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Don’t Be Afraid to Set Boundaries: Studio 5

Does the fear of offending friends or family members keep you from setting boundaries? It’s a timely topic with the holidays fast approaching. Therapist, Julie Hanks, says it’s ok to set boundaries, even if you offend someone.


Q: Why are we afraid to set boundaries that might offend someone?

You might mistakenly confuse boundaries with aggression or with using a “sword” stance. It might feel “mean” to you to do something that you know will contribute to another person’s pain, or you may feel responsible for other people’s emotions.

It’s helpful to think of these 3 relationship stances when setting boundaries:

Doormat –

This passive stance is characterized by a lack of awareness of your own feelings, highly valuing pleasing others, devaluing own wants and needs, and feeling “run over” by others. You value other’s emotional needs above self.

Sword –

In this reactive stance, you’re emotionally “on guard”, lashing out at slightest hint of emotional threat, on “high alert”. You might let emotions build up and then explode with cutting words, snide remarks, or become cold and aloof and unavailable. You value your own self-protection over other’s needs.

Lantern –

In this enlightened stance, your “emotional” feet are planted firmly on the ground. There is a feeling of calmness as you seek a broader perspective. When you do get upset you don’t ignore it or react to it but seek understanding. You value your own and other’s emotions and desires and take responsibility for your part.

Q: Why are we afraid to tell people what we need or what we want?

We don’t want to jeopardize our relationships. We are afraid of isolation or rejection, or we are afraid to hurt those we love because that causes us pain too.

Q: Do we worry too much about other people’s feelings?

We do worry about other’s feelings to much when it comes to boundaries. I worked with a couple recently whose family always stays with them during the holidays. Just having had a new baby, this couple was not feeling up to having house-guests, yet they were hesitant to take a stand. We talked about the importance of concentric circles of relationships. In the core is self-care, then the next ring is the marriage relationship, then parenting, then extended family—in that order and challenged them to set boundaries, even if feelings are hurt.

Q: Are women more afraid to offend other than men are?

Women in particular are hard wired and socialized to highly value relationships and emotional bonds. I had a client whose friend constantly badmouthed her own ex-husband. While she wanted to supportive she was sick of hearing complaining. I encouraged her to honor herself and her own needs first, hold up a “lantern” to the situation and state what she saw was going on. For example, “I can tell this divorce has taken its toll on you and you’re really angry with Tim. Of course you are. However, I’m getting worn down by the topic and wondering if it would be more helpful for you to talk to a therapist because I’m not sure what to say anymore.”

Q: What if others don’t respect our boundaries?

There’s nothing more frustrating than setting clear boundaries and not being heard valued, or taken seriously. I worked with a woman whose adult son lived at home and refused to get a job. She needed him to take responsibility for his life but she felt like he was ignoring her and wasn’t taking action. We worked to help her set a clear, firm timeline of when he needed to start paying rent or find another place to live. Instead of trying to make him get a job, I helped her shift to setting firm boundaries in areas that she hat she could control (like who lived in her house).

Q: Is it harder to set boundaries with certain people?

Some people don’t like being told “no” and may resort to a “sword” stance if you do. If there’s underlying tension, unresolved issues, or insecurities in the relationship it may be harder to set boundaries.

A common dynamic I see in my practice is tense in-law relationships. There was one situation where a client’s mother-in-law kept trying to parent her kids when she was there, what food he could or couldn’t eat. I suggested that she take her mother-in-law aside and using a lantern stance, acknowledge her mother-in-laws good intentions and ask her not to step into a parenting role without being invited.

Q: Why do we protect other people at our own expense?

We protect others at our own expense because we think it’s the “right”, nice, loving thing to do. You may have been taught not to express yourself or it may be hard for you to know how you feel and what you want.

This is a common dynamic especially during the holidays. Holiday traditions with extended family often trump the individual and family needs. I’ve worked with many families who want to deviate from family traditions but know that others will be “hurt” by their decision.

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