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Set Boundaries and Practice Self-Care Without Feeling Guilty

Boundaries are a form of self-care—they protect us physically and emotionally. But many of us feel guilty when we prioritize our needs, set boundaries, and practice self-care.

So, in this article, I’ll help you let go of feeling guilty and recognize that it’s healthy to ask for what you need and set boundaries to keep yourself safe and living in alignment with your values.

Do you have difficulty prioritizing your needs, setting boundaries, and consistently practicing self-care? These are struggles for many people who have codependent traits because we tend to put our needs last, often sacrificing our own well-being to make other people happy or avoid conflict. And when we do consider our own needs, set boundaries, and practice self-care we feel guilty, like we’re doing something wrong, mean, or selfish.

What are healthy boundaries and why are they important?

Boundaries create a space or separation between you and someone else. A physical boundary, such as stepping away from someone or closing a door, literally creates more space between you and others.

And an emotional or mental boundary helps you separate your feelings, needs, beliefs, and interests from others’. An example of an emotional or mental boundary is stating your opinion or not accepting the blame for someone else’s angry outburst.

Without boundaries, we run the risk of “losing ourselves”—we don’t know how we feel, what we’re interested in, or what we want. We let other people make decisions for us. We give and give without receiving in return. And we run the risk of being manipulated, used, and abused because we aren’t putting any limits on how others can treat us.

Boundaries create safety.

Boundaries are guidelines and expectations that we set in relationships. Boundaries help both parties understand how to behave—what behavior is acceptable and what won’t be tolerated. If you feel unsafe or on edge with someone, there’s probably a lack of clear and consistent boundaries.

Boundaries are self-care

Boundaries strengthen your sense of self.

Boundaries are also central to your identity and sense of self. Without boundaries, it’s hard to distinguish where you end and someone else begins; you feel like a chameleon always morphing into who other people want you to be rather than having a strong sense of who you are.

What’s the connection between boundaries and self-care?

Boundaries are a form of self-care. When you set boundaries, you are taking care of yourself. You are recognizing what you need and asking for it.

Boundaries can help you manage stress, take care of your physical well-being, and create healthy relationships. Here are some examples:

  • When you say no to working late because you’re overtired, you’re prioritizing your need for rest.
  • Putting your phone on do not disturb to protect yourself from your ex’s toxic tirade, you’re looking out for your emotional well-being.
  • Saying no to things that you don’t want to do or leaving the room when someone continues to yell at you demonstrates self-respect and self-worth by doing what’s best for yourself.

If you don’t set boundaries, you’re likely to become resentful and exhausted. Without boundaries, you’ll absorb other people’s feelings and take responsibility for their problems; you’ll overwork, allow others to take advantage of your kindness, and eventually this will negatively impact your physical and mental health.

In contrast, when you set boundaries, you’re taking care of your physical and emotional needs.

Why do codependents struggle with setting boundaries and self-care?

There are a number of reasons that boundaries and self-care are difficult for codependents. Here are a few:

1) You didn’t have role models for healthy boundaries and self-care. Chances are that you grew up in a family where boundaries weren’t set or respected—you didn’t have privacy, there was unwanted physical touch, you couldn’t express your feelings, and you couldn’t say no.

We tend to struggle with boundaries because no one taught us how to set boundaries or that it was acceptable to do so. Instead, you got the erroneous idea that boundaries and self-care are selfish or mean.

You probably didn’t see people taking care of themselves. In codependent families, life can be tumultuous and unpredictable. It also may revolve around a “dysfunctional” family member’s needs and moods, making it hard for you to prioritize yourself.

2) You were taught to be a caretaker. You focus your energy on taking care of others, often at your own expense. Again, the roots of your extreme caretaking probably go back to childhood.

Many codependents were parentified children meaning they had to accept adult responsibilities and take care of their parents and siblings from a young age. This leaves little time, energy, or money for self-care.

You can read more in this article: When a Child Has to Act Like an Adult

3) You weren’t allowed to have needs or be assertive. As a child, were you told to suck it up, stop crying, or to stop overreacting? Or maybe you were told that you were being selfish or disrespectful if you set a boundary or asked for something.

These are the kinds of shaming and blaming messages codependents often get as children – that their feelings and needs don’t matter or are unacceptable. As a result, you learn to push your feelings aside and pretend you don’t need anything.

Boundaries and self-care make codependent feel guilty.

How can you begin to overcome feelings of guilt and begin to prioritize your own needs?

As you begin to change and recover from codependency, you’ll want to pay attention to your thoughts and behavior – challenging yourself to think about things differently and taking small steps to behave in new ways that reflect your increasing self-respect and self-understanding.

