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Of People-Pleasing Toxicity and Life-Giving Boundaries

Author: Sarah Borg, Dip. HE (Melit.); B.A. (Hons) (Melit.)

Being a people-pleaser can be very rewarding. Let’s face it, it feels good to see people smiling at you, nodding in approval and showing their appreciation for something that you did for them. It is so nice to be acknowledged, approved of, praised, applauded, cited or even paid extra. When people describe you as “so kind, helpful, generous and selfless…”, it is often music to one’s ears. And when you are told that you are ‘the most’ or ‘the only person who’ is “so capable, hardworking, the one who always goes the extra mile…”, well, that level of affirmation is surely not worth missing!

But it’s not just the ego-trip that makes people-pleasing so alluring. The fear of upsetting the applecart or rocking the boat is an equally powerful reason to go with the flow and hush your needs in a way that accomodates others’ desires. It can indeed be a risk to state clearly what you are not willing to compromise. Apart from coming across as rude, selfish or strange, you can also end up being excluded and perhaps even fired.

How people-pleasing harms both self and others

Here we are referring to when pleasing people would come at the cost of your own needs. It is obviously perfectly fine to accommodate other people if by doing so you won’t be compromising your own needs. But if you tend to accept things because you are unable to say no or because you fear causing trouble or being perceived (or labelled) as a bad person, then pleasing people in such instances is toxic both to yourself and others.

When you suppress your needs to please others you would be running the risk of burnout and losing yourself. Your body and pysche have a very intelligent way of reminding you to take care of them, sometimes in persistent and unpleasant forms. Therefore, apart from being a form of self-destruction, ignoring your needs is also a way of doing others a disservice. Since your needs cannot go unattended indefinitely, you will end up unable to give anymore, because your cup would be plain empty. Besides, you would probably be harbouring feelings of resentment against the other person/s, for trampling on your needs. Therefore, when boundaries are not set, a sense of disconnection is created, even if it would not be immediately visible.

How boundaries protect both self and others

For people-pleasers or ones who struggle with creating boundaries, it may feel intimidating, rigid or even unkind to create boundaries. But it is really the other way round. Creating boundaries honours the truth and makes our relationships more sustainable. We all have finite resources, our limitations are what they are. By communicating our boundaries we would be admitting our limitations to others and clarifying what we are able to bring to the table and what we are unable to; what we are comfortable accepting and what are our no-go areas. In this way, the other person would be fully aware about what they can expect and what not to, thus leaving little room for misunderstanding and disappointment.

Therefore, although it might seem like the other way round, people-pleasing drives disconnection in the long-term, whereas boundary-setting enables connection, as both parties would have all the cards laid on the table. It is interesting that each of the four languages I know, has a proverb communicating the importance of setting boundaries:

  1. Il-ħbieb sal-bieb – Friends till your door (Don’t let anyone get too close)
  2. Good fences make good neighbours
  3. Aimez votre voisin mais n’abattez pas la haie – love your neighbor but don’t chop down the hedge
  4. Patti chiari amicizia lunga – clear rules make for lasting friendships

How therapy can help you create healthy boundaries

  1. Awareness – through therapy you can get a better grasp of the benefits of boundary-setting. As the professional understands better your struggle with boundaries in your daily life, they would be able to speak about boundary-setting in more specific terms, as applicable to your own situation, while reminding you of the risks and the benefits of people-pleasing and boundary-setting.
  2. Role-playing – with the therapist, you can role play situations where you would need to wear the hat of the boundary-setter. When setting boundaries, practice is key. Therefore the therapeutic relationship provides a safe space where you can get to refine your communication skills when creating boundaries. During the role-plays, the therapist can challenge your role as a boundary-setter in a way that would require more assertiveness.
  3. The therapeutic relationship as an example – the very therapeutic relationship is a clear example of a relationship where there are clear boundaries, with both the therapist and the client knowing exactly what they are entitled to and what they cannot expect from each other. Through the way that the therapist communicates what is acceptable and what is not, the client can learn by observation how communicating boundaries can coexist with a high level of care, understanding and sensitivity.
  4. Enable self-acceptance – in order to have others accept your boundaries, you need to own them first. When a person is not self-assured and fully comfortable with what s/he is asking for, chances are that others would not respect those needs. Therapy provides a rich source of empowerment, where the right conditions are created for the client to be able to accept himself/herself more.
  5. Address unhealthy misconceptions – the following is a list of misconceptions alongside what is actually true:
MisconceptionReality
One needs to provide an elaborate explanation as to why one is setting a particular boundaryWhen you communicate boundaries apologetically, using qualifiers and justifications, your need would be diluted and your message is more likely to be misinterpreted, thus reducing the chances of it being respected.
The comfort of people-pleasing is more conducive to wellbeingPeople-pleasing can indeed be comforting but it is in fact related to unfulfilled needs, suppression, pent-up anger, guilt, resentment and helplessness. Such emotions are the exact opposite of what wellbeing entails.
Not everyone can set boundariesSetting boundaries is about checking in with one’s needs, owning those needs and finding ways to communicate them respectfully and assertively. Being self-aware, practising self-acceptance and refining your communication are practices and skills that can be learned, nurtured and mastered by everyone, differently.
Even when one begrudgingly accommodates others, one stands a better chance of belonging to whichever group they approachAs Brene Brown reminds us, there is a huge difference between belonging and fitting in. Whereas fitting in involves moulding ourselves to please others, true belonging is when others accept our authentic and imperfect selves. Having others accept a fake version of ourselves is not equitable to true belonging.

To conclude, the greatest gift we can give to the world is our authentic, ever-evolving self. In order to do so, we need to check in regularly with our needs and to be comfortable with communicating our boundaries to others. Those people who are not pleased with who we are and the boundaries that we set are not the ones who we should aspire to belong to. On the other hand, those who respect our boundaries and appreciate the unique value that we bring along are the ones who we truly belong to.

Finally, being a people-pleaser is not an identity but a learned behaviour which you can unlearn. Therapy provides a safe space where you can understand better the risks of pleasing people and the benefits of creating healthy boundaries. It is also a place where you can practise communicating your boundaries in a healthy way, so that you move closer to embracing who you really are and gifting others with your imperfect but authentic self, a gift that is unique to you and which you owe to the world.

References

Howes, L. (2021, January 10) Brene Brown on FITTING vs BELONGING! #Shorts. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgCRsfNNNyQ

Sallam, F (2021, September 23) Creating boundaries — from a people-pleaser’s perspective.The Parachute Media. https://www.theparachutemedia.com/identity/creating-boundaries-from-a-people-pleasers-perspective

This project has been funded by the Small Initiatives Support Scheme (SIS) managed by the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector (MCVS)

This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the MCVS cannot be held responsible for the content or any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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