Setting Boundaries: the challenge to stop being a “people-pleaser”

Man forcing himself to smile.  Represents people-pleasing which is a symptom of complex post traumatic stress disorder.

Throughout my clinical experience, I’ve noticed that a common issue that many people struggle with is saying “yes” when they actually mean “no,” otherwise known as People-Pleasing. I’ve found this to be true for those who experienced severe and obvious complex trauma throughout childhood, but also those with more subtle forms of unmet emotional needs or unhealthy role models. Many clients are aware that they have a difficult time setting appropriate boundaries with others and being able to decline any type of request (some examples: asking for a favor, to borrow money, to volunteer their time, to go out on a date or participate in a sexual activity). As a result, they end up feeling drained, resentful, and disempowered, especially because they don’t really understand why they continue to do this behavior, and they don’t know how to change it. Additionally, clients often judge themselves and feel defeated since they did it “yet again.” Or, if a client does manage to say “no,” it’s not uncommon to then feel guilty about this decision which sometimes results apologizing to the other person and ultimately revoking the “no.”

I want to provide some helpful information on this topic to raise awareness of why so many people find it challenging to be assertive without feeling guilty and without feeling the need to justify their “no.” I will also include some thoughts about how to go about making lasting changes for those of you working on this issue. As with every long-standing behavioral and emotional pattern, some of the main roots are always in childhood experiences, especially the relationship dynamics with parents (or primary caretakers). Even if a child grows up in a house that seems pretty “normal” to others, the relationships with parent figures and the behavior modeled by these caregivers have just as much impact as a household where there is extreme and obvious abuse. 

The word Family which refers to the context in which complex post traumatic stress disorder can develop when physical or emotional abuse happens during childhood.

Here are a two case examples from real clients (with their permission, and their names have been changed):

1) Kevin had a lot of trouble being assertive, telling others how he was really feeling, advocating for his needs, and taking time for himself.  He also had a hard time turning down any requests for help from friends and family even when he really couldn’t afford to do what they were asking. He would break self-care plans that he had made such as going to the gym, cooking meals for himself, or getting a massage.  It was very easy for him to rationalize why someone else’s needs were always more important than his own well-being.  The consequences were that he was always very busy and stressed out, and it ended up negatively impacting his marriage, friendships, and overall quality of life. 

Together we explored the roots of his behaviors and discovered the factors that contributed to his struggles.  Here’s a summary: Kevin grew up in a household that he describes as “supportive and caring.” His family ate dinner together every night, his parents helped him with his homework, and he felt he could come to them if he had problems.  He came to realize however that both his parents were giving to a fault and modeled for him that it was more important to take care of others than to attend to their own emotional and physical needs.  His mother worked full time and was always very busy with multiple volunteering projects.  She never took time for self-care.  She was often stressed out, sleep-deprived, rushing around, and not as emotionally available as she would have been if she had had a better balance between caring for herself and caring for others.  His father modeled being passive; for example, whenever there were disagreements with extended family or friends, his father was always trying to “smooth everything over,” make excuses for unacceptable behavior, and avoid confronting the issue.  So while Kevin’s parents were in fact supportive of him and caring, they also sent Kevin some not-so-helpful messages through their own behavior about what’s important in life and how to navigate interpersonal conflicts. It took Kevin a while to realize that even though his parents were loving and did their best, they still passed on some patterns of behavior that were causing problems for him in his adult life. Through our therapy work together, Kevin was able to prioritize his self-care which required him to limit his old behavior of immediately volunteering when someone needed something. Though it was uncomfortable and counterintuitive at first, Kevin quickly saw and felt the benefits of tending to his own needs first rather than always putting others’ needs over his own.

Father yelling at a child which represents verbal abuse causing complex post traumatic stress disorder

2) Jennifer came to therapy knowing that she had a lot of unresolved childhood trauma to work through. In my clinical experience, I’ve worked with many clients with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (also known as C-PTSD) so am well-versed in how that manifests in adult relationships. She had been involved with many abusive partners and struggled with knowing what counted as unacceptable behavior and what basic, reasonable expectations were for a relationship.  Even when she did identify that she was with an abusive partner, she had a very hard time standing up for herself and choosing to leave. Not only was she she was very scared to leave, understandably, she also had deeply ingrained beliefs that she didn’t deserve better, and that any connection was better than an abusive connection. 

Here’s the story of Jennifer’s traumatic childhood that we uncovered together which explains her struggles in adulthood: She grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive household. Her father was more overtly aggressive and abusive (to both Jennifer and her mother) and her mother’s coping strategy was excessive alcohol use. Jennifer learned at an early age that she had the best chances of avoiding abuse if she could figure out what to do or say when it came to pleasing her parents, especially her father.  She became very focused on reading her parents’ non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.  The better she could “read” what was going on with her parents, she more information she had about an effective survival strategy.  The goal was to avoid being abused or punished in some way, or prevent a fight between her parents.  The more she could keep her parents emotionally stable, the safer she felt. Usually it was best to say nothing and just agree with whatever her parents said even when they were being completely unreasonable. There were many times when Jennifer would apologize for something that she knew wasn’t her fault just to avoid a conflict between herself and her parents. It wasn’t even an option to voice her own opinions, thoughts or feelings. Not only did she learn to do as she was told but she would also preemptively do things such as have an alcoholic drink waiting for her mother when she came home since she knew she would be more relaxed and fun once she had a drink.  Jennifer became an expert at reading other people and adjusting her behavior to keep things as stable as possible.  It really was a necessary survival strategy.  She couldn’t afford to risk trying to change the situation.  She needed her parents in order to survive, even though they were abusive and neglectful. Jennifer lived in this environment day in and day out and continued to re-enact her abusive childhood through her intimate relationships as an adult.  It took her many years to be able to recognize the first signs of abusive behavior and to give herself permission to end contact immediately. Eventually Jennifer met a loving and respectful partner which was a new experience for her. However, it was triggering when her partner would ask a small favor of her or invite her to an activity that she wasn’t interested in doing because she was so used to becoming anxious and just saying “yes” to avoid any conflict or discomfort. The after-effects of complex childhood trauma are far reaching and take time and effort to heal.

