How to Overcome the Fear of Setting Boundaries in Relationships

By Michelle Farris, Psychotherapist and Codependency Expert.

If you are afraid to set boundaries in relationships, you’re not alone. When you struggle with codependency, even the thought of setting boundaries feels terrifying because you … 

Assume the worst. 

Think other people are going to be mad at you.

Don’t trust yourself enough to say the right thing.

In other words, by not setting boundaries, you put everyone else’s needs ahead of yours and pay the price.

You can’t say no or admit that you’re tired of helping. The fear of being perceived as selfish keeps you from doing anything on your own behalf. 

In this article you’ll learn how to overcome the fear of setting boundaries and take baby steps towards right action. 

Why are boundaries so important?

Setting boundaries helps you take care of yourself in relationships. While taking care of others may come naturally to you, ignoring your own needs makes building healthy relationships almost impossible. 

Most people who struggle with codependent behaviors have a huge heart. You’d rather say yes and be helpful than risk potentially upsetting someone else. 

You give even when it hurts you.

Knowing that you need to set boundaries isn’t always enough to take action. At some point you realize that something needs to change but can’t let yourself take that risk.  

Goal: Explore what keeps you from setting boundaries in your life. Let your fears bubble up so they can be examined without judgment.

The Fear of Setting Boundaries Starts in Childhood 

In dysfunctional families, children learn to be quiet and get out of the way. While this may have kept you safe as a child, staying silent creates relationship problems in the long run. 

For instance, growing up not having a voice. Some people experienced ridicule or abuse for having the courage to be the truth-teller in a dysfunctional family system.

It simply wasn’t safe to be yourself.

As a result, you kept quiet pretending that everything was okay when it wasn’t. Fast forward into adulthood, that fear turned into anxiety because you couldn’t slow down or give yourself a break. Other people’s needs became more important than yours.

That needs to stop.

Recovery includes giving yourself permission to have a better life. 

Even when you’re not ready to take action, simply declaring your intentions can be a starting point. Otherwise, you end up blaming yourself instead of allowing your voice to be heard.

Another way to work on the fear is to uncover any negative assumptions from childhood that contribute to not being able to set boundaries. 

Here is a list of common assumptions:

  • It’s not okay to speak up.
  • Others will think I’m selfish.
  • Setting boundaries will lead to conflict.
  • Speaking up always makes things worse.
  • Other people don’t care about what I need.

Goal: Identify old beliefs from childhood and create new ones that support self-care.

Identify the Way of Setting Boundaries

The next step in overcoming the fear of setting boundaries is identifying what’s in the way. 

If you grew up with any kind of rage or abuse, boundaries seem like more trouble than they’re worth. You might assume that setting a boundary will create conflict instead of making your life easier.  

Here are a few questions to help you move past the fear of setting boundaries. 

1. What do you need in relationships? 

If you struggle with people pleasing, you’re probably great at knowing what other people need but not great at knowing what YOU need because you have spent your life focusing on others.  

Write down what YOU want and need in relationships. For instance, what do you need to feel safe or feel respected?

2. Do you think you have the right to set boundaries? 

To begin setting boundaries, let yourself off the hook. It’s okay to be afraid or to not want to set boundaries at all.

Positive change happens when you’re willing to name the fear and take baby steps to move past it.

3. Do you have safe people to set boundaries with? 

Setting boundaries will be difficult with people who don’t honor what you need. Toxic or abusive people by nature don’t respect other people’s boundaries. They will make you feel guilty for having needs at all.

Find a support system like Al-Anon or CODA where you can share openly while getting the support you need to heal.

Make a list of any friends or family that have consistently shown you love and respect.

Start Small When Trying to Set Boundaries 

When starting to set boundaries, practice with people who care about your well-being. A boundary can be any opportunity to speak up or ask for what you want. 

Most people struggle with boundaries because they don’t start small enough. For instance, the next time someone asks where you want to go – tell them! Suggest a new restaurant or pick the movie. The key to being successful is to try something that’s doable.

Final Thoughts 

Working through the fear of setting boundaries starts by acknowledging where you’re at without judgment. Feeling stuck in fear is part of the process of recovery. Let yourself move through your fears at your own pace. That is recovery!

Michelle Farris, psychotherapist and codependency expert. Learn more about Michelle and get her FREE prompts for Self-care & Setting Boundaries in Codependency

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