Setting personal boundaries is a critical aspect of most counselling and psychotherapy. Working on your goals to identify what you need, want, and deserve in life is often much harder than it might initially seem. Most of you, share your life with people you love, and learning to set boundaries with these people is usually the hardest to learn without “assertion guilt”. Explained by author, Linda Hill in her extremely useful book, Setting Boundaries: How to set boundaries with friends, family, and in relationships, be more assertive, and start saying no without feeling guilty, assertion guilt are those feelings you are likely to experience once you begin to draw lines with the people in your life.
The Christmas and holiday season is a perfect time to practice your personal boundary setting with family and friends. It is also an excellent time to get cozy with the uncomfortable feelings of “assertion guilt”, that is falsely niggling feelings that perhaps you did something wrong by drawing a line with people in your life. Recovering from years of co-dependent dynamics, most people in North America are learning that healthy personal boundaries are actually a requirement to staying both physically and mentally fit for life, and not hedonistic self-indulgence. Overshadowed by poor examples of carpe diem, that is, a model of living for the moment that gave little to no thought to the impact of personal decision-making on loved ones, setting personal boundaries is very different from narcissism.
Many young people today identify emotional wounds caused by what they feel were narcissitic parents who, they believe consistently put their own needs to be happy before the needs of their children. Children of narcissists are great consumers of psychotherapy. They readily self-identify as children of narcissists (CoNs) in therapy, and seem much clearer about the importance of considering others in personal decision-making than previous generations. They are also more and more aware about the need for setting personal boundaries without feelings of guilt. Their own experiences growing up resulted in feelings of neglect and diminished self-concept. Children of narcissists complain that their emotional needs never felt as important as the needs of their parents.
In psychotherapy, the work to build personal boundaries is often the focus of modern interventions post-Covid where physical and social boundaries between work and home have become increasingly blurred. Simply put, setting your boundaries is a form of self-care. Your subconscious and inner emotions are personal and essential to your sense of self that constitute your innermost core. In her first chapter, Hill writes that learning to identify healthy and unhealthy boundaries is a lot harder than you might think. It is learning what is yours and what is NOT yours. Healthy boundaries are connected to all areas of your life including tasks, emotions, time, and finances. Since life is usually complicated, and emotionally messy at times, society struggles with figuring out whose issues or problems are these anyway? When you begin to shift your thinking to accept that your boundaries are like a personal property line, then the work to more deeply understanding how you cope, manage, and deal with your own life and the people in it becomes the central focus.
Helping middle aged women reclaim personal boundaries after years of marriage and child-rearing is especially rewarding work. Empty-nesters need a period of adjustment to an adult lifestyle where personal property lines no longer include roles and responsibilities related to parenting children, adolescents, or young adults still living at home. Early empty nesting is an excellent time to review how your personal boundaries were modified by child-rearing and parenting roles. It is also a perfect time to reclaiming those aspects of early days as newly-weds when your personal boundaries were likely much clearer.
This holiday season affords you opportunities to begin to practice asserting your line with people without evoking feelings of guilt. Practice returning items, products, or orders that are NOT what you expected. Something as simple as correcting your coffee order that is served with sugar when you only requested milk, or speaking up assertively to your hairstylist or customer service representative about your dissatisfaction with a service and clearly correcting mistakes are good first steps. Consider those moments that you feel assertion guilt over service-correction experiences as boundary-setting immersion therapy. What is the worst that can happen when you assert your corrections for a coffee order that you paid for? The wonderful aspect about learning to reclaiming your personal boundaries in a healthy and assertive manner is that the people closest to you begin to learn to set them as well. Healthy boundary setting grows health boundary setting in others.
With regards to family, setting limits on your tasks and finances more in line with your personal availability and budget this holiday season is a healthy first step to drawing lines without feeling guilty. If you discover, that you are feeling guilty over setting limits with the people you love, then I recommend that you buy Linda Hill’s book on Audible, so that you listen to the full contents of her text over the holiday season. Where you continue to struggle with setting personal boundaries with family and friends then you may wish to secure the services of a professional counsellor or psychotherapist to explore more deeply what obstacles are preventing you from asserting your authentic self honestly to the people you love.
Merry Christmas to those who like me continue to celebrate! A cheerful and restful holiday season to all!
Lisa Romano-Dwyer BSc, MSW, PhD, RSW