Boundaries and Guilt, part one (Episode 49)

In this episode, Kay Coughlin starts to tackle the tough and sensitive topic of why we feel so guilty when we set boundaries. Listen to this episode (49) to learn about the critical difference between guilt and shame, and to learn why we have a misconception that telling people about our boundaries is not polite. In the next episode (50) Kay will talk directly about how to handle the guilt that is so common and normal when we set and hold boundaries.

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Boundaries and Guilt (Episode 49)

Hi there. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin and you’re listening to From One Caregiver To Another. I am a sandwich family caregiver. I have kids at home and I am the primary caregiver for my own mother. And I don’t believe the old stories and traditions about being a caregiver have to be true for us. I believe we can have dreams, even when we have caregiver responsibilities. We have value as individuals. We deserve to say no and to have our own lives.  Nobody can do it all of course, but we can decide what’s okay with us, what’s not okay with us, and we can dare to be ourselves. This is episode 49.

All right so I’ve got just a little bit of housekeeping here before we dive in to today’s topic, which is boundaries and guilt. My four week workshop on boundaries and the holidays begins October 19th. This would be a great workshop for you if you feel like there is something you don’t like about the way your family or community celebrates the holidays, but you don’t know how to tell them without feeling guilty. For a lot of us, this looks like showing up for the holidays year after year, doing the same things that make us uncomfortable, but pretending to be happy anyway, because we don’t want to disappoint somebody. Registration for this workshop is open now. Go to my website at slash LearnMore to find the link to register.

Today’s episode is going to be part one of two episodes about boundaries and guilt. I decided to split this into two episodes because as I sat down to write what I thought was going to be just one bigger episode, I realized I needed to talk about three very different things and it was just too much to take in all at once. The first two of these I’m going to cover in today’s episode, and they are the difference between guilt and shame, and that’s the first one. And then confusion about boundaries and whether or not it’s polite to communicate about boundaries.

So then next week, what I’m going to cover in the episode is how to actually handle the guilt that does go along with doing the work of setting boundaries most of the time.

I want to tell you that I know some of this could be very challenging to hear, and that’s okay. As you listen, you could feel like arguing with me or you might feel defensive. I want to really encourage you to pay attention to those thoughts and feelings and to what’s going on in your body, any tension or discomfort you’re feeling there. If you can, make a note of what’s going on when you listen to this, because it’s really useful information to know about yourself, and you might want to share some of it with a therapist or a life coach or a support group at some point.

If you can, pay attention in a way that’s curious. And that’s what I’m describing here. Make a note of what’s going on with you. That’s just a great way to open your mind and heart to learning about things that are hard for you.

Why do I even want to talk about guilt? Well, it is the most common question I hear about setting and holding boundaries.

There are lots of versions of this question, but it usually sounds a lot like one of these three things. The question will be when I set boundaries, how can I deal with the guilt? Or it might sound like if I set boundaries won’t I disappoint people? And when most people talk about disappointing other people, that’s just a code word for feeling guilty.

And then the third way this shows up, it sounds something like this. If I set a boundary, people will think I’m not polite. Which is yet another code phrase that we use to talk about just another aspect of guilt.

And please let me assure you that I do understand this issue of guilt in the very core of my heart, because it’s something that I believed for the first 45 years of my life. That if I set boundaries that the guilt for me would be unmanageable. Now I want you to know that I set boundaries anyway, even though I didn’t understand what boundaries really were. And I didn’t know what I was doing but I found myself in a few situations that were just so uncomfortable or unhealthy for me that I felt like I was setting these boundaries for the simple survival of my own soul.

I was suffering. And I just knew that I couldn’t take it anymore, but because I didn’t know enough about guilt, I still suffered from a lot of guilt after I set boundaries. Now after I set the boundaries, I suffered a lot less, but there was still suffering there because of the guilt. Well, now I understand so much more about guilt and I don’t suffer from it anymore, at least not for long.

And I want you to know that if I could do this, if I could get to this place where guilt doesn’t rule my life, I know you can do it too.

