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How Asserting Boundaries Can Ease Anxiety and Resentment

Woman in Christmas jumper and hat enjoying being away for the holidays anxiety-free
Getty Images/Alexandr Dubynin

Ensuring our needs are met can feel like a lose-lose situation. When everyone's pressing you to give in, the guilt of asserting our boundaries may be too much to deal with. But what's the alternative? Long-term anxiety and resentment can soon become bitterness or hostility, impacting our relationships.

Today, Claire Eastham explores the positives of advocating for your needs, even if you initially feel guilty. She also shares her 4 top tips for making boundaries – and explains how to stick to them!

"Choose guilt over anxiety."

I thought about this hard as I made a recent phone call to my mom. I had some news: I’d be going away for Christmas this year instead of spending it with my immediate family.

My choosing to do this was pretty significant. The rituals of Christmas have been ingrained in me since childhood. The timings, the way we open presents (one at a time as the rest watch), the food, the games, the jumpers...

It's a festive parade of happiness and joy. Or at least, that’s how it’s advertised to others. The reality for me is anxiety and exhaustion.

From age twelve, it’s been my job to entertain the adults. I serve endless drinks while my brother naps elsewhere. I weather the drunken arguments and prevent Grandma from falling whenever she needs a cigarette or the toilet. Above all else, it's my job to keep the energy upbeat.

I call this yearly ritual "Tap Dancing." I exist to engage, perform, and serve - often at the expense of my happiness.

My tap dancing recital begins on Christmas Eve. It doesn't stop until January 4th because my dad’s birthday is on 3rd.

Which should I choose: guilt or resentment?

The festive period ravages me. After particularly rough ones in both 2021 and 2022, the thought of it looming on the horizon was already beginning to affect my mood. 

Worse still, I’d given up alcohol three months ago. The thought of doing Christmas without some kind of sedative was even more overwhelming.

I ended up listening to Holly Whitaker's bestselling book, “Quit Like a Woman.” In it, she writes about an incident she had while holidaying with her mother.

Choose guilt over resentment," Whitaker advised after the anecdote. Her idea is based on guilt being less corrosive than resentment in the long term.

And it hit me.

Guilt is intense, but it doesn't drain me anywhere close to the way resentment or anxiety does.

Maybe it was time to reassert a new boundary?

It felt like my duty to make others happy 24/7

Like many women, I always understood it to be my duty to make others happy. Sub-duties in this category include remembering everybody's birthdays and lying about liking food or films I don't care for.

You see, living with social anxiety means I constantly fear negative judgment from others - even the parcel delivery guy. Phrases like "You shouldn't care what other people think" have always been laughable to me.

I care. If I'm not careful, I care too much. It's the reason why I prioritize other people's needs by default. I exist to make their lives easier.

I say yes to everything. I do as I'm asked; I answer calls no matter what the hour. I offer support – often at the expense of my own emotions.

I've lost count of the times I've listened to someone monologue their inner thoughts (they're usually drunk) as I sit there passively. I resent the loss of my time yet feel obliged to be present for them.

But things had to change. Something had to give. 

So, I asked myself, "What's causing me anxiety, stress, or discomfort? What areas of my life do I feel exhausted by?"

After writing down my answers ("Christmas" was at the top of the list!), I thought of ways to take action.

4 ways to assert your boundaries without giving in

1. Be transparent about your needs

As researcher and storyteller Brene Brown says, "Clear is kind."

We think we're sparing people's feelings by feeding them half-truths. But, most of the time, beating around the bush only causes confusion and dilutes your message.

When asserting your boundaries, tell the person what you need, then follow through on what you've said. For example, if you want to maintain a time boundary, say something like: "I can only stay in this meeting for an hour. If it starts late, I will still leave on the hour." Then, when the time arrives, leave without apology.

Plan what you want to say in advance and practice saying it. Be honest about your feelings, but don’t get into a negotiation.

As someone who gets anxious using the phone at the best of times, I practiced what to say before I called Mom about the upcoming holidays. "Mom, I won't be doing Christmas with the family this year. I need some time away."

You don't have to explain beyond that. If a person continues to push for a reason, repeat, "I need some time away," or whatever's relevant to your specific scenario.

Or, as Shawn M Burn (Ph.D.) states in her piece for Psychology Today: "If they start to argue or persist, shut it down by saying something like, 'I know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but my mind is made up.'"

If you think you’d struggle with an in-person discussion, then a phone call or message is acceptable.

2. Expect pushback or conflict

People will resent new boundaries if they’re not used to them.

Whenever she’s losing an argument, the mother of a friend of mine will suddenly declare, "Well, I guess I'm a terrible mom, and you never want to see me again.” She knows people will flock to comfort her if she risks losing contact with her child.

You may have to accept that people will attempt to guilt-trip you for not complying with their wants or views. You must keep your boundaries anyway.

An old boss of mine used to deploy faux concern whenever I asserted myself. "Is everything okay, Claire?” she’d say. “I noticed that your mood is different this week."

This was code for, "I don't like that you're not being as amicable as usual."

I replied that I was fine - and then reiterated that I couldn't stay late that evening. 

3. Manage your discomfort if things turn confrontational

Difficult conversations usually trigger difficult emotions, such as guilt, stress, anger, or fear. As someone who struggles with confrontation, I often go into a state of hyperarousal afterward.

I feel overwhelmed or unsafe. My body floods with excess adrenaline, and the panic can feel like I’m having a heart attack.

If you have similar feelings after a confrontation, try going for a short walk (unless a doctor has advised otherwise) or shake your arms/legs. I've also been known to do star jumps!

A very short spurt of physical activity certainly helps ease my symptoms.

4. Reward yourself for making and sticking to a boundary

After communicating your needs and dealing with the subsequent emotions, reward yourself. I like to browse online stores and buy yet another jumper I don't need. Eating chocolate is good, too, or splashing out on a fancy coffee.

The takeaway

My mom was disappointed by my news, but she accepted it.

Making and sticking to my boundaries means I can spend the next few months feeling relaxed about the Christmas period. That's so much better than being consumed by anxious dread!

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen.


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