Setting Boundaries Isn't Mean

Is it Mean or Wrong to Set Boundaries?

It’s not mean or wrong to set boundaries. Boundaries protect us from being hurt and taken advantage of. Boundaries create healthy relationships and clear expectations. And we can learn to set boundaries without feeling guilty or like we’re being mean!

Has anyone told you that it’s mean or wrong to set boundaries?

Well, one of the big reasons we avoid setting boundaries is that we mistakenly think they’re mean, harsh, and controlling. Often, we have these beliefs because others have reacted poorly to our boundaries in the past. If this has been your experience, let me assure you that you’re not alone!

Learning to set boundaries is hard work and it’s often met with resistance from others. However, boundaries aren’t mean or wrong; the problem is that we don’t completely understand how to set them and we’re stuck in a people-pleaser mindset – letting others dictate what’s right for us.

What are boundaries and why do we need them?

Boundaries are limits that we set for ourselves and others. I consider them a form of self-care because boundaries are an essential way to take care of your needs.

If you don’t have boundaries, people can treat you however they want; there are no rules or guidelines. They can touch you, ask intrusive questions, yell at you, or call you in the middle of the night. It may seem laughable, but without boundaries, a stranger could come into your house, eat all your food, wear your clothes, break your television, and take a nap on your sofa. Most of us wouldn’t be okay with this!

If a stranger walked into your house, you’d probably tell them to leave – and you wouldn’t feel guilty about it. So, why do we struggle to tell our friends and family members how they can treat us or how they can behave in our homes?

Your boundaries aren’t mean or wrong just because someone else doesn’t like them.

Many of us gauge our behavior by how others react. If we receive compliments, we’ve done the right thing. If we’re yelled at or ignored, it’s because we’ve done something wrong. But this is our fear-based people-pleasing at work.  

We’re letting other people dictate how we feel and what we do, instead of deciding for ourselves. Boundaries are to take care of and protect yourself, so you’re the only one who can decide if they’re right.

It’s important to recognize that your boundaries aren’t mean, wrong, or selfish because someone else thinks so. That is their opinion – it’s not a fact.

And, remember that when others call you mean or selfish, it’s often a manipulation tactic, an attempt to get you to do what they want. Stand true to your boundaries, even if others don’t like them.

You’re setting boundaries because you need separation or protection from people who will otherwise act without regard for your needs and feelings.

Boundaries aren’t attempts to control or punish others.

Boundaries also get a bad rap because they’re confused with ultimatums and demands. But there is a significant difference: Boundaries are for your self-care and protection. They are not a way to force people to change or do what you want. We can’t control others, but we can control ourselves and take steps to meet our own needs.

When we set boundaries, we sometimes ask others to make a change, but we have no control over whether they will. For example, I might ask you not to bring food containing nuts to my house because my child is allergic, or I might ask you not to text me after 10 pm because I’m in bed.

If you don’t agree or respect my boundaries, I will then take action to protect and take care of myself (or my child in the case of the allergy). I might stop inviting you to my house or block your number. I’m not doing this to be mean or to punish you. And I don’t need to use an angry tone or raise my voice. I just need to be clear and direct.

Boundaries aren’t a way to punish others. They are a way to protect ourselves.

Boundaries aren't mean they're self-care

Some people will respond poorly to your boundaries.

The truth is that some people won’t like your boundaries (especially if you’ve let them walk all over you in the past).

However, many people in your life will adjust to your new boundaries. They may initially be confused or threatened by your new-found assertiveness. Or they may not take it seriously and assume you’ll back down and go back to your old ways if they put up a fight. This is understandable, especially if you haven’t maintained and enforced your boundaries in the past.

Things may get worse before they get better. But most people will adjust to your boundaries and learn to respect them. Some, of course, will continue to resist. And as I said, they may accuse you of being mean, selfish, or difficult because they don’t want to respect your boundaries.

Boundaries improve relationships.

Boundaries actually make relationships easier. If this seems confusing, think about what it’s like when other people set boundaries with you. Don’t you appreciate it when your employer sets clear boundaries and tells you specifically what is expected?

You probably have a policy and procedure manual or a contract that spells out exactly what you can and can’t do at work. You may disagree or find all the rules cumbersome, but it’s better than having no boundaries or limits in the workplace. In generations past, that allowed employers to take advantage of their employees, to mistreat them, and for hostile or unsafe work environments.

Boundaries also make personal relationships better. Children feel safe and secure when their parents set clear boundaries and intimate relationships and friendships have fewer conflicts when both parties are clear about their needs and expectations. And when we don’t set boundaries, we often become resentful and angry – which isn’t good for us or our relationships.

Instead of thinking of boundaries as mean or harsh, try to think about them as inherently respectful because they communicate your expectations and help others understand how to interact with you – what’s okay and what’s not okay. This decreases misunderstandings and sets the stage for direct and clear communication in all of your relationships.

Read more about boundaries

©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

1 thought on “Is it Mean or Wrong to Set Boundaries?”

  1. Hi Sharon,

    I appreciate how you distinguish boundaries as an effort to attend to your own needs, rather than control others. This point really hits the mark; boundaries shouldn’t be malicious. They should be reciprocal.

    I think boundaries (and whether other people respect them) are a good indicator of how trust should be offered or reserved in a relationship. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position if we trust people who don’t respect our boundaries. Following your advice, we can still have a positive relationship with them, even if we have to do it from a safer distance.


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