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Are You a People Pleaser? Learn How to Set Personal Boundaries

people pleaser

I read a book once which helped turn me into a ‘yes’ person. It wasn’t until much later I realized that I’d made a mistake. The book was all about taking opportunities and saying ‘yes’ to them as often as possible. I thought it meant I had to say yes to everyone in order to be polite, socially acceptable, and to please the other person. I’d somehow connected the idea of positive “Yes!” moments with the upbringing I’d been given at my grandmother’s knee: little girls are supposed to be nice. Always. In other words I turned into a people pleaser. Boy, was I wrong.

I ended up stressed and feeling out of control. Agreeing to take on extra work, making play dates for my son that meant half a day’s cleaning, doing everything for everyone. Instead of making the most of any opportunities, I found myself struggling on all levels. If I managed to wiggle out of an invitation, I felt guilty because I made up some sort of excuse in order not to hurt the other person’s feelings. I felt guilty because I was unable to live up to the high expectations I’d placed on myself. My frustration caused me to snap at my son and, of course, I’d feel even guiltier. Then I found another book, “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” by Manual J. Smith. Thank you, book club.

people pleaser yes

We Are Born With Personal Boundaries

The author explained that, as children we have a natural assertiveness. We were able to say no without having a bad case of the guilts. Babies are quite able to let their parents know when they are unhappy and not feel bad about it. We have inbuilt personal boundaries. It’s our upbringing which overrides them and turns some people into people pleasers. We just want to be nice people. 

My second son was one of those “No!” children. One of his first words was “No!” He said it so often and so automatically that I was embarrassed. Isn’t that crazy? I was embarrassed because my kid wasn’t a people-pleaser. He was two-years old. It was much later that I understood that he had every right to express his no-ness. He knew his boundaries. Of course that didn’t stop me trying to guilt him into positivity. 

How We Become People Pleasers

Not everyone becomes a people pleaser. It depends on our own feedback systems. For example, my grandmother looked after me while my mother worked. My grandmother had high expectations and I loved her to bits, so my natural tendency was to try to please her by adapting my behavior, my words and attitude. She taught me that politeness and consideration was everything. Unfortunately she omitted to tell me that I should expect consideration in return. I felt small and unimportant.  My natural boundaries evaporated.

What Are Personal Boundaries?

Personal boundaries are the limits that we place around ourselves in relation to other people. They include verbal, behavioral, sexual, and spacial limits. You know what it feels like when someone you barely know gets into your personal space. It’s a horrible feeling and you usually, automatically step backwards in order to restore your space. Or when someone makes an off-color joke which causes you discomfort because it oversteps the mark of your personal morality. Or when your boss asks you to work late once too often. 

Personal boundaries are connected to our idea of what is and isn’t acceptable to us. In the case of people pleasers, we consistently allow other people to pass through those boundaries—if we have any at all. We laugh when someone with bad breath comes in too close. We inwardly sob when the boss asks for just one more late night this week, while outwardly eagerly agreeing. So how to set about rebuilding the personal boundaries we were born with?

Identify Your People Pleasing Behaviour

Make a list of all the times you felt guilty or inadequate because you didn’t meet someone’s expectations. If you can’t remember every little incident that’s okay, just keep it general. For example:

  • I always agree to work late when my supervisor asks me, even if I don't want to.
  • When my kid asks me for a ride, I never refuse, even if I'm busy with something else.
  • My sister asks to borrow money I always give it to her. And she never pays it back.

Design Your New Personal Boundaries

Decide your limits. For instance, from now on you won’t permit:

  • Negative comments about your body
  • Anyone to belittle and humiliate you 
  • Someone to insert themselves into your personal space
  • Anyone to assume you will always agree to work late
  • Anyone to assume you agree with their opinions

Don’t stop there; think about all the occasions when you felt your boundaries were ignored and add it to your list.

Create Your Personal ‘Rights’

You have the right to:

  • Say no without explanation. 
  • Time for yourself.
  • Ask for help.
  • Ignore phone calls, texts, emails, etcetera until you are ready, if ever, to respond.
  • Cancel an appointment.
  • Refuse entry to your home.
  • Tell your child/partner/mother you are unable to comply with their demand.
  • Change your mind.

Again, don’t stop there. Add in everything you can think of that you are entitled to. If unsure, take your friends or sister as an example.

people pleaser cant say no

Develop Your Strategy

It’s all very well to create new personal boundaries but the difficulty is in asserting them. After all, lack of assertion was what caused the problem in the first place. The idea of using certain words and phrases goes against your ingrained response system.

  • Say, “I’ll let you know.” Or, “I’ll get back to you later on that.” Or, “I can’t give you an answer right now.” This gives you breathing space to decide your response.
  • Start from a neutral base. There’s no need to get angry or upset. You can refuse from a place of grace. If you need someone to offer you support and reassurance, speak to a friend who’s on your side before you speak to the other person.
  • If someone is angry with you and yells, don’t engage in a shouting match or get emotional. Simply inform them that you will leave the room until they feel ready to speak to you.
  • Should you need to refuse a commitment, say, “I have to say no because I can’t fit it into my schedule.”
  • When refusing your bosses’ request that you work late, say, “I have plans I can’t cancel.” Because you do, even if that plan is relaxing with a glass of wine in front of the TV.
  • Remember, you don’t have to explain in detail, you don’t have to make excuses for yourself and you don’t have to lie. 
  • Never bow under pressure. If you give in once, they will assume you will again.
  • Don’t be confrontational but, at the same time, don’t avoid confrontation. You are strong enough to hold your ground. If the situation becomes uncomfortable, walk away, “I can’t talk to you about this right now.”. That isn’t avoiding confrontation, that’s taking the sensible route.

How To Defeat Guilt

Feeling guilty is something to tackle on your own. Remember that whatever the request, you as a human being, have the right to refuse. Guilt is an energy-sapping emotion. You don’t need it. You can decide in the moment that you won’t feel guilty about your decision or your words. You haven’t hurt anyone, you have simply stated you don’t want to do something. It’s no big deal. People will soon learn that you are no longer a doormat. You are no longer a people pleaser. 

“When you say “yes” to others, make sure you aren’t saying “no” to yourself.”  – Paulo Coehlo


4 Ways to Set and Keep Your Personal Boundaries

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