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The Underpinnings of People-Pleasing

5 tips to help you set boundaries.

People-pleasers strive to keep the peace and avoid conflict at all costs, often at their own expense. Fairly empathic, people-pleasers frequently place other people’s needs first and are sometimes exploited due to this tendency. In addition, their need for acceptance and approval creates a vulnerability with a specific type of personality. Although a person may be aware of this self-sabotaging inclination, it may be difficult to rectify for multiple reasons.

First, the compulsion to accommodate is conscientious and selfless, yet it can be self-destructive if taken to an extreme. This relational tendency may partially be driven by unconscious mechanisms rooted in an attachment relationship with a parent.

Egocentric parents are often consumed with how they feel, and as long as their child feels similarly, the parent is fine. Yet if a child has a feeling that differs from the parent’s, the parent typically has two responses. He or she dismisses the child’s feeling, or punishes and shames the child for having a feeling that is different.

For example, Sally, an eight-year-old girl, is scared to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Sally discloses her anxious feelings to her mother, Andrea. Andrea is furious and shames Sally. “How can you say such a thing? Your grandmother would be so disappointed in you! Don’t be so selfish!”

Alternatively, a parent who is empathic says, “What makes you nervous, honey?” After Sally explains why she is nervous, her mother honors the feeling. “It’s natural to feel anxious. Death is a frightening thing. I get it. I will be there with you. I promise. If it gets to be too much, we can take a breather in the lounge area.”

How a parent handles a child’s feelings teaches the child to either trust or distrust how she feels. A child who distrusts her feelings, often keeps them locked inside due to the fear that they are wrong and shameful. The child continually discounts how she feels and places the parent’s feelings first. Eventually, this becomes an unconscious tendency in relationships outside of the parent and child dyad. Unintentionally, the child becomes an adult who believes her feelings are less important than other people’s.

An additional component may involve a child’s experience of rejection from a parent. Emotionally unavailable parents frequently withhold acceptance and approval in order to maintain a position of power within the parent and child dyad. Critical and difficult to please, this type of parent “dangles the carrot,” which keeps a child clamoring for approval. Also, a parent like this typically oscillates between idealizing and devaluing the child, but rarely expresses deep and authentic love for who the child is. Treated as either superhuman or subhuman, the child rarely feels human. The cycle of trying not to disappoint people while striving to be “perfect” may carry through to adulthood.

Another explanation may be that the parent routinely played the victim in the context of the parent and child relationship. Frequently, when a parent is unable to cope with his or her own emotions, he or she incorporates a victim stance in order to manipulate the situation and inflict guilt. For example, Shelly comes home from school and finds her mother crying in the corner. Alarmed, Shelly goes to her mother and asks what is wrong. Her mother looks up and says, “Your uncle said we can't go to his lake house this summer. Our vacation is ruined. I wish you wouldn't have brought your cat last summer. That pushed him over the edge.”

The parent in this scenario unfairly places the blame on Shelly while maintaining the stance that she is innocent and suffers because of Shelly. Feeling immense shame, Shelly moves forward continually worrying about a misstep that may upset her mother in the future. This fear may transition into adulthood and bleed into other relationships. A people-pleaser desperately tries to avoid upsetting another person.

It is important for a people-pleaser to realize his or her worth as a person. Part of that personal journey may include figuring out how to set up healthy boundaries with the people in his or her life who take advantage. Many people assume setting a boundary requires a firm and assertive manner. For people-pleasers, this may not mesh with their personality. But these five tips can help someone who shies away from confrontation and wants to keep the peace but realizes the importance of self-care.

First, a person may need to know he or she has permission to prioritize personal needs. This may feel counterintuitive to a deeply empathic person who is naturally sensitive and hyper-aware of the feelings of others, but it helps maintain good mental health. Resurrecting healthy boundaries often allows a person to take care of himself or herself before making sacrifices for others.

Second, avoid providing an elaborate explanation when resurrecting a boundary. Keep it simple. A long explanation may allow the other person to counter your reasons with their ideas. For example,

“I am so sorry, Kim. I cannot attend your workshop this Saturday. Billy has soccer practice and I need to get to the store. My mom’s coming over for dinner. It’s a really busy day.”

Kim responds with, “Don’t worry! I'll have my husband pick Billy up for soccer practice when he takes Riley…. and the workshop ends in the early afternoon, so it is all good! See you Saturday!”

Keeping it simple may be a more effective approach. For instance, “I apologize. I cannot make it Saturday. Several conflicts cropped up. Have a great workshop. I will be rooting for you!”

Third, a person may try to maintain warm intonations and inflections in his or her voice, so the message conveys caring and kind undertones. Although the content may not be what the opposite party wishes to hear, delivering the message politely and diplomatically may soften the blow. Adapting the interaction to a people-pleaser’s humble style may feel more comfortable and natural. Using humor may also be helpful.

For example, “Kim, I won’t be able to attend your workshop this Saturday. If I spend one more minute on Zoom my head may pop off. I just cannot do it. I’ll see you the following week!”

Fourth, do not wait too long to establish a boundary, or the anger and resentment may take over. Setting a boundary early may help to maintain composure.

For example, Tim has been taking his elderly father to emergency care for years. His brother and sister who live in town have never offered to help. Tim receives a phone call from his mother at midnight on Sunday night. She is upset and needs Tim to take his father to the emergency department. Tim is exhausted and understandably resentful and angry. “Why can’t you call Sally or Tommy?” he yells into the phone. Why am I the only one helping?” Tim’s mom starts to cry. Tim feels horrible for exploding, so he races over and spends the night at the hospital with his father. Tim feels guilty about his outburst, so he continues to accompany his father to the emergency room.

Alternatively, say Tim calls his brother and sister after the second or third trip and says, “I’m going to need some help with dad. Work is difficult to manage after the late-night hospital trips. Any chance we can take turns? Sally, can you take the next one? I’ll call mom and tell her we are going to rotate.”

Establishing a boundary early allows a person to handle the discussion calmly and strategically instead of resentfully.

Fifth, plan and practice what to say. Roleplay with a significant other. Saying the words out loud helps get them out in the heat of the moment. For a people-pleaser, saying “no” and setting a limit is stressful, so practicing may increase his or her comfort with the words. As silly as it may feel, the outcome may be life-changing.

People-pleasers may have great hearts, but constantly “running on empty” makes for a hard life. A solid self-examination of these tendencies in conjunction with a look at a past relationship with an attachment figure may help find the motivation to resurrect healthy boundaries.

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