Can You Set Boundaries Without Feeling Guilty?

Most of my life I struggled with setting boundaries.

We all need boundaries, but establishing them is really hard to do.  And even harder is to not feel bad about it after you’ve done it.

I remember the first time I saw someone do it masterfully.

I was eating lunch at a Buddhist monastery.  The custom is for lay people to eat separately from the monastics and the rule is that the monastics eat in silence but it’s optional for the lay people.

I had been at the monastery for a few days and the other lay guest (let’s call her Carol) always chatted during lunch.  It didn’t bother me – we were quiet a lot of the time – so I just let Carol set the tone.

Then we had a new guest arrive – we’ll call her Sue.

As we sat to eat our meal, Carol began talking immediately and then asked Sue some questions.

Sue looked up from her plate and said very firmly and yet with the utmost kindness, “I’m going to eat my meal in silence, thank you.”

I nearly dropped my fork.  Not because she said it so calmly and kindly – but because I could see she didn’t have a drop of regret for saying it.  She went right back to eating her meal and it was obvious not a flicker of guilt crossed her mind.*

I was in awe.

What Do You Need?

I am one of those odd ambivert people.  I wrote a blog about this several months ago – if you’d like to read it please click here.  So although I often come across as extroverted (I’m not shy), I’m actually much more introverted than people realize.

I need a lot of alone time to feel my best.  If I’m around people for too long, I need to retreat to solitude to balance that out – it’s how I refuel.

For the longest time I didn’t know how to express this need.  Mostly because I was worried about offending someone.  How do you tell someone you need to be alone without them hearing it as, “I don’t want to be around you?”

I can’t tell you how much time I spent trying to come up with suitable excuses to get out of something or how to let someone know that I wasn’t available to hang out and chat every single day – that it was too much for me.

How could I let them know that I needed more space, without causing them and then me subsequent pain?

Who Am I Really Hurting?

The first thing I did was to acknowledge how much pain this was causing me.  This was my life and I wasn’t living it the way I wanted for fear of offending someone else.  How insane is that?

So the next question was, is it possible to communicate my needs without causing them any pain?

That’s where things get tricky.  We simply can’t control how others will respond to us.

I never asked Sue but I imagine there must have been times when someone was offended; and I’m pretty confident that it didn’t bother her.  In my imaginary conversation with her, she would have said, “we can only control how we respond.”  And she’d be right.

If we choose our words with compassion and speak honestly then there is nothing more we can do.  If someone chooses to take offense, then we were probably never going to be good friends with them to begin with.  That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Are you willing to take that risk?  To be true to who you are?

In the book, “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” Bronnie Ware a palliative nurse who counsels people on their deathbed, says the greatest regret of the dying is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

When we don’t set boundaries, this is one of the ways that we aren’t true to ourselves.  We’re so afraid of offending someone else that we end letting them dictate how our lives should be.  It makes no sense!

But as long as we speak with kindness and honesty, then there is nothing there for US to cling to.  No story for us to pick up and torture ourselves with.  We can say our peace and remain peaceful.

We all walk our own path and setting boundaries without feeling any guilt about doing that is unbelievably liberating.  In fact, it’s awesome!

Thanks Sue! 😉

*I was asked by a few people if Carol was offended by Sue’s request to eat in silence.  I should have addressed this better in the original post.  Firstly, this was not an unusual request in a monastery – I wouldn’t reply this way to someone I’m sitting next to on a plane.  Setting boundaries must be done skillfully and with the utmost compassion and kindness.  I do my very best not to offend anyone and how I deliver my request has a lot to do with that.  My intention is never to offend anyone.  When I said that’s a risk I’m willing to take, I don’t say that with disregard for someone else’s feelings.  But what often happens when we don’t set boundaries is we will reach a limit where we are no longer speaking with kindness or we become resentful.  In my experience it is better to handle the situation early on when we are calm and our intention is not to harm.   I hope that helps.

Comments

    • zensmarts

      Thank you Craig! I always appreciate your kind words. Merry Christmas to you and your family! 🙂

  1. Karen

    This post could not be more timely! I was speaking today with a friend about her 16 year-old daughter who is a people-pleaser and gets stuck all the time. I sent this to her because it’s clear a person could spend their whole life living this way and not even realize it. Thank you!!

    • zensmarts

      Thank you Karen! It seems this post struck a chord with a lot of people. As you and I have discussed many times setting boundaries is tricky but there is a skillful way to do it! 🙂

  2. Simone

    Hi Meredith, I liked your post, especially since I’m one of those that could benefit from some good advice about how to say “no” at times. Sometimes, you just get “suckered” in by certain people that know how to work it. But I really would like to know how Carol felt when Sue told her “to be quiet”. I know she didn’t say it that way, but doesn’t it sound just the same? Of course, there is the somewhat expected notion that one should be quiet anyway inside the monastery, so maybe it didn’t come across that way? Maybe there is a fine line between hurting others and hurting oneself and we have to give a little in order to take a little?

    • zensmarts

      Hi Simone! This was an interesting situation because it’s not out of the norm for many of the lay guests to want to eat in silence. So I think it was a combination of the setting and the way she said it – so calmly, slowly and with the utmost kindness that there was nothing to be offended by. Not only was there not a flicker of guilt on Sue’s face, there was not a flicker of being offended on Carol’s face (I might go back and add that – thank you for pointing that out!). And based on their interactions over the following few days I am very confident Carol was not offended. So the setting had a lot to do with it. I wouldn’t say it that way to someone I’m sitting next to on a plane. I had this situation recently on a long flight from Dubai to San Francisco. I realized after about 20 minutes of talking that my seat mate would have happily talked for the whole trip – 16 hours! So I very nicely said to him that I enjoyed the conversation very much but I was eager to read my book, as I don’t get a lot of free time to catch up on my reading and that was what I had planned for this flight. As far as I could tell he was not offended at all. There is a very delicate balance when letting someone know what you need, that’s why being kind and speaking slowly is the key – if you’re abrupt you are going to offend them. And you are correct that sometimes it is kinder to chat a little bit longer than we might otherwise be inclined so that we don’t hurt the other person. But at some point we have to draw the line and also be true to ourselves. I hope that helped! Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. Alison Borel

    This is a great post Meredith! I love to read your insights and as I am going on a week long trip with a good friend who is an introvert, I am also trying to make sure I give her the space she needs as well. Sometimes I fill up the space with talk when it’s completely unnecessary and although I need my time alone, I rob myself of that blessing when others would have been very fine without the idle chatter. Serendipitous moment for me! Love you always and have a peaceful holiday.
    Alison

    • zensmarts

      Hi Alison! I’m so glad you found the post useful and hopefully added to a wonderful time with your friend. You raise a good point about us trying to understand others better as well. Some pre-thought on our part can really help everyone to feel more at ease. Thank you! Love to you and your family!

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