  • Remember that boundaries are a healthy form of self-care. You’re less likely to feel guilty when you remember that everyone has needs and taking care of yourself is a healthy choice. There is nothing wrong with looking out for yourself! Obviously, eating more vegetables is a healthy choice; you wouldn’t feel guilty about it. Well, setting boundaries that help you stay mentally and physically healthy are no different; there’s no reason to feel guilty about doing something that’s good for you.

  • Setting boundaries and practicing self-care benefit those around you, too. That’s right, boundaries and self-care are good for everyone – not just you. Setting boundaries strengthens relationships. Things run more smoothly when expectations are clear and others feel respected when you communicate your needs and expectations clearly. And when you take care of yourself, you’re healthier and happier. Everyone benefits when you have more energy and patience, are less reactive; and have fewer resentments.

  • Tune into your needs. It’s nearly impossible to set boundaries and practice self-care if you don’t know what you need. Tuning into your thoughts, feelings, and physical body will help you do this.  Intentionally pause several times per day to ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need?” When you have a better sense of how you feel and what you need, it will be easier to set boundaries and practice self-care.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Setting boundaries is a skill and like any other skill, the more you practice the easier it becomes. Expect that it will feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but stick with it!

  • Self-compassion. Trying to take better care of yourself and learn new skills is hard work. Be sure to give yourself plenty of self-compassion and encouragement.

  • Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Setting boundaries and practicing self-care aren’t all or nothing endeavors. So, don’t get hung up on doing them perfectly. Remember: progress not perfection!

©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash.com

Mental Health Quick Tips PDF

Affirmations, Worksheets, Tips, and More

Simple tools to help you stay focused on your personal growth! It’s hard work to set boundaries, create healthier relationships, build self-esteem, and overcome codependency. That’s why I created a variety of print-ready resources to support your goals in these areas. View all of the designs HERE.

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.

9 thoughts on “Set Boundaries and Practice Self-Care Without Feeling Guilty”

  1. Hey there, boundary setting, needs, self care and lots of other concepts confuse me. For example: If I want to have Sundays to myself and my adult daughter wants me to go to hers for Sunday lunch, who’s needs are more important? She recently asked for a lift and I was having a meal at a friend’s house, so I refused the request. I have started saying no after decades of yes. It feels uncomfortable. How can I prioritise myself and care about others? K.

    1. Kate,
      It sounds like you’re doing a great job beginning to set boundaries. Making a change after many years definitely feels uncomfortable and it will take time for your daughter and others to adjust to your new boundaries. I think you can show care by delivering the “no” in a kind way, offering help when you’re available and have the resources, and generally showing empathy and interest in other people. Caring about them doesn’t mean you have to do things for them or fix things. Keep practicing – it sounds like you’re on the right path!

    2. I completely get you Kate. I’m confused by it all too. I guess knowing the difference between needs and wants. If you ‘need’ Sunday to yourself, the consequences of not having the day to relax could result in irritability and burnout for you. The consequences of not going to your daughters for lunch are so much less. She may be disappointed but that’s it. She doesn’t ‘need’ you to go, she ‘wants you to go. Thsts my understanding if it.

  2. I have a hard time setting boundaries with my parents, even though I am 55 years old, she is controlling and abusive when she wants to be. I have a mentally illness. Need help with boundaries setting. Great information. Thanks

  3. How do I start with recognizing my needs and priorities? I realized that I don’t let myself have wants, needs, or expectations for others because I don’t want to be too rigid and I don’t want to be disappointed, but without the ability to recognize my needs I also can’t recognize when or how to set boundaries. Now that I’m recognizing a need for boundaries in several relationships in my life I’m not sure where to start. It would be nice to write up a checklist or mission statement or something that lists mental health needs, priorities, goals, etc so when I’m in a situation where I’m deciding on whether or how to set boundaries I can look back at the list to decide what would and wouldn’t be in the best interest of myself and my family. The problem is, I don’t know what I want out of life or even what I need. Where do I start with figuring this out? Sorry if this question sounds crazy, any input on a starting point would be greatly appreciated.

    1. No, you don’t sound crazy at all. It’s so hard to recognize needs when you have been expected to priorie the needs of others over your own for two long. Especially If you are strongly emphatic and the boundary between self and other blurrs easily at the best of times. If I want to hear myself I need to physically remove myself from other people (and all online input as well) for a few hours and just sit or take a walk in nature until I can connect to myself again. Wish you all the best for your Journey to find yourself <3

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