Guilt Over Setting Boundaries



Key ideas:

[00:00] – Introduction

[0:44] – A simple metaphor for clarifying what boundaries are

[01:21] – The rights and responsibilities that go with owning boundaries

[02:33] – The rights and responsibilities that don’t belong to you

[02:42] – The reason abuse makes it so hard to set boundaries

[04:27] – The purpose and message behind emotion

[05:28] – The temporary state of emotions

[06:09] – The purpose and message behind the emotion of guilt

[09:46] – The difference between healthy guilt and false guilt

[10:51] – Guilt isn’t the only motivation for doing good

[11:54] – False guilt and enabling

[12:44] – How abuse and neglect from my parents led to taking responsibility for their feelings

[13:32] – The rules I learned to live by to keep me safer and accepted by my parents

[14:44] – Feeling guilty for setting boundaries with my parents

[16:45] – How to take back your boundaries

[17:22] – What to do when the guilt comes up

[21:01] – Examples of guilt messages and how to respond to them

Relevant Links:

Free Resource: Discern Guilt Versus False Guilt

Related Episode:

Saying Yes When You Mean No

Overcoming Toxic Shame




“Guilt is an unpleasant emotion, which means it’s meant to feel bad. So the first thing I want you to notice is that it’s only an emotion. It’s a sensation in your body, and it doesn’t actually harm you. It only feels uncomfortable. That’s the worst it can do.” 

“What if guilt isn’t the only motivation for doing things for people? What if you’re really clear on where your responsibility begins and ends and you do things out of love rather than guilt? What if it was a sense of giving rather than giving something up? What if it you got to experience the joy of true giving because you know you have a choice?”


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Episode transcript: 

Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse Podcast, where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host, Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author, and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life.

After the violation of abuse, it can feel wrong to deny access to things that actually belong to you. What’s yours, doesn’t feel like yours, and that can trigger feelings of guilt. When you start to say no, I’ll lead you through some simple exercises. So guilt will never stand between you and your boundaries again.

An easy way to think about boundaries is to imagine a walled garden. Walled gardens have existed for thousands of years and they still exist today. And if you’ve read the book, the Secret Garden, that’s an example of a walled garden. These walled gardens typically have very tall walls, and originally all gardens may have been enclosed for protection from animals or even human intruders. Walls were important because in previous periods in history when food wasn’t as easy to come by, the contents of gardens were very valuable.

Garden walls create a place for the plants to flourish. They protect the vegetation from temperature extremes. They keep them cooler in the summer and then they keep them warmer in the winter. Not only that, but walls provide a private, quiet, calm atmosphere. It’s a different world.

You’re protected from the noise and any other outside distractions. Now imagine you have a garden and you get to enjoy the peace and safety within the garden walls. All the flowers, the fruit, the vegetables, the herbs, they’re all yours, and you can decide where to plant things and what else comes into the garden and who else comes into the garden.

Not only is the garden there for you to enjoy, it’s yours to care for. It’s yours to water and to prune to weed, and then to fertilize. So you have the rights of the garden and you have the responsibilities for the garden and the walls designate where your rights and responsibilities begin and end with everything inside the walls are yours and everything outside the walls are not yours.

So plants might grow outside of your garden walls, but those aren’t your plants. So it’s not your responsibility to care for them, but it’s also not your right to enjoy them.

Now imagine some more with me. Imagine that you’re born as the owner of this beautiful garden, but before you even recognize and know that you’re the owner, a thief comes in and freely takes anything he wants as though he owns the garden. Though unlike a true owner, he doesn’t take responsibility for the garden, he doesn’t care for it. He only takes. Then, let’s say you become old enough to assume care of the garden, but all you’ve ever known is this other person he’s been acting as though he’s the owner. And that’s what you think. You come to think of him as the owner as well. You’ve never been allowed to enjoy the peace of the garden for yourself. You’ve never been allowed to decide who comes into your garden and who you wanna keep out. And even if you were shown the deeded of ownership of the garden with your name on it, it would be very strange to think of the garden as yours. And if you tried to establish yourself as the owner taking back ownership, that person who’s been taking what’s yours feels entitled to it, he’ll likely react as though you’re the one who’s stealing from him. And it probably feels like that to you too.

