Healing People Pleasing & Building Healthy Boundaries
For many of us, the lockdown has been one long exercise in setting healthier boundaries and learning what it means to finally start the journey to stop people pleasing.
Working from home, closed schools, very limited options of going ‘anywhere’ and doing ‘anything’ outside of your own home leads to needing to create more boundaries in your relationships and life; which may have been hard even prior to this challenging time.
If you had difficulty taking time and space for yourself even before it all started, well… I see you. Last year must have been a tough ride for you.
Stop People Pleasing – My Journey To Independence
I have to start with a confession.
I used to be a true people-pleasing queen. Always putting myself last just to keep everyone else happy.
When I was a child it seemed like a pretty normal way to be with others. Then, as a young adult, I started to realize (the hard and painful way!) how it was messing up all of my significant relationships.
I got really angry and resentful about it. And, of course, I became determined to change it.
Well, easier said than done. It was a long, awkward and unsuccessful journey for quite a while. But finally, after years of efforts to “be more assertive’, ‘put myself first’, “find my voice’ and “stand up to myself”, I made a huge discovery.
I realised that in the course of my never-ending attempts to make others happy (or at least not disappointed or angry) I had mastered a whole lot of very useful skills.
If you get a cringe, just hearing the term ‘people-pleasing’ be sure to read on, it’s not as bad as it might think.
The Benefits I Discovered On My Journey To Stop People Pleasing
We have plenty of negative connotations with people-pleasing. No wonder we do, as this can be a very self-destructive quality and can cause serious harm to our most precious relationships. Especially our relationship with ourself!
But nothing in life is all-good or all-bad and people-pleasing is no different.
Over the years of my own experience and while working with my clients, I have come to see ‘people-pleasers’ as very sensitive, empathetic, emotionally attuned people who are brilliant observers and understand body language like no other.
They are secret masters of emotional intelligence.
The only problem is, they use all these wonderful skills against themselves. They seem to be under a spell, that forces them to stay focused on others, while completely forgetting (and often neglecting) their own needs, preferences, desires.
But break the spell …. and the resources you’ll find are truly amazing. You can use them to make yourself thrive and to build healthy, strong and authentic relationships.
Why Pleasing Others First Is Hard To Change
People-pleasing is not an ‘either-or’ thing.
You can be very self-confident and keep healthy boundaries at work, and then come back home and tiptoe around your partner.
Or the other way round, you may be assertive at home and then spend your working days trying to make your boss happy.
You might be mostly ok with setting your boundaries, but have a slight tendency to put yourself last in certain situations or with certain people.
And sometimes you are, just like I used to be, a fully blown, round the clock, around the globe, people-pleaser.
When I think about it now, I know that people-pleasing was the skill that helped me survive my childhood (although it took me years to look at it in this positive and grateful way!).
How Your Past & The People That Surround You Can Define This Trait
I grew up in Poland. My grandparents were survivors of World War II and my parents survived the horrors of the communist occupation after the war.
As a child, I was surrounded by adults who went through huge traumas. Huge traumas, with little or no support.
They were doing their best, but they were scarred, hurting and often raging. And it was this deeply buried, suppressed anger that caused the most trouble for me.
I learnt when to walk on my tiptoes, when to sing happy and never-ending songs and when to hide in my room and stay quiet.
I learnt to be a spark of joy, bubbly and happy to make them hold on to life.
And I learned to get out of the way and become invisible, whenever life felt like too much for them.
No matter what I did — I did it to keep them ‘ok’ (as ok as possible) and myself safe. Always vigilant, carefully reading the signals to choose the most appropriate course of action.
Years later my grandmother used to say: ‘Kasia was such a good child. You could take her for a whole day trip and she would never complain that she was thirsty, hungry or tired’.
Is People Pleasing Really Just An Emotional Coping Mechanism?
It took me years to understand how tricky this ‘praise’ was and even longer to bring back to life and start taking care of this little, blonde girl, who felt too scared to ask for a sandwich.
So, when I grew up and started to build my own relationships, of course, I acted much the same way. That was all I knew. And, as you may imagine, it didn’t work out great. I created loads of pain and drama, both for myself and for the people I loved most.
But the worst thing was, that gradually I started to despise myself. I felt ashamed of the way I kept betraying myself to keep others happy and at the same time, I couldn’t stop.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I tried plenty of times. I read books, participated in workshops and attended psychotherapy. I worked hard to make the change and I made some progress, but nothing spectacular happened to be honest.
It took a major ‘disaster’ to shift things for me. When my marriage and then business fell into pieces, I understood finally, that … I have to start with ME. There was no one else to start with anyway.
