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No Matter What Anyone Says, Setting Boundaries Isn’t Mean

setting boundaries isn't mean

One of the big reasons we avoid setting boundaries is that we mistakenly think they’re mean, harsh, and controlling. Often, we have these beliefs because others have reacted poorly to our boundaries in the past. Perhaps someone has even told you that your boundaries are mean or wrong. Or you may have experienced conflicts or rejection as a result of trying to set boundaries.

If this has been your experience, let me assure you that you’re not alone! Learning to set boundaries is hard work and it’s often met with resistance from others. However, the problem is not that boundaries are mean or wrong, it’s that we don’t completely understand how to set them and we’re stuck in a people-pleaser mindset – letting others dictate what’s right for us.

What are boundaries and why do we need them?

Boundaries are limits that we set for ourselves and others. I consider them a form of self-care because boundaries are an essential way to take care of your needs. If you don’t have boundaries, people can treat you however they want; there are no rules or guidelines. They can touch you, ask intrusive questions, yell at you, or call you in the middle of the night. It may seem laughable, but without boundaries, a stranger could come into your house, eat all your food, wear your clothes, break your television, and take a nap on your sofa. Most of us wouldn’t be okay with this. If a stranger walked into your house, you’d probably tell them to leave – and you wouldn’t feel guilty about it. So, why do we struggle to tell our friends and family members how they can treat us or how they can behave in our homes?

Your boundaries aren’t “mean” or “wrong” just because someone else doesn’t like them.

Many of us gauge our behavior by how others react. If we receive compliments, we’ve done the right thing. If we’re yelled at or ignored, it’s because we’ve done something wrong. But this is our fear-based people-pleasing at work.  We’re letting other people dictate how we feel and what we do, instead of deciding for ourselves. Boundaries are to take care of and protect yourself, so you’re the only one who can decide if they’re right.

It’s important to recognize that your boundaries aren’t mean, wrong, or selfish because someone else thinks so. That is their opinion – it’s not a fact. And, remember that when others call you mean or selfish, it’s often a manipulation tactic, an attempt to get you to do what they want. Stand true to your boundaries, even if others don’t like them. You’re setting boundaries because you need separation or protection from people who will otherwise act without regard for your needs and feelings.

Boundaries aren’t attempts to control or punish others.

Boundaries also get a bad rap because they’re confused with ultimatums and demands. But there is a significant difference: Boundaries are for your self-care and protection. They are not a way to force people to change or do what you want. We can’t control others, but we can control ourselves and take steps to meet our own needs.

When we set boundaries, we sometimes ask others to make a change, but we have no control over whether they will. For example, I might ask you not to bring food containing nuts to my house because my child is allergic, or I might ask you not to text me after 10 pm because I’m in bed. If you don’t agree or respect my boundaries, I will then take action to protect and take care of myself (or my child in the case of the allergy). I might stop inviting you to my house or block your number. I’m not doing this to be mean or to punish you. And I don’t need to use an angry tone or raise my voice. I just need to be clear and direct.

Boundaries aren’t a way to punish others. They are a way to protect ourselves.

Some people will respond poorly to your boundaries.

The truth is that some people won’t like your boundaries (especially if you’ve let them walk all over you in the past).

However, many people in your life will adjust to your new boundaries. They may initially be confused or threatened by your new-found assertiveness. Or they may not take it seriously and assume you’ll back down and go back to your old ways if they put up a fight. This is understandable, especially if you haven’t maintained and enforced your boundaries in the past. Things often get worse before they get better. But most people will adjust to your boundaries and learn to respect them. Some, of course, will continue to resist. And as I said, they may accuse you of being mean, selfish, or difficult because they don’t want to respect your boundaries.

Boundaries improve relationships.

Boundaries actually make relationships easier. If this seems confusing, think about what it’s like when other people set boundaries with you. Don’t you appreciate it when your employer sets clear boundaries and tells you specifically what is expected? You probably have a policy and procedure manual or a contract that spells out exactly what you can and can’t do at work. You may disagree or find all the rules cumbersome, but it’s better than having no boundaries or limits in the workplace. In generations past, that allowed employers to take advantage of their employees, to mistreat them, and for hostile or unsafe work environments.

Boundaries also make personal relationships better. Children feel safe and secure when their parents set clear boundaries and intimate relationships and friendships have fewer conflicts when both parties are clear about their needs and expectations. And when we don’t set boundaries, we often become resentful and angry – which isn’t good for us or our relationships.

Instead of thinking of boundaries as mean or harsh, try to think about them as inherently respectful because they communicate your expectations and help others understand how to interact with you – what’s okay and what’s not okay. This decreases misunderstandings and sets the stage for direct and clear communication in all of your relationships.


Read more about boundaries

How to Figure Out What Boundaries You Need

How to Set Boundaries with Kindness

How to Deal with People Who Repeatedly Violate your Boundaries

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©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

No Matter What Anyone Says, Setting Boundaries Isn’t Mean

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is a licensed psychotherapist and codependency expert practicing in San Jose, CA. She is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.  

To learn more, visit Sharon's website. And please sign-up for free access to her resource library HERE (worksheets, tips, meditations, and resources for healing codependency, perfectionism, anxiety and more).

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2020). No Matter What Anyone Says, Setting Boundaries Isn’t Mean. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Mar 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.