The Guide to Setting Boundaries for People-Pleasers

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For a recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser like myself, saying no is really difficult.

Even when I know that I’m at my limit, I still take things on or say yes because, simply, I want to. I love doing things for others and I love being around other people. Maybe it comes from being an only child, but I’ve always felt like I create such strong bonds and relationships through helping others.

I want to work with new clients, help out my friends, support my partner, and meet people for coffee or happy hour. I extend myself, time and time again, in my career and my relationships.

But what happens when you extend not two hands, but twenty?

As a woman, I definitely feel a certain pressure to do everything and do it perfectly, be everything and be perfection — and do and be it all with a smile. Don’t let the world see your flaws, your stumbles, your struggles, because they won’t love you as much or respect your abilities. And that would be the worst, wouldn’t it? To not be loved. To not be respected.

But as Brené Brown so graciously puts it, “How can we expect people to put value on our work when we don’t value ourselves enough to set and hold uncomfortable boundaries?”

For people-pleasers? Setting boundaries goes against our core. But people-pleasing is not a badge of honour, especially when it causes us to sacrifice our values and our worth.

Boundaries desperately need to be defined. Without boundaries, it’s the easiest thing in the world to cross the line into a territory of resentment. It costs us our time, energy, and mental capacity. We can’t pour out energy when our cup is empty. We can only give to the truest amount when we, ourselves, feel full.

“How can we expect people to put value on our work when we don’t value ourselves enough to set and hold uncomfortable boundaries?”
— Brené Brown

So those boundaries? They are truly a form of self-care.

Defining my boundaries means that I am honouring myself and my limits so that I can show up for others in my life in a way that feels productive and true to me.

So what exactly are “boundaries” anyway?

Setting a boundary might seem like you’re closing yourself off to people, but it actually does the opposite. Boundaries allow you to better understand and communicate your sense of self. I believe they actually open more doors, instead of close them.

I went to Brené Brown for her definition of boundaries, which is where I first learned about how important they are. In her book Rising Strong she calls it Living BIG: Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity. I like thinking of it as a boundary-building sandwich.

The filling. Boundaries come from an understanding of the behaviours that are okay and not okay to you. It’s a hard-stop on what doesn’t feel good, the gut feelings, the stuff that brings up resentment. It’s saying no instead of yes. It’s the filling that you decide in your boundary-building sandwich: BLT? Veggie? Chicken salad? It’s your choice, your boundaries.

The bread. Integrity is the self-respect and accountability factor that keeps your boundaries in place. It’s easy to waver on boundaries or push your line (especially as a people-pleaser), but integrity keeps you honest and shows that you respect your boundaries — and other people. It’s the bread that holds the sandwich together.

The spread. Generosity is coming at the situation with the perspective that people are doing their best — and so are you. The sandwich wouldn’t be the same without a little mayo or mustard, and boundaries aren’t the same unless we recognize others in the process and where they’re coming from, and can generously communicate openly.

This three-part definition not only includes what boundaries are, but also how to keep them in place and discuss your boundaries from a point of care.

Until recently, I’ve never really defined my boundaries. I think I often create boundaries in my mind, but when they’re not concrete and 100% understood, it’s easy to compromise on them. Especially to please others.

Boundaries are so important for people-pleasers because it’s easy for us to make an excuse and step over our line for others in order to be liked and accepted. But it’s your acceptance of yourself that is the most important — not the acceptance of others.

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My real-world example of setting boundaries (and following through)

Here’s what my process looked like using Brené Brown’s Living BIG method.

Recently, I had my limits tested by a client who was disrespectful of my work for them in a nonconstructive way, with the purpose of making me feel inferior. I’ve worked with difficult clients before, and I will again, but this time it went into a territory where I became consumed with the hurtful words and resented doing any further work for this person.

Instead of my usual position of, “Oh, someone doesn’t like me? It’s now my mission to make them like me,” like a good people-pleaser, I paused.

Were my values being compromised? Yes. Was this crossing a boundary that I had set for myself? Yes. Did this feel okay? No. I won’t let someone treat me like they are walking all over me — I am not a doormat. I have a voice, and I matter.

But it’s your acceptance of yourself that is the most important — not the acceptance of others.

This certain situation with my client put me right up against my boundary. But knowing what that boundary actually was made it so much easier to evaluate the situation. I could see that this client had a pattern of their own, but I was also continually making excuses for their behaviour, which compromised my worth and my values.

The negativity generated from this client impacted more than just the situation at hand. When that kind of negativity comes in, and it is digested as the truth, it impacts so many facets of life: relationships, mental health, our vision of who we are.

Our values need to be strong. And this is where integrity comes in.

I needed to hold myself accountable to my boundaries, and I did. I found a solution that didn’t force me to fall back into people-pleaser territory. I enlisted support from a team that I trusted and communicated my boundaries. In doing so, I supported my belief in myself. This also helped the client in the end, too.

And the generosity part of Living BIG? In this case, I recognized that if someone doesn’t like me or respect me, it’s actually more about them and their own insecurities than me. And that they, like me, are doing their best and trying to grow their business.

We can’t please everyone. We also shouldn’t. By setting boundaries we can come to a place of understanding deep within ourselves and know where that line is. And when someone steps over it, we can act from a place of knowing our worth and that we are enough, instead of from a place of fear and resentment.

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Setting boundaries is a form of self-care, and a way to let go of the need to be perfect. It’s a way for us to live a life that feels on purpose with our ideals, our values, and it strengthens our belief in ourselves and our worth.

People will always have opinions and not everyone is going to like us. That’s okay. But we reserve the right to like ourselves. And when you compromise yourself, the path to resentment, anger, guilt and dislike is quick and painful. The aftermath is long. And it doesn’t just impact you, but the people around you who support you — because they see you suffering, and the suffering is of our own doing.

So set your boundaries and don’t apologize for them. They are yours, and they are personal to you. They don’t have to be rigid and unchanging, though — you can choose to move them if it serves you and your values.

It’s time (especially as women) that we stop compromising ourselves, our worth, and our values to please everyone. We are so capable, so strong, so incredible, so enough. Let’s start believing it.