Setting boundaries: Short-term pain, long-term gain

In this article, I discuss why it is beneficial to set boundaries even though it may sometimes be unpleasant to do so.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

Situations requiring us to set boundaries are those in which we need to send a message to others that they have not treated us properly. Examples include not being given good customer service, not being paid back the money you are owed by someone or any situation in which a friend, family member, relationship partner or anyone else has not treated you with respect.

Setting boundaries involves letting the offending party know with your words and/or your actions that it is not acceptable for them to treat you in this manner. In reference to the examples, this would entail reminding the person that they owe you money, letting the company know that you did not receive good customer service and communicating to the friend, family member or relationship partner that their behaviour toward you was not acceptable.

Although setting boundaries has several benefits, many people do not set boundaries enough because doing so can often be unpleasant. In particular, it is a common occurrence that letting the offending party know that their behaviour was unacceptable does not lead to the desired response of their apologizing and addressing their behaviour. In fact, many times the response is negative, critical and disrespectful.

Despite the ‘short-term pain’ which often results from setting boundaries, I typically recommend doing so because of the greater ‘long-term gain’. In the following sections, I will discuss the reasons it usually makes sense to set boundaries from a cost-benefit analysis.

The short-term pain of setting boundaries

The short-term pain of setting boundaries is manifold. First, it takes time and effort to prepare what you want to say to the offending party. Secondly, you have to manage the stress of anticipating a possible negative reaction. Thirdly, you have to deal with the negative emotional impact of this reaction if it does occur. Many people do not take it well when someone disapproves of their behaviour and consequently they may respond with criticism or worse.

Some of the stress you experience in setting boundaries is exacerbated by having face-to-face or telephone encounters in which the prospect of a negative reaction can be daunting. In turn, the short-term pain of setting boundaries may be reduced if circumstances allow for you to communicate through less interactive modes such as letter, email or text.

Using these latter modes of communication do not usually eliminate the possibility of a negative response and the resulting unpleasant feelings you experience but they often reduce the negativity to a more manageable level. However, even if you communicate your points through these less interactive modes, the effort involved and the possibility of an unpleasant response are frequently enough to lead to the decision to let the matter go and not set boundaries.

With a few exceptions, sparing yourself the short-term pain of not setting boundaries will result in your experiencing long-term pain in terms of its effects on your emotional health. In the next section, I will discuss how you will gain much more in the long-term by setting boundaries so that managing the short-term pain becomes worthwhile.

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The long-term gain of setting boundaries

Setting boundaries has the significant long-term benefit of being good for your self-esteem and, in turn, your mood. It achieves this goal by constituting a behavior which indicates that we respect ourselves. Given that humans strive for attitude-behaviour consistency, behaving in a manner indicating that you respect yourself makes it more likely you will respect yourself. That is, your self-esteem will be better.  And better mood ‘comes along for the ride’ with better self-esteem.

So when you are reluctant to set boundaries because of the short-term pain, remind yourself that the unpleasantness should subside quickly and that the benefits of better self-esteem and better mood will be long-lasting.

Times when you should not set boundaries

Despite the benefits of setting boundaries, there may be some circumstances in which it is better not to do so. These would include instances in which setting boundaries would put you or someone else at risk for serious physical or psychological harm such as in a relationship with an abusive partner.

Significant negative economic consequences can also occur from setting boundaries and therefore act as a deterrent. An example would be an employee who refrains from setting boundaries with a supervisor because of concern that that doing so would lead to being fired, thereby making it difficult for the employee to support themselves and their family.

These examples indicate circumstances in which it would make sense to leave the situation when safe and reasonable and move into a different situation which is favourable to setting boundaries.

In my next article, I will discuss strategies you can use to set boundaries when you’ve decided it is reasonable to do so. As a Calgary psychologist and Cochrane psychologist, I help my clients implement these strategies—particularly clients in self-esteem counselling and depression counselling.

May you focus on the long-term gain from setting boundaries,

Dr. Pat

About the Author:

Feeling Challenged? Work with a psychologist who knows how to overcome challenges… Depression, anxiety, stress & other psychological issues may seem as daunting as completing a marathon. My approach to “Plan, Take Action & Track Progress”, has helped 100s of clients and is the same approach I used to succeed in the Boston Marathon & Ironman Canada.

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