When Someone Sets Boundaries With You and You Feel Like Crap

Reflecting on some experiences I’ve had with setting boundaries, I wrote this earlier today:

A crappy thing for which I have no solution:

Someone unintentionally makes me uncomfortable or hurts my feelings. I let them know. They apologize/etc. Then I immediately see a post from them in my feed about how they’re a terrible person because they hurt people and they were just trying to be nice/funny but they hurt someone so they’re horrible. I try to convince myself that this *isn’t* a passive-aggressive attempt to make me feel guilty, because that’s a crappy thing to assume about someone, but it itches all the same.

The thing is, one of the biggest reasons why most people have such a hard time setting boundaries is because they fear hurting people. They are desperately trying to avoid that exact “I am a terrible person” reaction. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY I would never say that you should not use your own Facebook to vent/post about your feelings, which is why I said I have no solution to this. But all the same, this is instant feedback of a sort (“Your boundary-setting makes me feel like a terrible person”) and it speaks volumes.

I was almost tempted here to ask for feedback: Do I need to be nicer when I set boundaries? Maybe I do. But I’m not asking for feedback because I know it would never end. “Yes, you need to be nicer.” “…yup, still a little nicer please!” “You know, you could really stand to be just a little bit more nice.” “Actually, what would be nicest of all is just shutting up.”

People constantly remind me that I hurt them when I set boundaries, so the only way I’ve been able to set boundaries as someone with depression and a lot of feelings and a lot of empathy is to systematically train myself to stop caring if I hurt people (in this specific circumstance). And it feels monstrous. But the alternative is much worse, and in the alternative, ALL the cost is paid by me. Every cent of it. And I have been there, and I’m never going back.

As I said, I don’t have a solution, but I do have a request: if someone setting a boundary with you causes you to immediately jump to “I am a terrible person,” please try to work on that. Probably most people with that reaction (oh hey, including myself!) are already working on it, so I don’t want to come across as condescending or patronizing. But I really feel that interpersonal things would be easier for all of us if fewer people had this automatic reaction.

I could say a lot more here about how that sort of reaction is actually self-protective and serves a purpose for the individual despite feeling like crap in the moment, but I’ll save that for some other time, because the most important thing is that other people’s boundaries are *not about you*; they are not a referendum on whether or not you are “a good person” (there is no such thing), they are not a punishment to you, they are not a weapon used to intentionally hurt you. They are about the safety and comfort of the person who sets them.

In response, someone asked me a question:

Can you give some examples of how to handle boundary-setting better? I realized halfway through reading your post that I respond similarly to “I’m a terrible person” but I have no idea where to start to fix it. How do I not feel terribly?

I responded on Tumblr, but wanted to expand on that response here.

But first I want to also expand the question. The person asked, “How do I not feel terribly?”, but I think there’s another important question to address, which is, “How do I respond properly?” I realize that’s not what they were asking and don’t mean to imply that they should’ve asked that question additionally/instead; just that it’s interesting and important to address. But more to the point, these things are related. The same things that will help you feel better in this situation will also help you respond better, but when you can’t make yourself feel better–and sometimes you can’t–responding well might be the best you can do.

So what follows are some general thoughts about what to do when someone sets a boundary with you and you feel like shit.

1. Why do you feel like shit? Being told that you’ve hurt someone or made someone uncomfortable can kick up lots of old hurts and fears, especially for those of us who have depression and anxiety. These may be particular to you and your own experience, and that’s for you to uncover on your own. But more generally, there are two broad cultural messages that many of us learn that make it very difficult not to have strong negative emotions when someone sets a boundary with us:

  • The idea that there are Good People and Bad People, and only Bad People hurt people (on purpose or by accident). This idea is wrong and harmful and needs to go away. This idea also drives us to dismiss claims that someone we consider a Good Person has hurt someone. Either they aren’t really a Good Person, or they must not have really hurt anyone. The latter is easier to accept, so that’s what we do. In this case, when faced with incontrovertible evidence that you have hurt someone’s feelings, even by mistake, you may conclude that this means you are a Bad Person. It doesn’t.
  • The idea that we must intuitively/magically divine others’ needs and boundaries, and if we can’t do this, then we are Bad At People or Bad At Life or otherwise A Failure. Guess culture contributes to this, I think. So does ableism–some people’s brains make it especially difficult to read subtle cues from others, and we tend to assume that the problem is with these people and their brains, and not with our society and our expectations. So in this situation, if someone is having to set a boundary with you, you may feel that it means you have Failed at intuiting their boundaries and therefore had to be told. In fact, verbally setting boundaries should be considered the default. It is rare to know what someone’s boundaries around everything are, even if you know them quite well.

