The Life Changing Magic of Boundaries (Lessons From a Recovering People Pleaser)

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I was born to please.

As I’ve said before, being an “easy kid” is not all it’s cracked up to be. Rebellion was never in my blood, but I experienced the same extreme ups and downs as any other teenager. But in my case, it was self-inflicted.

If I had even just an inkling that there was a human, somewhere, who wasn’t OVERWHELMINGLY HAPPY with me at every moment, I would basically collapse into a puddle.

The Truth About Being a People Pleaser

“People-pleasing” isn’t actually an accurate description for the most extreme of us. I don’t only want to please people, I want to blow them away.

That desire, if left unchecked, creates a constant state of disappointment in yourself. You continue to set absolutely impossible standards for yourself (and for the way other people respond to you, which, shockingly, you can’t actually control) and then you continue to tell yourself that you’re not enough.

Yes, it’s just as deeply exhausting as it sounds.

In fact, it’s a prison–and sadly, not all that uncommon.

When you really dig into it, allllll the way into the extremely unpleasant roots of it, people-pleasing is actually a form of selfishness and manipulation. As a recovering people-pleaser, this was absolutely devastating to realize. So it’s okay if that sentence makes you want to punch me–I get it.

It’s selfish; because you are relying on other peoples’ reactions to define your self-worth. You can’t truly, objectively love and care for other people when you live in a state of emotional dependency.

It’s manipulative; because you become so eager to please and delight people that you end up saying “yes” to lots of obligations when your heart definitely wanted to say no. You end up putting on a mask and making exaggerations so that people who don’t see the world the same way as you will still be happy with you.

When you are an extreme people-pleaser, you are constantly trying to control people, things, and situations that aren’t really yours to carry. It is manipulative to others, but it’s most hurtful and manipulative to yourself.

The Solution/How to Start Recovering

A few years ago, a leader of a women’s group I attended started talking about this really weird concept–“boundaries.”

As someone who strongly believed that putting others’ thoughts and feelings ahead of my own was a strength (and it can be), this concept sounded wild.

In fact, hearing about boundaries that other women had set (in their marriages, friendships, and families) actually made me sad. It felt like setting boundaries was going to mean cutting my loved ones off emotionally.

But the truth is that setting boundaries actually sets you free.

What Are Boundaries?

A big reason that boundaries are so magical and life-changing for people-pleasers is because you can’t set boundaries and continue to take ownership of everyone else’s emotions, reactions, and decisions.

“A boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends.” (Positive Psychology)

In order to set healthy, loving boundaries, you have to clearly identify what you can control and what you cannot. And that process of recognizing and acknowledging that difference is vitally important for people pleasers.

Boundaries mean: 

  • Allowing yourself the kindness and respect you offer to others
  • You can support people you love, have empathy for others–but not carry their burdens (in fact, you can actually support them better this way)
  • You aren’t mentally and emotionally afflicted by other people’s burdens
  • You aren’t responsible for other people’s choices and consequences
  • FREEEEEEEDOM

Boundaries do NOT mean:

  • You are selfish
  • You don’t care about others
  • You won’t be emotionally close with your loved ones
  • You can lash out when (not if) someone tries to ignore your boundary

Examples of Boundaries

  1. You are comfortable with social media, but you don’t share your password
  2. You are happy to visit extended family members on the weekends, but weekdays are reserved for your kids
  3. You can answer work questions until 5:30 pm, but you turn your phone off for the rest of the night

4. Your kids can talk to you while you’re changing, but they have to stay in another room (Don’t even get me started on the benefits of setting boundaries with your kids and teaching them–even toddlers!)

How Boundaries Have Helped Me

In the beginning, I struggled to set boundaries, and I struggled to maintain them. But trust me, every minute of it was worth it.

My husband recently had an extreme episode of anxiety and insomnia that landed him in the hospital. It was heartbreaking, and of course, it impacted me – but it also wasn’t my burden to bear.

I recognized that I could support him by praying for him any time of the day or night, taking more of the housekeeping load (temporarily), pick up and drop off the kids from school, and keep the kids quiet when he was finally sleeping. And I was so happy to do what I could to support him.

But what I could not do was force him to take deep breaths, or “convince” him to calm down. I could not convince him things were going to be okay. If he had resisted, I couldn’t have forced him to call a doctor or to get the help he needed.

Was it difficult and exhausting? Absolutely. But being able to see what I could control and what I couldn’t control prevented me from carrying a burden that didn’t belong to me.

And because of my healthy boundaries and strength from the Lord, I was able to support him much more fully. If I had been carrying his emotional load, I would have crashed and lashed out and made the situation harder on him.

Setting boundaries leads to internal rest. Even for people pleasers.

If you’d like to learn more, I recommend “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

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