Setting Boundaries Within Yourself Is The First Step To Stop People Pleasing
Setting healthy boundaries, contrary to what you might think, starts INSIDE you. And of course, it involves communicating them to others at some point, but start too early…. and you risk messing things up.
If you start expressing your needs, declaring your opinions & preferences or acclaiming your rights before you feel truly ok and authentic in doing so, you have very little chances for success.
And that’s because, for many of us, people-pleasing has very deep roots.
You probably know the 3 major ways in which our nervous system reacts to danger: fight, flight or freeze.
Have you heard about the 4th one?
It’s called the fawn response (or the appease response). The term was coined by Pete Walker in his brilliant book: “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving”. The fawn response is all about trying to read the wishes, needs and demands of others and doing exactly what you believe they want you to do in order to avoid ‘danger’ (which is their challenging emotions /reactions /behaviours) and keep yourself as safe as possible. Most of us have learnt this way of protecting ourselves very early in life when we were small and totally dependent on adults around us.
Unfortunately, you pay an extremely high price for using this mechanism. When you are fully focused on mirroring what others want and expect of you, you detach from your own feelings, needs and wants. You lose your boundaries. You become disconnected from your body.
And once you’re no longer on touch with yourself — life becomes a very threatening and confusing experience.
Shifting Out Of The Cycle Of Pleasing Others
Appeasing, as all the other stress responses is a learnt behaviour. Often with long roots, it’s true, but still just a learnt behaviour. And what is learnt, can be unlearnt.
My own journey from people-pleasing to healthy boundaries has been long and bumpy mainly because I started from the wrong end of the stick :). Once I understood that it was not so much about the way I related to others but rather about the way I related to MYSELF, changes started to happen quickly and easily.
Let me share with you the 3 skills, that you can start learning today, that will allow you to build healthy boundaries and never again worry about playing small, neglecting your own needs or betraying your deepest values.
Shifting Out Of The Emotional Need To Please Others
- SHIFT YOUR EMOTIONAL FOCUS.
If ‘appease’ is your go-to stress response, you are focused primarily on the feelings, needs and preferences of other people. And, I bet, you are brilliant at noticing, recognising and maybe even naming what is going on for them.
You might notice the smallest changes in their body language, all the tiny nuances in the tone of their voice, all the subtle shifts in the emotional atmosphere in the room.
That’s understandable- at some point in your life, your survival depended on making the right observations and adjusting your own behaviour to what you noticed. You’ve had plenty of practice.
The problem is, that being so focused on what is going on around you, you probably ignore to a large extent what is going on inside you. In order to notice and respond to what’s happening with others, you often have to numb your own experience so that it doesn’t get in the way. You might suppress your feelings, your needs, your opinions, your preferences as if they didn’t exist at all.
So, you have all the skills. All you need to do is redirect your focus back to yourself.
What if you took the same skills you use to attune to the feelings of others and directed them towards your own wants and preferences? What if you re-trained your sharp attention to notice and respond to your own emotions and sensations, even the most subtle ones?
The journey to healthy boundaries always starts with you becoming very aware of your own experience. You need to know, deeply and surely, what you feel, need and want before you start telling the rest of the world about it.
It takes time and practice. Start with baby steps. Just ask yourself many times during the day: how do I feel? What do I want now? What feels nice and what doesn’t? What sensations do I feel in my body?
I promise, it works miracles, if done consistently.
When You Stop People Pleasing – You Also Build Strength
2. BUILD YOUR EMOTIONAL STRENGTH
Once you start becoming more and more aware of your own feelings, emotions and sensations, you will quickly notice that some of them might feel quite uneasy, unpleasant or even overly painful.
The same way as it often felt uneasy, unpleasant or overtly painful to witness the feelings and emotions of others.
There might be one emotion that feels particularly threatening (for me it was always anger) or a whole set of ‘negative’ feelings that make you want to run for your life.
Well… you can run but you cannot hide. And I’m sure you know that by now.
Can you imagine the relief you will feel once you stop running away, stop abandoning yourself and learn how to be OK with all of your feelings whatever they might be? Small or big, subtle or intense, nice or not-so-nice.
Once you stop dismissing or beating yourself up for what you experience and give yourself permission to feel just the way you feel?
And … once you give others permission to feel just the way they feel — without taking responsibility for their experience and without trying to manipulate it.
Learning how to embrace and make room for all of our emotions is a life-changing skill. (And if you feel ready to start practising — (read my article EMOTIONAL OVERWHELM)
Setting Boundaries Around People Is A Skill You Will Need To Work On
There is one more reason why this practice is necessary if you want to start setting healthy boundaries.
Setting healthy boundaries is a new skill. And learning a new skill always feels awkward at the start. You have to leave your familiar and cosy (although often very detrimental) comfort zone and face the unknown— and that always triggers some emotions.