In the first example, you can see how Kevin’s parents modeled people-pleasing for him without even realizing they were doing so or the impact that was having on him.  In the second example, it’s clear that Jennifer’s survival strategy required becoming an expert people-pleaser to avoid severe negative consequences from her parents.  Both of these scenarios resulted in struggles with saying “no”, difficulty setting appropriate boundaries, and tolerating discomfort to avoid negative reactions from the other person. You might be able to relate to either Kevin or Jennifer’s stories, or parts of both. If you struggle with this issue of people-pleasing as well, you are not alone.  Remember to be gentle with yourself and know that it takes time and effort to respond differently if you’ve been doing something the same way for years. I encourage you to take a few moments right now to reflect on what your parents modeled for you regarding self-care and people-pleasing, and/or if you used people-pleasing as a strategy in childhood to avoid conflict with your parents and survive the abuse you had to endure.

thumbs up, down, and sideways.  Represents saying yes, no or maybe in the context of setting boundaries. People-pleasing is a classic effect of complex post traumatic stress disorder.

Here are some simple things you can do to work on changing people-pleasing behavior:

1. When someone asks you for a favor or invites you to an event, respond with something like: “I need time to think about that. I’ll get back to you tomorrow” rather than just reflexively answering “yes.” It is totally acceptable to take a little time to process the situation before you decide on your answer.  It might feel unnatural and awkward at first.  That’s okay!

2. While you are thinking about your response, ask yourself if this is something you actually want to do. If the answer is “not really,” or “no” then I encourage you to honor that and not commit yourself.  If you say yes when you mean no, you will end up feeling resentful and taken advantage of because you will have to sacrifice doing something else that you do want to do. 

3. Learn to trust your gut feeling. We all have a deep knowing inside ourselves and we can learn to listen to that knowing. It is when we don’t listen to it that things can go horribly wrong! If you have trouble tapping into your gut feeling, practice by starting with small decisions such as what you want to have for dinner. Eventually you’ll learn to recognize “yes” and “no” on a physical level in your body and to trust yourself.  These body cues are your best compass when faced with a decision.

4. If you are truly neutral about the request or invitation, you can ask yourself about the pros and cons of saying yes (and the pros and cons of saying no).  You shouldn’t say yes just to please someone else if there will be a negative consequence to you. Again, try to get a vote from your gut feeling even if it’s not super strong.

5. It’s okay to negotiate and state your boundaries.  For example, if someone asks you to volunteer 10 hours of your time, you can think carefully about your availability and offer to help for whatever amount of time works for you. You can say something like: “I can’t commit to 10 hours for this project but I’m available for 5 hours if that would still be helpful for you.” If you don’t want to say yes at all, you can say: “I appreciate your asking me to help.  Right now I’m totally booked but I’ll let you know if my schedule opens up.”

6. Practice saying a few simple lines so you will be more comfortable using them when the time comes. Here are some good ones: a) Let me get back to you on that; I have to check my schedule, b) I’m just not ready to do that yet but I’ll let you know if something changes, c) I wish I could help but I’m just not in a position financially to be able to do that right now, and d) I’m just not comfortable with __________; here’s what would feel better for me, e) My policy is that I don’t give out my phone number until I really know someone, or f) I’m not sure how I feel about going out dates at this time. Thanks for the invitation though.

6. Remember– YOU COUNT TOO!  Your wants and needs are just as important as anyone else’s.  There’s no reason that you should have to cancel plans or overextend yourself or your finances just because someone asks you to help.  There are plenty of other people they can ask and if you say “no,” I assure you they will find someone else who will say “yes.” If you say “no” and that person holds a grudge or responds negatively to you, you might want to examine the nature of the relationship to see if it is healthy or unhealthy. Anyone who is a real friend or supportive person will respect your “no” and won’t try to make you feel guilty about it or sway you to change your mind. And an intimate partner should absolutely respect your physical and sexual boundaries. It’s a big red flag if they don’t and you should end that relationship right away.

7. If you set a boundary and then feel guilty about it, a helpful strategy is to pause and recognize that this guilty feeling comes from childhood in one way or another (in addition to societal and/or religious messages). Try to imagine that there is a young part of you feeling guilty and then speak kindly and gently to it.  Talk to this part the way you’d talk to a child who was apologizing for something even though they didn’t do anything wrong. This inner dialogue is often what I help clients develop in therapy and it is in doing this repair work that we “reparent” ourselves. We become our own role models and provide the healthy, nurturing parents that many of us didn’t have, sadly. This reparenting process can be a lifelong journey since our childhood experiences have long-lasting ripple effects in so many different areas of our lives. Therapy is hard work and you’ll get out of it what you put into it. The benefits are worth it and so are you! If you can relate to any of this or think you might be in an abusive relationship please reach out and schedule your free consultation and we can talk about your situation.