine smile and a relaxed demeanour? Or do you tense your shoulders, clench your stomach muscles, and fold your arms?
How does being with this person affect you? Do you feel happy or anxious? Are you enthusiastic about helping them or does the thought of working with them fill you with dread?
Our bodies are generally very good at letting us know how we feel about a person, situation or relationship. Yet we often disregard these indicators and warning signs. Our desire to please people and keep the peace may lead us to ignore these important cues. When we continually overlook these signs, our bodies ‘retaliate’ be becoming ill and force us to remove ourselves from these situations physically. And when this happens, we are unable to contribute to the people and projects that we genuinely value.
2. Be fully present
When we are bogged down by too many responsibilities, we find ourselves spread thinly across our relationships. Our minds and bodies are stressed and to compensate for our limited time, energy and resources, we tend to multi-task in the hope of getting everything done. In doing so, we stretch our attention thinly, without realising that we are never fully present and aware. This is when mistakes happen when we end up doing things twice, and feeling tired and burnt out and unable to explain why this is the case.
Bringing your attention to the present moment requires you to connect your mind with your body. This is what mindfulness is.
And it all starts with your breath.
Take a deep breath and allow the air to move in and out of your body.
Let go of the thoughts that crowd your mind.
Observe your surroundings.
Acknowledge your presence in the present moment.
This is where you are right now.
Listen to what is being asked of you.
Notice how your body responds to the request.
Are you able to offer an authentic “yes” to this situation?
Is there someone else who can help instead of you?
Offer what you can in that moment then let go.
Even if you could not help any further, you were fully present during the interaction.
This is enough.
3. Acknowledge your self
You are more than the labels of parent, partner, sibling, child, worker, and friend. You are a unique human being with your values, beliefs, dreams, and aspirations. You are worthy of love. You are worthy of kindness. You are worthy of joy.
By acknowledging your self, you become aware that your relationship with your body is just as important. For those of us attuned to giving, we do so freely, without imposing any conditions or agenda. We give our time. We give our skills. We give our love. And with all the giving, we can sometimes forget to give to our body.
Take this moment to listen to the needs of your body. What is it asking for? When was the last time you ate? Drank? Looked away from the screen? Pause and attend to the needs of your body. This article will wait for you. This can be the start of you setting boundaries.
4. Communicate effectively
Setting boundaries require us to be clear and direct in our communication. This can be hard for those of us who tend to please people. If saying “no” is proving difficult, think about alternatives you could offer. For instance, is there someone else who could take on the additional responsibility?
Learn to delegate. It would be foolish and somewhat narcissistic of us to think that we are the only ones who can fulfil a particular task.
Everyone has an extraordinary range of gifts, talents, and abilities. Why not see the potential in others and offer them the chance to develop their skills further?
Effective communication does not have to be difficult, nor is it something reserved for a select few. Every interaction, every situation, every relationship is built on communication, where it be through speech, touch or look. Communicate with the conviction that you have the space to convey your truth. To do this, you need to know what you wish to say.
The more you know yourself, the better you can become at communicating. Saying “no” doesn’t mean that it is the end of the world, though at the time it can feel like it. What we often fail to realise is that poor communication blurs boundaries and leads to more misunderstandings and arguments than saying “no” in the first instance.
5. Seek support
The very definition of being in relationships means that we are no longer alone. Yet for many of us, it can feel like a lonely place. You do not have to do everything.
Learning how to set boundaries requires us to be open to learning new tools and techniques. It requires us to examine our thoughts, values, and beliefs critically. It requires us to trust that there are people within and outside our lives who can help us.
Reach out to people who can help you. Setting boundaries and negotiating relationships is a lifelong experience. None of us came into this world knowing exactly how to relate effectively with others. By opening ourselves to seeking support, by learning how to respond to situations, and remembering to be kind to ourselves, we can make a genuine and lasting difference in our lives and the lives of people around us.
If you or a loved one need someone to talk to, please call any of the following helplines. Your life matters.
US National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273–8255
UK Samaritans: 116 123
Helplines in other countries can be found here