"I am consumed by guilt all the time. I can't say no to a friend, and I can't say no at work because all I feel is guilt. I don't know how to set a boundary because it makes me feel guilty to do so. Help!" - 29, F, NY
Crippled with a feeling of guilt over every little thing? Want to set a boundary but feel like you can’t? Let’s talk about unearned guilt. Guilt is the emotion we feel when we act against our own moral standards. However, one major distinction to make with guilt is to determine whether it is earned or unearned. We may feel guilty often, but does that mean we have earned the guilt every single time?
Earned guilt is the rational emotional experience that occurs when we violate our own moral values. Unearned guilt is the emotional experience that follows when we violate irrational moral standards or values. Earned guilt may be experienced when we lie or steal. Unearned guilt may be experienced when our loved ones emotionally blackmail us. For example, your parents tell you that you “owe” them respect because they raised you when you try to express a boundary. Unearned guilt can be deeply crippling and often inhibits folks from expressing their needs, setting expectations, or establishing boundaries.
Here are three things to consider if this is an experience you often have: First, whenever you experience a sense of guilt, ask yourself “what am I feeling guilty for?” We want to be able to define the guilt and sense of responsibility we are feeling and putting on ourselves. If you cannot clearly articulate what is causing this guilt, there’s a good chance that you may be taking on unearned guilt.
Second, try to identify YOUR values. Your values may be different than those of your parents, your siblings, your peers, or the society you exist in. Now, try to live in accordance with your value system so that you can come back to “self.”
Lastly, don’t confuse boundaries with selfishness. We often feel guilty with even the thought of setting a boundary. “But they will feel so bad if I don’t see them for dinner” “I have to respond to this text immediately, otherwise I am a bad friend.” Sound familiar? We are all entitled to personal solitude, and sometimes we need to set a gentle boundary in order to attain that. Boundaries not only help YOU, but also help the relationship you are setting a boundary in. See boundary setting as serving the purpose of preserving the friendship/relationship rather than hurting it. For example, let's say you say "yes" every time your friend asks you to come out. Monday through Friday, you are there when they call you. Not setting a boundary will result in you draining yourself emotionally and financially, eventually resulting in you not being able to see them at all OR being emotionally drained in your relationship with them. Setting a boundary allows you to be intentional in your friendship, enjoy the time you spend together, and sustain the relationship.