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Living BIG: Setting Boundaries When You’re a People Pleaser

Are you a people pleaser? Do you often say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’? Do you find yourself feeling resentful and like you’re being taken advantage of?

You’re not alone. So many of us find ourselves in this place too; feeling unable to ask for what we need, say no to people and set boundaries. In short, we take a lot of crap and go without support. Often we keep going, not wanting to let people down, until the day our bodies say ‘no’ for us, and we come down with exhaustion, depression or an illness that finally forces us to stop, at least for a while.

People pleasing & rescuing

As someone who grew up to be equal parts ‘people pleaser’ and ‘rescuer’, I know how hard it is – and how scary it is – to set boundaries. But, I have also sat boiling in resentment, felt hard done by and used; and suffered by putting myself and my own needs last on the list; ignoring my intuition when I knew I needed something else.

This isn’t our natural state. It’s not part of our personality or who we really are. In fact, it’s simply a coping strategy that we have developed in order to keep us safe.

When we are children, we have two basic needs ‘attachment’ and ‘authenticity’ and often, our display of authenticity threatens our attachment to the adults and caregivers in our lives. Because we’re wired to see attachment as essentially the source of our own life-or-death; it’s our authenticity that suffers and is minimised. We learn to shape ourselves into whatever the people around us want to be – what’s most convenient for other people.

We say ‘yes’ to please. We’re afraid to set boundaries and risk upsetting people. We don’t ask for the help that we need because we don’t want to ‘be a burden’ and we certainly don’t want to rock the boat by risking a conflict when we could just say nothing and put up with poor treatment. We all know how terrible it feels when someone crosses our boundaries, but it’s easy to continue allowing that to happen. It takes courage and vulnerability to set boundaries with people.

Want to show up with compassion? Then you need boundaries.

Brené Brown is a world-renowned researcher into vulnerability, connection and what gets in the way. Her work exploring compassion and it’s relationship with boundaries is likely going to be surprising to you, but it might just shift how you think about boundaries…

Brené has found that the most compassionate people are also the most boundaried. This is because maintaining boundaries keeps you out of resentment so you can continue coming from a place of compassion. We’ve all felt compassion fatigue at times when it just seems to run out, right? So this is important to note.

According to Brené’s research, compassionate people “assume other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need and don’t put up with a lot of crap”. Assuming that people are doing their best without setting boundaries and looking after yourself, is another route into resentment, judgement and misunderstandings. We’re not our best selves when we’re coming from this place.

So, the traits of the most compassionate people are that they:

  • Ask for what they need
  • Say ‘no’ when they need to
  • When they say ‘yes’, they really mean it

Why you need to be Living BIG

So what’s the solution to setting healthy boundaries with compassion? Brené tells us it’s about ‘Living BIG’.

Firstly, I love this acronym because if there’s one thing that people pleasing and saying ‘yes’ to people when you want or need to say ‘no’ does, it’s reducing your capacity for living BIG. You can get so busy living your life for other people – doing for other people and taking responsibility for other people – that you don’t live for yourself. You simply can’t live your life to the full and do the things that feel good for you if you’re living without boundaries.

So let’s explore what it means to be Living BIG. Big stands for Boundaries, Integrity and Generosity.

Boundaries

This means getting clear on what behaviours are okay, and what is not okay. You’ll know this because you feel it. Those times when someone says or does something to you and you start to feel angry? Resentful? Those emotions are cues that your boundaries may have been crossed.

So you might start by writing out two lists, and you can break this down and do it for specific aspects of your life.

Integrity

Integrity is the quality of being whole and honest. If you’re feeling divided and letting things slide, you’re not acting with integrity. Brené explains that integrity is how we set our boundaries and hold ourselves accountable for respecting them. Yep, it’s about us respecting our own boundaries. This isn’t down to someone else to maintain, we are all responsible for our own boundaries. And when I say boundaries, I really mean wellness. Our boundaries exist so we can protect our wellbeing and compassionately help others from the place of being our best selves.

I’ve had Brené’s quote about integrity on my wall to remind me to think carefully about my decision-making, and I’ve found it helpful at times when my first response is to avoid, walk away or pack the hurt and resentment down, and I hope it helps you to reflect on too:

“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s doing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; it’s choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them”

Generosity

This is about choosing to be generous in our assumptions about other people’s words and behaviours. It’s about believing that people are doing their best with all their abilities, resources and knowledge they have right now. So instead of viewing behaviour and words and malicious, we might suggest that they are having a bad day; they’re not a great communicator or we might consider how they’ve come to think and behave a certain way. This is helpful for us because we are telling ourselves that their behaviour is about them and not us, and it allows us to stay in that place of compassion. But, extending the most generous interpretation of someone’s behaviour is not a free pass for them to treat us how they want to, and take what they want from us.

As Brené says, Living BIG is about saying “Yes, I am going to be generous in my assumptions and intentions while standing in my integrity and being very clear about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable”.

A final note on setting boundaries with someone who is hurting

We often find it hardest to set boundaries with people who are hurting or going through a hard time. This is not a free pass for them to take advantage and it is still okay to say no or only do as much as feels okay for you.

If, like me, you’ve been a ‘helper’ in life with ‘rescuing’ tendencies, it’s tempting to try to do your best to ‘save’ everyone. Here’s what I want you to know that I have (painfully) learned: not everyone is ready to be helped. Some people are sitting in a cycle of pain, and this is familiar and (believe it or not) actually more comfortable for them than doing something to move beyond that. Often, when we’re in ‘rescuing’ mode; when we’re doing things for people and listening to the same ‘poor me’ stories, we are unintentionally keeping them in a place of feeling like a victim in life. We’re making it easy for them to stay in this place because they don’t have to do anything for themselves.

The truth is, people don’t need rescuing. They need pointing back to what they can do and all the qualities, skills and resources they already have inside of them; they need encouragement to stretch their comfort zones and try different approaches; they need good questions to help them reframe their thinking about their situation and the role that they are playing. Ultimately, they need permission to take responsibility for their own lives back. And for that to happen, we have to let go. We have to re-focus our attention on taking responsibility for our own lives and setting boundaries and showing them how it’s done.

What boundaries do you need to put in place so you can act from a place of integrity, and also generously interpret the intentions, words and actions of others?

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