Are you a people-pleaser? How to set boundaries and be more authentic in connection with others?

A client of mine had an enmeshed relationship with her narcissistic father, whom she needed to please and meet his unrealistic standard throughout her childhood.  Her tendency to please her father was related to survival in the family in her childhood, as well as a way to seek approval and love from him.  However, deep down inside her, she admitted that she had never obtained unconditional love from her father and she constantly thought she is not good enough.  Furthermore, her narcissistic father also modelled behavioral pattern of seeking external validation through achievement and emotionally shallow relationships.  As a result, my client also took in her father’s external approval seeking pattern and striving hard to career success and status, as well as networking frequently for superficial relationships.  In fact, she admitted that she felt empty inside and had no real friendship to share her inner world.  Since she needed to sustain her career success and status through her networks, she tended to be a people-pleaser and did not have boundaries when relating with her social networks.  She felt overwhelmed all the time as she did not know how to say “no” to others too all the invitations for collaboration and request for help.  Are you a people-pleaser similar to my clients?    How to break the cycle of people-pleasing and ending up feeling overwhelmed?

First, it is important to identify the people-pleasing tendency when you relate with others.  In different social groups, such as friend groups, colleague networks, or family groups, you need to be observant that whether you have silencing who you really are and sacrificing your needs in order to satisfy others’ needs.  For instance, if one of your friends kept asking you questions about your private life without respecting your boundaries in a social gathering, you may observe your way of responding.  Whether you suppressed your needs for setting boundaries to keep your private life within yourselves, or whether you were overly submissive and nice and told your friends whatever they asked.  You may also observe your emotions after your responses, such as feeling uncomfortable and unsafe for telling your friends something you did not want them to know.

When you have a better understanding of your needs and preferences, you may start to set healthy boundaries with others.  Of course, you need to strive a balance between setting boundaries and accommodating others’ needs at the same time.  It is also unhealthy to cut off or set too rigid boundaries with others.  However, when you know your needs and preferences more, you may try to be more authentic in relating with others when the situations allow.  Learning to say “no” sometimes is very important for setting boundaries with others.  When you say “no” to others, you need to respect the other parties and be calm in your responding.  For example, when you refuse to answer your friends’ questions about your private life in a social gathering, you may calmly say, “I do not want to talk about this, can we change the topic?” 

It is common for your friends and family members being confused when you start to set boundaries with them after being a longstanding people-pleaser.  Some of them may feel angry at you for suddenly rejecting them.  It is inevitable that some of them may distant you as they think they cannot get what they expect from you anymore.  It is tempting to loosen up our boundaries in order to regain the “connection” with these people.  However, when you understand that these relationships are not developed basing on mutuality, you need to be firm in your boundary setting with these people.  It is also beneficial for you to meet more new friends and learn to set healthy boundaries with them at the very beginning of the relationships. 

It is never too late to learn to set healthy boundaries with others.  With healthy boundaries, relationships grow even better and can be more fruitful and meaningful.

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