And chances are, there have been many people who have invaded your garden. And every time another person takes what yours, it’s likely felt like it was less and less yours. Can you start to see then how natural it would be to feel guilty for taking ownership of what actually belongs to you?

So let’s take a deeper dive into guilt to do that, let’s talk about emotions in general, because guilt is an emotion. And like all emotions, it carries a message that prompts us to a particular action. So pleasant emotions tell you to repeat an action while unpleasant ones tell you to change something. An example of that is if I gave you a gift and that feels gratifying, that gratifying feeling is a pleasant emotion. So I’m likely to keep giving. And let’s say I start giving too much, that might start to feel exhausting and I might start to feel resentful because I’m not taking care of my needs and that resentment is an unpleasant emotion, and that tells me to change something. So unpleasant. Emotions are meant to feel uncomfortable because without the discomfort, you wouldn’t be motivated to change.

Now, the other thing to know is that your emotions are temporary. They’re meant to be learned from, acted on and then released. And a lot of people consider certain emotional states to be a permanent part of their lives or even their identity, like I’m an angry person, or I’m depressed. And that’s because if you don’t act on them, they may not be temporary. And when you understand the helpful messages behind all emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, then you’re empowered to make the necessary changes so then you can shift out of them. You don’t need them anymore.

So guilt is an unpleasant emotion, which means it’s meant to feel bad. So the first thing I want you to notice is that it’s only an emotion. It’s a sensation in your body, and it doesn’t actually harm you. It only feels uncomfortable. That’s the worst it can do. 

So let’s look at what guilt is actually prompting you to do. What’s the action it’s asking you to take? You might notice that guilt and shame feel similar. And I’m talking about healthy shame here, not toxic shame. In episode three, I talked about overcoming toxic shame, and I shared the differences between healthy shame and toxic shame. And just for some clarity, healthy shame is actually good for us. It helps us maintain the standards of the tribe so that we continue to belong to that tribe. It’s been necessary for all of human survival to belong to a tribe.

And even though we have more flexibility with our tribe these days, in previous periods of history, you couldn’t just change your tribe if you were kicked out of one, that was a death sentence. Now we have other options. If we are kicked out of one tribe, we can find another one. However, belonging to a tribe is still vital to our survival and wellbeing. With that in mind, it’s healthy to have shame because standards and expectations provide a sense of certainty that our brain interprets as safe without standards, as civilization just falls apart.

So when we deviate from the standard, it threatens our place in the tribe. So shame prompts us to modify our behavior so then we can conform to the tribe standards. The example I used is running around naked. Most adults feel shame about that because it doesn’t fit in with our societal norms. I’m thankful for that. And notice that in some cultures that is normal and people in those cultures don’t feel shame. So that’s an example of healthy shame. And then in toxic shame, that’s when it’s not about what you do, but it’s about who you are. There’s nothing you can do to be acceptable. It’s not about changing your behavior, there’s just something wrong with you. So all there is left to do is to hide it and try to overcompensate or distract from it.

So we’re not talking about toxic shame, we’re talking about that healthy shame, and that comes from violating the code or standards of the tribe. So guilt is similar to that. It’s telling you that you violated a standard, but it’s not the tribe standards, it’s your own standard. So shame tells you to protect the relationship with the tribe, but guilt tells you to protect your relationship with yourself. And guilt is triggered when you violate your own code and act against your own principles. It’s that sense that I’ve done something wrong. And guilt is meant to move you back in line with the code of conduct that keeps you in integrity with yourself. And when you’re in integrity with yourself, that feels good. So guilt prompts you back to this right loving, healthy connection with your true self and it leads to your highest good.

You might feel guilty when you don’t take care of things you’re responsible for. However, you might also feel guilty for things that are not your responsibility, and that’s false guilt. If you think about your walled garden, you might not tend to your own garden since it doesn’t feel like yours, but you might tend to gardens outside of your walls. And when you think it’s your job to tend to other people’s gardens, you might feel guilty for not caring for them. And that’s false guilt.

It’s healthy for guilt to be triggered when you don’t take care of your responsibilities. Like if you leave your toddlers to fend for themselves over a weekend. It would be healthy to feel guilty about that. And hopefully you wouldn’t do that. 

And if the reason you left your children was because your mother felt like you weren’t spending enough time with her, that would be false guilt because your mother’s feelings aren’t yours to be responsible for. 