Understanding that these cultural messages are not necessarily accurate or useful to you is a good first step in learning how to react less negatively when someone sets a boundary with you.

2. A good practice when something happens that causes strong emotions is one that applies to many interpersonal situations, whether or not they involve boundary setting: before responding in any way (to the person directly, elsewhere online, etc), take some time just for yourself to process how you’re feeling. Name the feelings to yourself. “I feel angry that they told me to stop doing this.” “I feel depressed and worthless because I did something wrong.” “I am a piece of shit because I hurt a friend.” Name the feelings even if you feel ashamed of them.

This is a little more complex than the standard “breathe in and count to ten” advice. Yes, that can help you not respond automatically in a way you’ll regret, but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand or deal with what you’re feeling.

3. Intentionally think about how these emotions may impact your response. “I’m really angry, so I might yell at them.” “I feel really upset and self-destructive, so I want them to make me feel better.” Thinking about this will help you make sure that your response is what you want it to be, not what jerkbrain is yelling at you to do. It will also help you understand why you’re feeling pulled towards a particular response (yelling, shutting down, crying, ignoring the person, etc).

4. Give yourself permission to be upset/angry, even if you wish you weren’t. Being upset/angry isn’t the problem; lashing out at people or making them responsible for your feelings is. Make a pact with yourself: “I get to feel absolutely however I feel about this as long as I make sure that I’m treating people the way they should be treated.”

5. If talking to people tends to help you feel better, consider reaching out to a friend (not a friend who’s involved directly in whatever it was that made you upset). Explain to them that you’re not asking for reassurance that you did nothing wrong; rather, you’re asking for reassurance that you’re still a good person even though you did do something wrong.

This is important because sometimes our friends care about us so much that they take “sides”: “Wow, what an asshole, what’s their problem, you didn’t do anything wrong!” This might feel good to you, but it doesn’t help you treat others well.

It might help to share with them the fact that you’re doing all this work to make sure that you still respond appropriately when called out for crossing a boundary, so that they can give you some positive reinforcement for being awesome and handling this in such a good way.

6. Practice encouraging yourself to feel gratitude towards the person who set the boundary with you. This may feel out of place right now, but I find that it helps me reframe things. “I’m glad that [person] felt comfortable enough with me to let me know I was crossing a boundary.” “[Person] helped me learn how to treat them better, that’s awesome.” If this person is doing you a kindness by setting a boundary with you, then you can’t be a terrible person, because if you were, then you wouldn’t have such great friends who help you be even better!

7. Ask yourself, what is the function of feeling like a terrible person when someone sets a boundary with you? That may sound like a weird question, but it’s one I think about a lot both as a therapist and as someone working through depression. Automatic emotional responses often have a defensive function, even if they feel very bad.

Sometimes, the automatic “I’m a terrible person” response has the function of allowing you to avoid engaging with the situation fully. If you’re a terrible person, well, obviously you’re just going to fuck up and trample all over people’s boundaries and there’s nothing to be done about it. If you’re a terrible person, then you don’t deserve this friend anyway and you might as well cut them off now that they’ve set this boundary. If you’re a terrible person, then you deserve some sympathy right now rather than having to respond to this person who’s just made you feel so bad.

Understanding this dynamic won’t necessarily make you stop feeling “I’m a terrible person” in response to things like this. We can’t always choose our feelings, though we can shape them with practice.

If you realize that your automatic responses are serving the function of allowing you to avoid difficult situations like this, you may feel even more crappy and guilty than you felt before. I’m sorry if I’ve added to that. But you can also use this knowledge to reframe future automatic responses in ways that help you move through them. “My brain is telling me that I’m a terrible person to help me avoid this challenging situation, but I want to face this situation instead and deal with it like the sort of person I want to be.” You can tell yourself that your brain’s just trying to look out for you and keep you safe, but it’s not doing so in a very helpful way right now.

In conclusion, shitty feelings happen, self-awareness helps, and your automatic emotional responses don’t have to determine the actions you ultimately choose.


