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How to stop ‘people-pleasing’ and set healthy boundaries

April 24, 2023

While ‘people-pleasing’ sounds like it should be a positive thing (who doesn’t love making  people feel good?), it can actually be problematic. Although being caring and helpful are great qualities to have, when we go too far to please others, and continually place their needs above our own, this can have a negative impact on our mental health.

The difference between ‘people-pleasing’ and being nice

It’s natural to want to help the people in our lives; it makes us feel good and strengthens our relationships. However, people-pleasing goes beyond being nice.

A people-pleaser is someone who goes to great lengths to make others feel comfortable or happy, even if this means neglecting their own needs.

For example, let’s say that a people-pleaser has an important task to do, but their friend asks them for help painting their living room. They don’t want to risk disappointing their friend, so they agree and delay doing the important task, even though this makes them feel stressed.

People-pleasers tend to be agreeable and empathetic people, however their need to please others means that they can have trouble advocating for themselves or voicing their true feelings.

What does ‘people-pleasing’ look like?

  • Finding it hard to say no
  • Feeling guilty when you tell people no
  • Wanting people to like you and approve of you, even if you don’t feel the same way about them
  • Avoiding conflict and confrontation
  • Worrying about what other people might think of you
  • Being hasty to accept blame
  • Being quick to apologise, even when something isn’t necessarily your fault
  • Difficulty voicing your honest opinion
  • Prioritising the needs of others above your own

Reasons why people might ‘people-please’

In order to combat people-pleasing behaviour, it’s important to understand where it comes from; why do some people find it so hard to say no to things, or struggle to advocate for themselves? Here are some of the reasons why a person might be prone to people-pleasing:

  • Low self-esteem

If a person has low confidence, they may not value themselves or prioritise their needs. Therefore, they draw their self-worth from others, seeking validation and approval in order to feel good about themselves. You can find information about how to boost your self esteem here.

  • Fear of rejection

If someone desperately wants to be liked and accepted, they may feel scared that people will reject them. So, in order to avoid rejection, they go above and beyond to help others to emphasise the important role they play in their lives.

  • Learned behaviour

People may have past experiences that have taught them to use people-pleasing as a coping mechanism. For example, if someone has grown up in a very strict household, or suffered abuse, they may have learned to be as compliant as possible to avoid conflict or aggression.

How people-pleasing can impact your mental health

While people-pleasers might find it difficult to say no, saying yes too often can lead to negative feelings, like stress, worry and fatigue. It’s nice to be a thoughtful and caring person, but it is problematic if it comes at the cost of neglecting ourselves. This can have consequences on our mental health:

  • Stress and anxiety

By doing other people favours or constantly checking in with all of the people in your life, you may start to feel stressed because there’s too much on your plate, which can lead to anxiety.

  • Exhaustion

If you’re busy helping other people all the time, you’ll have little energy and time left for yourself, which can leave you feeling drained and neglected.

  • Feeling resentful

You may become bitter towards people in your life and feel that they’re taking advantage of your kindness, while they think that you’re happy to help.

  • Lack of focus

By putting all of your energy into helping other people, you may have no time to focus on your own goals.

  • Lost sense of self

If you’re constantly filtering yourself to seek the approval and acceptance of others, you may start to feel like you don’t know who you are anymore.

What are boundaries?

We all have needs and setting boundaries is a way to establish them via making clear expectations of ourselves. By communicating and upholding our boundaries, it makes it easier to stay true to ourselves, which is an act of self-compassion and helps us to feel less stressed.

Remember that boundaries can be flexible depending on how you’re feeling at the time. It’s a good idea to assess them every now and then to make sure that they’re working for you.

How to establish and implement healthy boundaries

  • Consider your emotional and physical needs

You may be wondering - how do I know what my boundaries are? The best way to figure this out is by establishing your emotional and physical needs. It could help to write it down and make a list of what serves you and what doesn’t serve you.

If something or someone is negatively impacting your life or your wellbeing, give yourself permission to step away. By doing this, you’ll be able to focus on the things you do want to do and surround yourself with people who are good for you.

  • Communicate your boundaries

Once you’ve established your boundaries, it’s important that you communicate them to the people in your life. If someone is asking too much of you, be clear that you’re not willing or don’t have the capacity to help.

If you’re used to saying yes and always fitting in with other people, it may take you some time to feel comfortable upholding your boundaries. Be patient with yourself and keep practising - the more you do it, the easier it’ll become.

  • Delay your decision

If someone asks you to do something, instead of responding right away, tell them you need time to think about it. This will allow you to pause and assess whether it’s something you actually want to do and how doing it will make you feel, so that you can make the best decision.

  • Learn to say no

Rather than making excuses or over-apologising, learn how to say no assertively. Remember that you’re in charge of how you spend your time and energy and that you’re allowed to say no when you don’t want to do something.

If the word ‘no’ feels too blunt, try using one of these phrases instead:

  1. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it.
  2. I can’t add anything else to my plate.
  3. I will have to pass, but thank you.

  • Help people on your terms

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you can never help the people in your life, it just puts the ball in your court. When you want to do something for someone, then go ahead, just make sure that it’s not negatively impacting you.

  • Get professional help

If you need help understanding your boundaries and how to set them, ieso can help. At ieso, we provide online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for a range of mental health issues, giving you the tools you need to challenge your thoughts and support your mental health.

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This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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