And when I say things like that that your mother’s feelings aren’t yours to be responsible for, uh, that sounds shocking to some people. Wait a minute, what about should we just ignore people’s needs and feelings?And does that mean I should just be cold toward people? And that’s not at all what I’m suggesting. Actually just the opposite, because what if guilt isn’t the only motivation for doing things for people? What if you’re really clear on where your responsibility begins and ends and you do things out of love rather than guilt? What if it was a sense of giving rather than giving something up? What if you got to experience the joy of true giving because you knew you had a choice? And what if you didn’t feel pulled in a hundred different directions at once and still feel like you’re never doing enough? Because that’s where so much of that I’m not doing enough. Feeling comes from when you’re outside working on someone else’s garden. And that might look like taking responsibility for other people’s emotions. Oh, I don’t want ’em to feel rejected, or I can’t say no because they’ll feel bad. And maybe you take responsibility for their thoughts. I don’t want them to think I’m selfish or mean, or you might take responsibility for their circumstances. I can’t let them fail. And false guilt is that bottomless pit. There’s that moment of relief, but then there’s always more and more and more and more to do. It’s like this debt that can never be repaid. And that’s because what’s outside of your responsibility, what’s outside of your garden is endless. You were only meant to take responsibility for what’s inside your garden walls, not to take on the gardens of the world.

Now, I lived in these dysfunctional patterns with my parents, and when I was a kid, I took care of my parents’ emotions out of survival. If they were happier, they took better care of me. My mom hated when I expressed my individuality. She wanted me to do things like her think like she did to like the same things that she liked. And when I didn’t, then she rejected me and notice that that rejection is an unpleasant emotion, and it prompted me to change my behavior. So my mother would be happy with me, with my dad. He’d come home upset and my mom and brother and I knew we had to tiptoe around him because the tiniest thing could trigger a rage. So it was safer to keep him happy.

Remember that guilt is triggered by the violation of a standard or rule. So what rule did that create in me? Well, my rule became thou shalt make everyone happy or thou shalt not let anyone be unhappy. And that set me up to be responsible for other people’s happiness, compliance and being nice allowed me to belong and be included. And that was safe, that was survival. That was important. When I didn’t have any actual power except to please and appease, imagine saying, I’m not gonna be responsible for your emotions anymore, Dad, you need to stop blaming me for your anger and your anger. And what you do with it is actually your responsibility. If I’d said that I might not be here. And of course, I didn’t have a clue about any of those things. As far as I knew I was responsible for his happiness. 

And while I was focused on his garden, I didn’t think I had a right to my own garden. His sexual violations left me believing my garden actually belonged to him, that he had a right to it. And when I started experimenting with owning my own thoughts and ways of doing things, and I wanted to be the boss of my own life, I was in my early forties or so and I felt guilty. I had violated that happiness rule and that guilt alarm sounded inside of me and it felt very uncomfortable not to obey that alarm. But other people’s happiness is in their garden. I can’t make anyone happy.

I felt false guilt because I accepted my parents’ expectations as rules I needed to follow. They believed they were entitled to my unquestioning loyalty, submission and devotion. And my guilty feelings came from accepting those standards as my own. I adopted those. So when I sinned against those standards, I felt guilty.

I used to say, my mom makes me feel guilty when I say no to her as though my mom was responsible for my feelings. And the truth is the guilt was mine. Nobody has the power to make me feel guilty. It’s my feeling. It’s on my property, it’s in my garden, and it’s my responsibility not to be manipulated by guilt or anything else. It’s my responsibility to choose and live by my own standards, not anyone else’s. And I’m not a victim of anyone else’s desire for me to feel guilty. But that false guilt is so ingrained because it was established as survival. It was also just as much survival to abandon your own garden.

If you didn’t have anyone who had talked to you about owning your body and telling you to come to them. If someone else tried to own it, it was survival to comply. You were on your own. What could you do about it? You couldn’t have said, Hey, you don’t have a right to touch me. So you work with what you have to keep yourself safe.

And now and now circumstances are different and it’s safe to take back your garden. So how do you do that? With all of the false guilt and the confusion about who really owns the garden? It’s not gonna feel like false guilt. It’s gonna feel like guilt, and you’re gonna wanna stop feeling that discomfort and you’re gonna want to comply with that to stop feeling it.