So I want to start by giving you my definition. These are not dictionary definitions. They are my functional definitions. I use these for myself and with my clients to help us all understand and kind of be on the same page about my take on boundaries.

So let’s begin with what is guilt? The first part of this definition is, and it’s really a two-part definition, is that at its most basic, a boundary is a decision you make about what’s okay and what’s not okay with you. The second part of the definition then is that a boundary is a decision you make about what you will do when a boundary is crossed or violated, which means a boundary is not about punishing or controlling or changing somebody else.

If you want to go deeper into this definition of what a boundary really is and what it’s not go listen to episode 33 of this podcast.

One of the reasons boundaries can be painful in gosh, just a lot of ways, is that setting and holding boundaries – and a good example of that is telling someone, no, that’s a boundary – well, setting those boundaries and communicating that to people, forces you and them to grow and stretch and stretching hurts.

If you think about stretching your body, then think about how your body resists literally being stretched. But over time, it’s that stretch that allows you to be more flexible and helps your body be healthier and better able to deal with new things that come your way or maybe even some unexpected moves or changes that you need to make.

Well, boundaries are like that too. They stretch your mind and they stretch your heart so that you become more mature and more emotionally flexible and also more resilient and better able to deal with whatever comes your way in life. But that comes at a price and the price is the stretch.

All right. So now I want to define what guilt is and what shame is. They are very different things, but we humans tend to confuse them. In fact, we confuse them most of the time. I also want to tell you, they are both normal emotions to feel, and there is nothing wrong with you if you carry them around in your head and in your heart, like most of us do.

Guilt is what you feel when you do something wrong. So guilt is about actions you take or don’t take.

Shame then, is what you feel when you think you are wrong as a person. So shame is more about believing you are wrong to be who you are. It’s about your identity.

Spoiler alert here. I truly believe that no person is wrong to be exactly who they are, to have their own identity. So whoever you are right now, you are worthy and you are deserving and you have value. And I’m not going to budge from that. I believe that in my heart, I know that to be true.

So feeling guilt well, that’s related to something you did or didn’t do, and it’s actually a pretty useful emotion. Feeling shame is just as normal to feel, unfortunately, but it’s not a useful emotion and it’s never appropriate to tell someone else that they should feel ashamed. Telling someone they ought to feel ashamed is a judgment of their value as a human being when really, my value and your value and their value as a human being is never in question.

So let me give you a couple of examples here to clear this up. If you snuck a cookie out of the pantry at your uncle’s house when you were a little kid and somebody said you should be ashamed of yourself, well they were misusing the idea of shame. Because shame is about identity and taking a cookie out of the pantry or taking anything out of the pantry or doing anything really just doesn’t have any impact on your value as a human being.

But if, as an adult, you stole that whole cookie jar from that same uncle, and someone said, are you guilty of that or not? Well that person is using the term guilt accurately, because you did act in a way that you knew was wrong and they’re challenging you on it.

We all make mistakes and do things wrong from time to time, or we forget to do things. And that’s just part of being human. And that is when it’s appropriate to feel some guilt or talk about guilt with someone else. Guilt actually keeps us accountable to our communities. That doesn’t make it fun, but that does make it useful.

But it is never ever okay to tell someone to be ashamed. We do it all the time, which is why this is so confusing. But the more you learn about this, you will begin to see the difference and that it’s harmful to keep confusing guilt and shame. They are not interchangeable. And it’s this confusion that is the reason we feel so much anxiety about the idea of setting boundaries. Guilt is hard enough to handle, but shaming you is telling you that you don’t have value as a person. And it’s never ever true.

And when you don’t even know the difference, when you can’t even distinguish between whether or not you are feeling guilt or shame while that can be especially painful. So I’m going to talk about feeling shame first. If shame is all about believing you are wrong as a person, that your identity is flawed or wrong and that you don’t have value, well, then the solution to that is to change that belief.

