Set Firm Boundaries: How to Stop Wasting Energy on People Pleasing
Where does the desire to please others come from? Is it a good thing to be aware of what other people think of us? How can we set emotional boundaries to promote healthy relationships? In this post I explain what people pleasing is, and why being a people pleaser means you might have poor boundaries with others. Learn how to set appropriate boundaries to respect yourself and the ones that you love.
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Last night, you couldn’t sleep for some reason. Maybe you were anxious about today and you couldn’t stop thinking. Or, maybe you were in some sort of pain. Maybe you went to bed too early and you convinced yourself that your body isn’t tired. Any way you slice it, you only slept about three solid hours and today you’re exhausted and barely functioning.
Did you get to sleep in? No, of course not. You have a busy day today. You work two different jobs – one that starts at seven in the morning and the other that finishes at 10 at night. Both jobs require you to perform for people.
You consider the idea of sleeping in, calling in sick, and only doing one job today, but the thought is fleeting. You don’t want to let your coworkers and employers down because then they might not think you’re a good worker. What if you get overlooked for the next raise. You might not be asked to come back. You know if you call out they will have to find someone to replace you, and that hassle will likely be worse than you “taking one for the team” and forcing yourself to be presentable at your two places of employment – despite how exhausted you look and feel.
While commitment and responsibility to a career are certainly important concepts as demonstrated in this anecdote, doing things so that others will not be upset with you is not. If you saw yourself in the hypothetical situation above, you might be a people pleaser and could benefit from firmer boundaries.
Henry Cloud, a leading psychologist in the field of boundaries, explains the concept as a house.
You and your neighbor live next to each other in a house that suits each of you respectively. You have your yard, driveway, and backyard fence, and your neighbor has his. Each of you often speak with each other across the yard, and sometimes you invite your neighbor over for coffee. However, one day, your neighbor decides to dump his trash over your fence into your lawn and let himself into your kitchen for a cup of joe.
Boundaries let the good in, and keep the bad out.– Henry Cloud
He didn’t even bother to use the door – your neighbor pushed through the window.
At this point, you have two options. You can allow him to continue to throw his trash into your lawn and drink your coffee without asking as if nothing is wrong, or you could speak up for yourself and say something to your neighbor.
…What would you do?
I know what I would have done! While I often still think I care too much about what other people think of me, a few years back before I had developed firmer boundaries and self-identified as a people pleasing individual, I would have allowed my neighbor to keep throwing his trash on my lawn and continue to steal my coffee.
I thought I was keeping the peace…. not so.
What Boundaries Are
In the same way that we have separate houses and lawns, people are also separate and distinct from one another. This implies that one neighbor is both, not responsible for, and does not control the other. Your neighbor does not pay your electric bill, but also does not decide what colors to paint your walls.
Cloud teaches that we are responsible to one another, not responsible for one another.
Boundaries are also set by the individual. Maybe you built your fence, chose the type of materials, and the speculations, and decided that you wanted an eight foot tall privacy fence made of concrete. That’s going to keep a lot more people out than a three foot tall garden picket fence would. Some people choose to make their boundaries very strong, while others choose to make their boundaries rather weak. If you tend to engage in people pleasing, your boundaries are likely on the weak end of things.
Ideally, boundaries are sturdy, but flexible.
How People Pleasing Works
As you might have guessed, individuals who identify as people pleasers often have weak and permeable boundaries. They choose to allow their neighbors to throw trash on their lawns because they don’t want to offend their neighbors. They make excuses for their neighbor saying, “Maybe he didn’t have enough money to pay”, or “Maybe he wants to be closer friends” when their neighbor drinks a cup of their coffee every morning without asking. These individuals have no fence around their yard, no locks on their doors, and believe that it is their responsibility to care for others whenever others ask at their own expense.
Many times, people allow others to impose on their own boundaries to keep the peace, or to make themselves look like kind, caring people. Instead, what this really does is enable others to take advantage of the willingness to do whatever they want.
Maybe your neighbor wants to turn your yard into the next Mt. Trashmore, or doesn’t want to spend money on his coffee anymore. Maybe your boss tells you that she doesn’t know what she would do without you. Maybe that leads you to believe that you’re irreplaceable.
Let me tell you, you’re not. And neither is the job, or the neighbor that you’re trying to make happy.
As an individual, you are responsible for yourself and to others.
You are responsible to know your abilities, and your limits, and to communicate both to those around you in an assertive, rather than aggressive or passive manner. Your neighbor can’t read your mind. Your boss doesn’t know that you’re not feeling well. You have to take a stand for yourself out of respect for yourself first and others second.
So what can you do to avoid people pleasing?
First off, you can start calling in sick when you actually are, rather than worrying about the repercussions.
1. Notice how you’re feeling.
Most of time time, we go from day to day without awareness of our emotions or our physical sensations. Start practicing this gentle awareness of your emotions and sensations now, that way, when something does rub you the wrong way, you’re able to notice it, rather than ignore it and suppress it farther down.
2. Identify your current boundaries
When you begin noticing how you’re feeling, and noticing when things don’t feel right, you’ll be able to begin identifying your current boundaries. Maybe you’re happy with some of them and believe them to be sturdy yet flexible, but maybe some of them are too permeable and you recognize the need for change.
Consider what you might do to improve your current boundaries and think about what you want the end result to be.
Do you want your job to stop calling you after 6pm? Maybe you want your sister to speak with you directly, rather than through her children. Consider what your response is to others when they impose on your boundaries and how you might be enabling their behaviors.
3. Start Setting Appropriate Limits
After you’ve considered the need for change, and identified what you want to change about your own boundaries, set a goal. Make it tiny – reasonable and attainable. Think of a specific pattern of interactions that you would like to improve, and plan to change one of your responses to better respect yourself, and thereby others.
For another resource , check out boundaries.me for specific boundary issues. While they do offer paid content (and I don’t receive any monetary compensation for this), Cloud has also provided many free articles and links to other resources that address various aspects of boundaries on his boundaries.me and personal websites.
Cloud even offers a free course to stop people pleasing! I haven’t experienced this course myself, but would highly recommend anything Cloud produces based on my knowledge of his work and experience. Go check it out!
Like what you see?
What Boundary Changes Do You Want To Make?
Let me know in the comments what changes you’ve made to your behaviors or boundaries to improve your emotional and social wellbeing. I think appropriate boundaries are one of the healthiest practices we can have, but often we don’t set them appropriately, based on past experience or our attachment growing up. Make a conscious choice to shift yours today!
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Last Updated: September 30, 2020