For some more general emotion management advice, Olivia has a great series on DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills on Teen Skepchick. Although DBT was originally developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, it’s extremely useful for many people, including those without any diagnosable mental illness, because it teaches basic adulting skills that most of us are never taught. If you have a bit of money to invest in this effort, I recommend this workbook.


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When Someone Sets Boundaries With You and You Feel Like Crap

11 thoughts on “When Someone Sets Boundaries With You and You Feel Like Crap

  1. 1

    I love this especially as the boundary-setter because it further reinforces boundaries. It allows me to think that if the other person is upset by my boundary-setting, then it is something they need to work on and not my fault for setting boundaries. Would love to see more posts on boundaries, because it is a fundamental building block of so many other things we champion (like self-esteem) but we don’t talk about it enough.

    Also, love the recommendation for a dbt workbook. Hubby works with people with bpd and I got myself the workbook he uses because adulting skills are useful.

      1. Off the top of my head: How do you know what your boundaries are and when they’re being violated? If you’ve never had good boundaries, where do you start, and how do you learn to trust yourself to have good boundaries in the future? Also, how do you maintain your boundaries in regards to social justice issues? On the one hand, there’s standing up for your values, and on the other, sometimes you’re just not up for it or you feel the other person isn’t engaging in good faith.

  2. 2

    See, I only had this reaction once, and it was because people are so guess culturey that it had never occurred to me that a thing I was doing was a problem, and once someone told me they had a problem it caused me to have this whole crisis because I realized that most people probably hate it when I do that and no one had ever said anything. Basically I was like oh my god, I’m terrible because I’ve been acting this way my whole life and it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.

    But that was the thing for me, my reaction was hardly about the person who set the boundary. It was about me having a realization that I’ve been a jackass. I mean, I can’t remember what it was. I think it was something along the lines of like, “You interrupt me a lot when I talk and I want you to be aware that it bothers me” or something like that. I don’t know exactly what it was (this was like 12 years ago), but it was something that was kind of generally annoying and I never realized I was doing it. And it came from my best friend, and I had a mini-freak out (which involved a blog post about how I’m the worst), but she recognized that…that’s what happens when you realize you’ve been shitty. I apologized for making her have to deal with my feeling bad about being a douche and she was like, “Don’t worry about it. This is how personal growth works. I’ve been there, trust me.”

    She gave me the space to freak out about it for a minute, because she realized it wasn’t about her, it was about realizing my own obliviousness.

    But I reacted badly because NOBODY had ever done that before and I thought of myself as someone who tried very hard to be considerate. I also cared about this friend a lot and it hurt to think I’d been doing this frustrating thing. Now it’s not nearly such a thing to receive criticism but that’s in large part because I avoid guess-culturey people like the plague now. But at the time I was like OH GOD, I HAVE FAILED AT SELF-AWARENESS! I AM THE WORST PERSON EVER! Because I was doing self-awareness all on my own and I was surrounded by polite people who would never say anything so the feedback I got was almost non-existent. You know, the most I ever got was silent hatred where you’re like, “Is that person mad at me? Did I do something? I feel like I did something.”

    So, I have sympathy for people in the same situation. Like, maybe they’ve just never dealt with direct communication before and they need a minute to process. I think it’s just important to keep that in mind. Like…they’re just having growing pains and that’s okay.

    1. 3.1

      I think that’s only true of certain types of boundaries–or, rather, when the word is used in a very narrow sense (for instance, physical/sexual boundaries). If someone doesn’t realize that sharing photos of spiders is triggering for me and they do it anyway, they’re not “exploring [boundaries] too aggressively”; they just honestly have no idea that I freak out when I see photos of spiders. (I don’t, by the way; this is just an example.)

      The boundary I most frequently have to set, at least in online spaces, is asking people to stop giving me unsolicited advice. I guess it would be nice if more people decided that that’s just straight-up inappropriate and stopped doing it period, but that’s not our culture.

  3. 4

    This is excellent and a great reminder for me. I’ve definitely had the internal depressed reaction when someone set boundaries with me, but once the initial reaction passed I was really glad because then I knew what not to do in the future.

  4. Jay

    As someone who has had boundaries set against me with no real explanation as to which ones were crossed, I’ve been confused and incredibly saddened by that event. It has helped me to find and read this article to understand the nature of what had occurred and I can now make some movement towards honoring and rectifying the situation. Thanks for the insight!

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