Learning to set healthy boundaries in relationships and say no will cause your sense of self to soar
For most of my life, I've been a people pleaser and taken pride in being easy-going and flexible. But after my divorce, I became intensely aware of how I often gave too much in my marriage and was left feeling depleted. Although I've mostly recovered from this tendency, remnants of my former people pleasing self linger. Consequently, I'm on the lookout for situations where I'm likely to revert back to a pattern of approval seeking and to neglect my own needs.
What exactly is a "people pleaser?" In his book Making Peace With Your Parents, Dr. Harold Bloomfield coined the term "Approval Trap" to describe people who go out of their way to make sure someone else is happy, to the detriment of their own happiness. They seek approval from others due to unresolved issues with their parents. Becoming a people pleaser is a way in which many individuals neglect to set boundaries and convey to others that they're not good enough, and learning how to stop can be great relationship advice for women in particular.
What causes individuals to become people pleasers? In many cases, individuals develop a pattern of putting other people's needs before their own due to dysfunction in their family of origin. In my case, my parents divorced when I was seven years old and I dealt with high conflict and rivalry between my mother and stepmother. My mother also relied on me to "keep the peace." Some women, like me, who were leaned on too much by their parents growing up, take on a caregiver role in their family.
Consequently, you may have learned to be a people pleaser because of being fearful of losing the approval of others. Fear of rejection often lies at the root of a person's tendency to bend over backwards to please others—sometimes at the expense of their own happiness. While it's admirable to be a caring person, learning to love and respect myself has helped me to set healthy boundaries and to say "no" without feeling guilty.
Studies show that women are socialized to be obedient and responsible, which sets the stage for people pleasing. It's natural for girls to grow up feeling that it's desirable to be in a good mood, flexible, and to subordinate their needs to others. Unfortunately, this tendency can set the stage for unhealthy boundaries in relationships. While some men may become people pleasers, it appears more often in women. Over time, a lack of setting boundaries in relationships can damage a woman's sense of self-worth. Fortunately, this damage is reversible with self-awareness and support from others. The first step to recovering from being a people pleaser is self-awareness.
The following five ways to gain self-worth and stop being a people pleaser will enable you to exercise personal power and gain control of your life.
- Examine your childhood experiences and how you may have ignored your own needs to seek approval from others. Therapy, reading and keeping a journal can aid you in this process.
- If you are too agreeable, make a list of things that are important to you and begin pursuing some of them. Share the list with a friend and/or therapist. Recognize and accept that the way you feel about yourself inside reflects the way you relate to people outside.
- Remember to be honest about your own needs with intimate partners, family members and friends. You are not obligated to meet the needs of others. That is their responsibility and only you know what's best for you. Practice being vulnerable in small steps and saying things like: "I would like to help give to a ride to the airport but it will make me late for work—maybe next time."
- Set goals and make new choices to change your life, such as taking time to do the things that you enjoy rather than deferring to the needs of others. Use a positive intention to guide you on your journey such as "I will do three things for myself today." Write your intentions down and keep them where you can see them, such as on your refrigerator or desk.
- Believe in yourself and work on self-acceptance. This involves moving out of a place of viewing yourself as a victim. You are worthy of love and all life has to offer.
According to author Darlene Lancer, we pay a price when we are a people pleaser. She writes: "Everyone starts out in life wanting to be safe, loved, and accepted. It's in our DNA. Some of us figure out that the best way to do this is to put aside what we want or feel and allow someone else's needs and feelings take precedence. This works for a while. It feels natural, and there's less outer conflict, but our inner conflict grows. If we'd like to say no, we feel guilty, and we may feel resentful when we yes. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't."
In my experience, it is possible for you to find your own voice and act from a place of personal power. Many of the women I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce felt that they had boundary issues and low self-esteem which caused them to become people pleasers. Experiencing the breakup of your childhood home, parental alcoholism, or being raised in a high conflict family may have triggered this tendency.
Laura's story illustrates how she recovered from her tendency to be a people pleaser. With strong emotion in her voice, she describes her struggle to please her ex- husband:
"When I met Michael, he seemed like such a great guy and I bent over backwards to please him. But after a year or so, I was exhausted because he has two kids and I was the one who usually cooked dinner, cleaned up, and paid for groceries. When we broke up, I realized that he didn't appreciate me and rarely did things to please me. My self-esteem hit rock bottom because of his put-downs and lack of love and affection."
Often the breakup of a relationship or a divorce can cause women to pause and examine their own behavior. Even in the case of a "good divorce" or breakup, it’s beneficial to come to terms with how your behavior, such as not setting healthy limits, could have contributed to the demise of your relationship. If that's the case, it's time for you to begin to assert your needs in a way that's respectful to others.
Keep in mind, that when you speak up for what you want and need, others may try to lay a guilt trip on you. However, you can learn to set healthy boundaries in relationships, and this will cause your sense of self to soar as you build self-respect. Having realistic expectations is key because it takes time to change your behavior and for others to adapt to the new you. You are worth the effort and deserve a freer, happier life.