Let’s talk about how to process that when that guilty feeling comes up. So it’s completely normal and to be expected to feel guilty when you start to set new boundaries. So allow for feelings of guilt, expect them. You can tell yourself, there’s nothing abnormal about this. This isn’t a malfunction. I’ve been functioning with this set set of standards and with these thoughts and behaviors for a long time, and it’s uncomfortable to learn new ways. This feels bad because it’s unfamiliar and it sun feels unsafe, but it’s not actually unsafe. And tell yourself that guilt is an emotion and it’s only temporary, then you can use this guilt trigger as an opportunity to explore and in a way, clean out or purge old standards and rules that might not serve you anymore. So the thing to ask yourself is what do you believe is wrong? What specific rule have you broken? What standards are you violating? And name it the way that I did. Thou shalt make everyone happy. And when you name it, you can question that standard or rule if it’s something you wanna continue to live by and you can say, yes, this is a standard that I like, or no, this isn’t a rule that I want. And continue to probe and say, does this feel impossibly high? Is this something that’s been imposed from someone else? Does this principle align with who you wanna be? Or is it a rule you wanna eliminate? And something to consider is what are the results or fruit of this action If you continue to follow this rule, do you like the results of that? Maybe not just now, but also over time. What happened if you followed this rule indefinitely and consistently? What if everyone followed the same rule? Would you like the results of that? And now, what if you wanna eliminate the rule? What if you see as you identify it that you don’t want that rule anymore? What is something else that you can replace that with, such as I might replace my rule: Thou shalt make everyone else happy with Thou shalt not take responsibility for everyone else’s happiness. However, if you do want to live by the principle that you violated, what do you need to do to get back into alignment with your principles? So let’s say you discover, yeah, that’s a rule that I want, that isn’t false guilt. That is a rule that I wanna keep. So then that guilt is prompting you to make some sort of change. So what change is gonna get you back into alignment with your principles? What adjustments do you need to make there?

So I’ll give you some examples of some of the ways these old familiar guilt messages come in, these internal accusations that I make to tell me that I’m wrong for setting boundaries. And then I’ll show you some examples of some responses to this. So one is that person has done so much for me. So you might say, do you believe you have to tolerate everything or anything a person does? If they’ve done something good for you, do you believe that their wanted actions cancel your right to object to those unwanted actions? Do you believe your appreciation for them obligates you? Do you believe that love equals obligation? Either someone else’s love for you or your love for someone else?

Another one might be, uh, but I’m just too sensitive. I shouldn’t set this boundary. It. I’m just too sensitive. Do you believe there’s something less valuable about you or you’re less deserving of care because you’re more sensitive? Do you believe you have to expose yourself to things that hurt you simply because other people wouldn’t find those things hurtful? 

All right, here’s another one. I’m being unfair. So do you think that others are more entitled to what they want than you are to what you want? What belief makes you more concerned with being fair to them over being fair to you? And what do you believe about what they deserve versus what you deserve? 

Okay, here’s the last one. I expect too much. My standards are too high. Who do you believe has the right to decide your standards other than you?And who defines what standards are too high, too much, or just right? Do you believe you’re imposing your standards on someone else when you set a particular standard of treatment for yourself? If so, then make sure you’re not confusing control with boundaries, because boundaries are deciding what’s right for you, not trying to force anything on other people.

So when you set boundaries, remember you’re not taking something that belongs to someone else. You’re taking back what belongs to you, you’re protecting what’s yours. And remember that guilt is only a feeling. My my feelings of guilt have come and gone lots and lots of times. But what has stayed consistent is my experience of joy and freedom and peace that comes from setting boundaries. And with being able to invest in my own garden, I am overflowing with all this loving energy to share with those I choose in the ways that I choose when I choose and how much I choose.

Well, thanks for joining me today. If you’d like a worksheet for discerning feelings of guilt versus false guilt and challenging those old survival rules, then you can download that for free. Just go to the show notes page at 

And when you download that, be sure to accept my invitation to subscribe to my emails. And I’m gonna send you lots of healing tips and resources, and I’m bringing you way more stuff on healing boundaries, self-care, family dysfunction, and all that great stuff. So be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss anything.

Guilt Over Setting Boundaries
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