Boundary Setting Fallout:
How to overcome the negative feedback loop of boundary setting

In the last few years, self-care has cemented itself in the public lexicon, and beyond buying scented candles or luxurious facemasks, it has encouraged us to reflect on our own emotional hygiene. With this shift, I have heard an increased use and occasional misuse of the term “boundaries” in my personal and professional life.

A friend who goes on a bad date might say “It was a disaster, my date is texting me nonstop and has terrible boundaries!”, a colleague might mention “I am trying to protect my time, so I am creating a boundary with my coworker” or a client might say “This relationship leaves me feeling depleted and exhausted, I need to set better boundaries”.

Joaquín Selva describes “unlike more intuitive aspects of self-care like healthy eating and exercise, setting healthy boundaries isn’t something most people understand.”

For more people to experience greater well-being and fulfillment, they must learn about healthy boundaries”. This increased awareness in the practice of boundary setting is a positive step to preserve our collective social and emotional health, but especially for those who are new to “boundary setting” it is important to understand that responses might not always be comfortable, but that beyond boundary setting, boundary maintenance is a continuous practice.

What is a boundary?

Tracy Cleantist, LMFT discusses boundaries by describing, “Our boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even non-existent. A complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don’t have a strong identity or are enmeshed with someone else.

That narrative goes like this: ‘It doesn’t matter what I want, I only what you want.’” When an individual tends to defer more often towards the needs of others (one might call them “people pleasers”), they face more significant struggles with boundary setting and might experience resentment emotionally accumulate as they are continually consenting to scenarios and decisions outside of their own sense of comfort and safety.

Are you a people-pleaser?

If you have people-pleasing tendencies, are conflict avoidant, or are operating in a space where you experience impostor syndrome, boundary setting can be a big scary thing. One might put significant work into analyzing a dynamic where they are uncomfortable and come to the conclusion that they need to create better boundaries, but once they take that brave first step are met with an uncomfortable, hostile, or even angry response.

After a relational fallout following boundaries setting, we might be left wondering “was my delivery inappropriate? “Was I asking too much of that relationship/situation?” or “Should I not have stood up for myself?”. This negative feedback-loop might even lead us to avoid boundary setting in the future and thus magnify ones avoidance of asserting their comfort and opinions in the future. Below are a few guidelines for managing the uncomfortable responses to boundary setting:

If you set a boundary and the response is anger or hostility, do not take that as a cue to engage with the anger. More importantly, don’t defer to approval-seeking or “rescuer-mode” and backtrack your assertion of a boundary. Let the negative reaction exist as a response outside of your control or responsibility.

Let the boundary sit for a few minutes

Work through and learn from the challenge of not responding immediately to someone else’s discomfort or negative response. The stance of a people pleaser is to fix and repair despite their own comfort level, but work through the discomfort of not responding and shift your focus towards the positive benefits of asserting your own emotional safety.

Practice with smaller boundaries first. Maybe it’s as simple as saying you don’t want to order a certain food at a group dinner or not giving immediate positive feedback to a decision you don’t agree with. Practicing with smaller situations where the potential fallout is smaller helps get over the initial fear and catastrophizing of asserting your boundary. Witness yourself asserting your needs, and focus on how it felt to be brave, honor and protect yourself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meg Franse is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In her words, “I strive to create a therapeutic environment grounded in creativity and exploration.”

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