Remember how you were learning to ride a bike? I’m sure it involved a few falls and a scratched knee. It didn’t stop you from learning though, did it?
The same with setting your boundaries. Once you feel strong enough to risk a few bruises, once you know how to soothe and comfort the pain, you are much more willing to take some risks and finally start creating life and relationships you love and feel proud of.
Speak To People With Your Heart & Watch The Shared Experience Transform
3. LEARN TO SPEAK FROM THE HEART
- you are aware of your own emotional experience.
- you give yourself permission to feel the way you feel and be the way you are.
- you are comfortable with a bit of discomfort.
You’re all set for success and ready to show up in the world in a new way.
There is just one thing you need to do to set your boundaries in the easiest and most effective way possible: SPEAK FROM YOUR HEART. What do I mean by speaking from the heart?
Well it’s mostly about 3 things:
- ACCEPTING WE ARE ALL HUMAN
We are perfectly imperfect, we make mistakes, we fail. We struggle. We get triggered and go to lengths to defend ourselves if we feel we threatened.
This is what K. Neff, an expert on self-compassion, calls “our common humanness”.
Once you deeply accept that it is not ‘just you’, not ‘just your partner’, not ‘just your boss’ -but all human beings, that are flawed — it will be much easier for you to bring compassion and kindness into your interactions.
Not only for others, but for yourself as well.
It will allow you to soften, to let go of unreasonable expectations, and to be less critical and more appreciative of yourself and others.
Remember, true strength comes from gentleness.
“There is nothing as strong as tenderness and nothing as tender as true strength”.
2. RESPONDING INSTEAD OF REACTING
When we are emotionally triggered, we have little access to neocortex — the part of our brain which is responsible for logical thinking, decision making or planning. Instead, we tend to act from our lower emotional brain which sees the world more in terms of: attack — defence — survival.
We act automatically. We repeat the same old patterns that got us in trouble hundreds of times before. We run on autopilots.
When you get emotionally triggered, the thing you need most of all is TIME OUT.
Whenever you notice your emotions rising up, always take time to attend to yourself first. Before you say or do anything, take a moment to check in with yourself what is really going on. Notice, feel, make space, embrace whatever is going on for you.
No matter what is happening — you have the right to take time! Taking time will allow you to move beyond automatic reactions, defence mechanisms and emotional drama and instead, consciously choose the response that is healthy and respectful for yourself and others.
3. STAYING CONNECTED TO YOUR VALUES
If you asked me a few years ago what my values were, I would probably mumble something vague about love, kindness and probably family. But I didn’t give it much thought until I understood that it was the very reason why I felt like my life was heading nowhere.
Your values guide your thoughts, words and actions. They express the essence of who you are and what truly matters to you. If you live by them- you feel fulfilled. If you ignore them, you often feel stuck and confused. If you betray them- you suffer.
For people who tend to please others, it is extremely easy to start depending on others to define their values for them. And that is a recipe for disaster.
If you want to set clear boundaries- you need to know where to place them— this is a very personal decision. You need to be sure where you’re heading to and why. Otherwise you’re like Alice in Wonderland:
‘Alice: Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to’ — said the cat.
‘I don’t much care where’ — said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”
‘So long as I get SOMEWHERE’ — Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh you’re sure to do that -said the cat. If you only walk long enough’
So often we just walk, walk and walk trying to get somewhere, to a “better place” in our interactions with others, but never truly stop for a moment to consider what kind of ‘better place’ we truly long for. We know what we don’t want, but are we really clear what we do want instead? And why it matters so much?
Stopping People Pleasing & Finding New Strength
So, this is where you need to start. Find you true and authentic values and they will give you all the inspiration, motivation and strength you need to start redefining your boundaries with others.
When you have:
- embraced our human imperfections
- learnt to stop yourself from reacting automatically
- and feel truly and deeply connected to your values
You can be sure that once you open your mouth — you will speak right from the heart.
When you speak from the heart others can feel your authenticity and your true power. Even if you use the same words you have always used, the message you send is very different. And it will be received differently. There is so much more to communication than words.
There is no ‘quick fix’ to people-pleasing. But once you know where to start and which road to take – things are not half as hard as you might think.
Learning to set healthy boundaries is a process and a journey.
But for me and for many of my clients this has proven to be the journey of our lives! Full of adventures, discoveries and amazing people we met on the way. A journey home, back to ourselves, to our inner power and authenticity. Back to thriving. Back to life and relationships we love and feel proud of.
Ready to do the same? Let’s talk! You don’t have to do it alone. BOOK YOUR FREE DISCOVERY CALL HERE.