You can take all of the power out of shame in your own life if you can change that belief. Nobody can tell you to be ashamed of yourself if you don’t believe in shame anymore. Look, I’m not going to pretend that changing this belief is easy because most of us have been living with some kind of shame for a really big part of our lives. And me too, I’m included in this, but I will tell you that it is possible to change this belief. I’ve done it. I work on this for myself every day and I help my clients do.

But shame is actually not the primary topic of today’s episode. I just wanted to clear up the confusion between guilt and shame.

So next then I want to talk about the idea that boundaries aren’t polite.

Most of us have been taught that we can’t tell someone they violated our boundaries because it would not be polite or it would hurt their feelings. If someone violates your boundaries, especially, and listen to me here, especially if they touch your body in a way you don’t want, or if they steal time from you by volunteering you to do something you did not agree to do, that person is the one who broke the rules of courtesy.

First, that person is actually being rude to you by ignoring your boundaries. Something we tend to conveniently forget – and probably it’s because we are taught this in a lot of tiny ways throughout our lives – we forget that being polite is a two way street. People owe it to you just as much as you owe it to them.

Take a moment now and just think about that idea that people owe you courtesy too. That we owe it to each other in relationships. And it’s not a one-way street where one person has to be courteous, always, for the sake of the other person.

Now, I just want to take a minute here and tell you that a lot of times when someone is accusing you of being rude or of not being polite, it’s because they actually want you to be passive. They don’t want you to be assertive and say what you need. They would really rather prefer, and it will be a lot better for them, if you would just keep your mouth closed. So they accuse you of being rude, which is just another way of saying aggressive. And a lot of people simply just don’t want to be seen as aggressive.

You don’t owe it to anybody to be passive when your boundaries are being crossed, that is not how courtesy works. Speaking up when someone has already been impolite to you is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself. And if you want to, you can still be thoughtful and even courteous when you tell them to.

But look, they were the ones who broke the rules of politeness and courtesy in the first place. So you can just be blunt if you need to definitely be as clear as you need to be, so that the person who violates your boundary can hear what you are really saying.

If you are being polite because you don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings, please know that you literally cannot hurt somebody else’s feelings. Nobody has that kind of control over another person’s emotions. Now I’m talking about adult relationships here. We do have a different kind of responsibility when I’m talking about children. I know this idea that you can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings is kind of a hard idea to swallow. So I want to encourage you to go listen to episode 40 in this podcast, which is all about this idea that you can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings.

So, before I end part one for today, of course, I want to talk just a bit about guilt itself, which is why you came to this episode. I want to be really clear that it’s so normal and typical to feel guilt when you set boundaries, especially at first.

I wish I could tell you that it’s possible to erase the guilt, to just get rid of it from your life. That you’ll never feel it again once you get used to setting boundaries, but that’s not true and it’s not realistic. And I am not going to lie to you. And honestly, I don’t even think it’s healthy to try to eliminate guilt from your life.

Sometimes feeling guilt does keep you from causing harm to someone. And I think most of us want to be able to stop ourselves from harming other people.

That’s it for part one on boundaries and. Stay tuned for part two next week. And I will pick up right here where I left off. And I’m going to talk about how to actually manage the guilt that comes up when you set boundaries.

Thank you so much for listening today. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at facilitator on fire dot net, and that is facilitator on fire dot net. And there’s a lot of really good stuff there, including links to my book and links to learn more about boundaries and Human Giver Syndrome.

If you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers like me who want to dare to live our own lives, please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes.

If you liked this episode, please leave a review and think of two people you could tell about it. If they’re new to podcasts, you can show them how to subscribe. Word of mouth is the very best way to help podcasts grow, which will help more caregivers find their way here so they can get the help they need too. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver To Another.

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations. The best place to connect with Kay is on Instagram or in the "From One Caregiver to Another" boundaries discussion community.

"Caregiver Coaching" is for family caregivers who want to dare to live their own life. Facilitator on Fire's "Building Trust Across Generations" seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing teams that are attractive to people of all ages. Kay's keynote address, "Top Myths of Leading Generations," helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations.