How do I set boundaries assertively without feeling guilty?

ama ask me anything boundaries effective communication emotional health healthy relationships Jun 01, 2023

Dear Dr. Julie: I say yes a lot because I always feel guilty when I say no. But it's starting to be a problem. Right now, I need to set a boundary with my sister who wants to throw me a big birthday party at my house. I don't want a big party for my birthday and I don't want a party at my house. How do I set a boundary with her without feeling guilty for saying no?

--Feeling Guilty

Dear Feeling Guilty: I'm going to assume that you know how to set boundaries and focus instead on the feeling guilty part of your question.

First, "Should Statements" are playing a role if you are feeling guilty. If you think something like, "I should let my sister throw a birthday party for me" and you are going against that should statement (i.e., saying no), you will feel guilty. That's one source of guilt. Look at how your thoughts and desires are in conflict.

But let's dive a little deeper, why would you feel like you "should" let your sister throw a party for you? Where I typically see this coming from is having some concern that saying no will create conflict. Most of us avoid conflict because we feel it will jeopardize the relationship. (Plus we aren't taught how to handle conflict, which makes the fear worse.) Because we don't want to jeopardize the relationship we are reluctant to say no. We feel we "should" go along to keep the relationship healthy.

Unfortunately, going along will ultimately lead to resentment, so I advise against it, especially when you are feeling strongly about something.

What you want to do, in your case, is find a way your sister can celebrate your birthday with you that satisfies her need to do something nice for you and your need to do something more low key. Have a heart-to-heart with her. Tell her how you feel, acknowledge her generosity, and ask to find something that makes both of you feel good. Seek a way for both of you to win and your guilt will fade away.

Do you need a way to communicate your boundaries with people? Download my Effective Communication Guide and use the 3-part template for setting boundaries.

Do you feel like your inability to say no is getting out of control? Get my course on The 5 Steps to Overcoming People-Pleasing and Over-Giving.

Do you have a question for Dr. Julie? Submit your question here. If your question is answered, it will appear in Dr. Julie's weekly newsletter and her blog.

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