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Are You a People Pleaser? Then You Need These 12 Tips to Set Healthy Boundaries

Connecting with and pleasing others shouldn't come at your expense. Here's how to set and hold healthier boundaries.  

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How to set and hold healthy boundaries

Our drive to please others comes from biology—our ancestors depended on others for survival. Even today, we still seek social acceptance and connection, and caring for others gives us a sense of purpose. But when we are too focused on pleasing others, we might neglect ourselves. “People pleasing can be a very detrimental way of living,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, an award-winning author of Living With Depression and a professor at Adelphi University. Here’s how to set healthy boundaries for those who tend to be people pleasers.

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Take care of yourself first

The trouble happens when you make others a priority and don’t truly tend to your own needs, according to Serani. “Many people-pleasers measure their worth by what they do for others, and never learn the value of who they are without the giving, doing, and pleasing,” she says. So how can you break free from that cycle? “The first step in achieving better boundaries is believing that self-care is a necessity, not a luxury,” says Sherry Pagoto, PhD, a psychologist and professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Imagine you are the driver for a Red Cross truck delivering food and water to hurricane victims. If you are in such a hurry to help every single victim that you don’t stop once in a while to refuel the truck, eventually you will be stalled on the side of the road helping no one. Think of the time you put into self-care as your fuel stops.” (Here are some sneaky ways to carve out more me-time.)

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Strike a balance

According to Mental Health America, a “co-dependent” in a relationship places others’ welfare before their own, losing contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self. This unbalance can develop as early as childhood, and can lead to people-pleasing in adulthood. “Being raised in an environment in which love was conditional, caretakers were emotionally unavailable, or when even small mistakes were severely punished can lead children to develop a strong fear of disappointing others,” Pagoto says. “This carries on through our lives.” Recognizing these patterns can help you break free of them and tip the scale back in your favor, so your life isn’t solely about others.

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Realize you’re not being selfish

Setting boundaries for how much you’re willing to do for others isn’t selfish—it’s healthy. So if you’re doing too much for your kids, your spouse, your boss, or even the head of the PTA, you could be creating unhealthy relationship patterns. “I like to think of a boundary as a way of letting others know how a healthy relationship works,” Serani says. “Boundaries are essential instructions on how to behave and co-exist in meaningful ways. Creating this blueprint for how you want to be involved with others can help reduce people-pleasing.” If there’s too much giving on one side, it’s no longer healthy for either party involved.

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Start small

Even if you’re determined to start to set boundaries can be daunting. So dip your toe in with small changes that will free up time for your own needs, even if it’s just an hour a week. “Start by making a list of your three biggest goals for the year, for example, to plant a garden, secure a promotion at work, or take a family vacation,” Pagoto says. “Then open up your calendar and ask which activities don’t really move you that much closer to any of these goals? Those are the ones that should be first on the chopping block.” Cutting out commitments that are a time- or money-suck can help you get rid of the excess baggage that’s keeping you from pursuing goals and activities that are meaningful to you.

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Ask yourself what’s realistic

Another way to think about focusing on the responsibilities most important to you is to ask yourself what you can logistically handle. There are only so many hours in the day! “If you’re wishing to be more involved in your child’s school life, work more hours at the office, or help take care of your aged mother, ask yourself what is realistic,” Serani says. “How much time can you devote? What would be too much time? Can you delegate things and not have to do this yourself? Can you find an alternative way to get the job done?” Asking these questions can help avoid overcommitting.

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Consider your own mental health

“When we prioritize others over ourselves even after we feel exhausted and overwhelmed, resentment can set in,” Pagoto says. “Striking a healthy balance between being a caretaker and taking care of oneself will help you avoid resentment.” If you feel energized when you’re caretaking, then you’re recharging your batteries. But if you don’t feel that way, you need some more ‘me time.’ “Let your feelings be your guide,” she says.

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Speak your mind

“For women, pleasing people is part of those pesky gender roles we have been taught all our lives,” Pagoto says. “We have been socialized to be caretakers, to be cooperative, to suppress anger, and generally to put other’s needs ahead of our own.” Learning to speak out goes against this conditioning. Although it might feel uncomfortable at first, being more outspoken and stating your needs is the first step to not letting others walk all over you. If saying “no” outright is uncomfortable, you can always defer the decision, saying, “I need to check my calendar,” or “I’m going to have to get back to you on that,” and then sending a follow-up message later ultimately declining.

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Listen to your inner voice

You might find yourself avoiding people you know are going to ask you to do something—but then when they corner you, you say yes anyway. Instead, Serani says, pay attention to your initial reaction. “When asked a question, stop, breathe, and sense what you’re feeling,” she says. “If you have a hesitation, feel a twitch in your belly, or dread in your heart, that means you don’t want to do it. Stop there.” Becoming more self-aware can help you understand why you feel the need to say yes. “Do you say yes because you’re afraid? Because you want to be liked? Because you feel pressure to do so?” Serani asks. “When you examine why you behave the way you do, you’re more likely to be able to make a change.”

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Learn how to say no

When you’re used to saying yes, actually saying no can take some practice. “There is great power in the word ‘no’—ask any toddler!” Serani says. “Understand that saying no is an expression of who you are and what you want in this very moment.” It can be said in a nice way, but it should be firm. Don’t feel that you need a “legit” excuse—staying home to take a bubble bath is a perfectly fine reason to avoid chaperoning your kid’s school dance. You don’t owe anyone an explanation anyway, so keep it simple—like, “So sorry I can’t swing it right now.” If you protest too much, it becomes easier for people to talk you out of it. “Think of saying no as an exclamation of independence,” Serani says.

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Let go of toxic relationships

People pleasers may worry that if they start saying no, they’ll lose friends and even loved ones who don’t understand the new boundaries they’re setting. “This is where you discover whether you’re involved in a toxic relationship because a healthy person will honor your ‘no,’ understand it, and even respect it,” Serani says. “If another person argues with you, stops talking to you, or guilts you further into saying yes, you need to evaluate this connection.” When your relationship is based on you being the giver and the other person being the taker, they aren’t going to like it when you begin to assert your own power. But either they can learn to accept it, or you have to let them go.

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Recognize when you’re being taken advantage of

Once you’ve learned the tools to create better boundaries, you will be able to identify future attempts to lure you into things you don’t want to do. Serani says to do the people-pleasing math: If how much you do for others and how much they do for you evens out, you’re good. Also, avoid manipulators by examining how they talk to you. Look for “expressions tinged with guilt, like ‘I was really hoping you’d do this for me,’ or subtly manipulative, like ‘I don’t think I can get to the post office this week to get stamps,'” she says. “The more you can listen to how a person talks to you, the more aware you’ll be of their intentions. Then you can sidestep the people-pleasing trap.”

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Push through your guilt

As you start asserting your own needs, guilt will inevitably set in. Pagoto says this is perfectly normal and okay—as long as you don’t give into it. “An important piece of achieving better boundaries is tolerating the guilt you feel about setting the boundary,” she says. “Even though at first it will be hard to stick to your guns, over time the guilt will subside. The reward for pushing through is a more balanced life in which you are a more engaged and energized participant in all of your responsibilities and relationships.” Cutting out certain commitments will let you be more present in the activities you are doing. And that’s better for everyone involved. Next, check out these ways to be nicer to yourself.

Sources
  • Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist, award-winning author of Living With Depression, and a professor at Adelphi University
  • Sherry Pagoto, PhD, a psychologist and professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School
  • Mental Health America: "Co-Dependency"
Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on June 18, 2020