Don’t Be Afraid to Set Boundaries

Does the fear of offending friends or family members keep you from setting
It’s a timely topic with the holidays fast approaching.

Therapist, Julie Hanks, says it’s ok to set boundaries, even if you offend

Q: Why are we afraid to set boundaries that might offend someone?

You might mistakenly confuse boundaries with aggression or with using a
“sword” stance. It might feel “mean” to you to do something that you know
will contribute to another person’s pain, or you may feel responsible for
other people’s emotions.

It’s helpful to think of these 3 relationship stances when setting boundaries:

Doormat – This passive stance is characterized by a lack of
awareness of
own feelings, highly valuing pleasing others, devaluing own wants and needs,
and feeling “run over” by others. You value other’s emotional needs above

Sword – In this reactive stance, you’re emotionally “on guard”,
lashing out at
slightest hint of emotional threat, on “high alert”. You might let emotions
build up and then explode with cutting words, snide remarks, or become
cold and aloof and unavailable. You value your own self-protection over
other’s needs.

Lantern – In this enlightened stance, your “emotional” feet are
planted firmly
on the ground. There is a feeling of calmness as you seek a broader
perspective. When you do get upset you don’t ignore it or react to it but seek
understanding. You value your own and other’s emotions and desires and
take responsibility for your part.

Q: Why are we afraid to tell people what we need or what we want?

We don’t want to jeopardize our relationships. We are afraid of isolation or
rejection, or we are afraid to hurt those we love because that causes us pain

Q: Do we worry too much about other people’s feelings?

We do worry about other’s feelings to much when it comes to boundaries. I
worked with a couple recently whose family always stays with them during
the holidays. Just having had a new baby, this couple was not feeling up to
having house-guests, yet they were hesitant to take a stand. We talked about
the importance of concentric circles of relationships. In the core is self-care,
then the next ring is the marriage relationship, then parenting, then
extended family—in that order and challenged them to set boundaries, even
if feelings are hurt.

Q: Are women more afraid to offend other than men are?

Women in particular are hard wired and socialized to highly value
relationships and emotional bonds. I had a client whose friend constantly
badmouthed her own ex-husband. While she wanted to supportive she was
sick of hearing complaining. I encouraged her to honor herself and her own
needs first, hold up a “lantern” to the situation and state what she saw was
going on. For example, “I can tell this divorce has taken its toll on you and
you’re really angry with Tim. Of course you are. However, I’m getting worn
down by the topic and wondering if it would be more helpful for you to talk
to a therapist because I’m not sure what to say anymore.”

Q: What if others don’t respect our boundaries?

There’s nothing more frustrating than setting clear boundaries and not being
heard valued, or taken seriously. I worked with a woman whose adult son
lived at home and refused to get a job. She needed him to take responsibility
for his life but she felt like he was ignoring her and wasn’t taking action. We
worked to help her set a clear, firm timeline of when he needed to start
paying rent or find another place to live. Instead of trying to make him get a
job, I helped her shift to setting firm boundaries in areas that she hat she
could control (like who lived in her house).

Q: Is it harder to set boundaries with certain people?

Some people don’t like being told “no” and may resort to a “sword” stance if
you do. If there’s underlying tension, unresolved issues, or insecurities in the
relationship it may be harder to set boundaries.

A common dynamic I see in my practice is tense in-law relationships. There
was one situation where a client’s mother-in-law kept trying to parent her
kids when she was there, what food he could or couldn’t eat. I suggested that
she take her mother-in-law aside and using a lantern stance, acknowledge
her mother-in-laws good intentions and ask her not to step into a parenting
role without being invited.

Q: Why do we protect other people at our own expense?

We protect others at our own expense because we think it’s the “right”, nice,
loving thing to do. You may have been taught not to express yourself or it
may be hard for you to know how you feel and what you want.

This is a common dynamic especially during the holidays. Holiday traditions
with extended family often trump the individual and family needs. I’ve
worked with many families who want to deviate from family traditions but
know that others will be “hurt” by their decision.

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Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is a therapist, self & relationship expert, media
contributor and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Visit
for individual, couple, family, &
counseling services designed to strengthen you and your family. We treat
mental health and relationship problems in children, adolescents, and adults.
Now open in Provo!
For additional emotional health & relationship resources connect with Julie at

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