Hackernoon logoStop Being a People Pleaser: Must-Read Guide on How to Set Clear and Healthy Boundaries by@vinitabansal

Stop Being a People Pleaser: Must-Read Guide on How to Set Clear and Healthy Boundaries

Vinita Bansal Hacker Noon profile picture

@vinitabansalVinita Bansal

Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations

Do you feel exhausted, even frustrated working hard, putting in extra hours, sometimes even on weekends and late nights trying to catch up on work, but not being able to make progress on your own goals?

Is it the demands of the workplace that’s eating up into your time or the fact that you don’t have control over your own schedule. Do you create value or simply doing work to satisfy others expectations?

Jumping in to solve every crisis at work, saying yes to new projects even when your plate is full, staying late to help others while missing the deadlines of your own deliverables, pushing your personal commitments aside to make time for another meeting, nodding your head in agreement even though you disagree and answering every email and message as if your life depended on it.

Helping others out of genuine care goes a long way in establishing trust and building better relationships at work. But when it stems from the desire to make others think favourably of you, manipulating how they perceive you by doing things that make them happy, seeking constant validation, acceptance and approval to establish your own sense of self-worth, you are only concerned with the “I”. 

With your decision making rooted in reward and punishment, you develop a strong tendency to be a people pleaser. 

At its core, being nice is about being liked by others by making everything smooth. No waves, no friction. It’s based on this (woefully inaccurate) theory: If I please others, give them everything they want, keep a low profile, and don’t ruffle feathers or create any discomfort, then others will like me, love me, and shower me with approval and anything else I want - Aziz Gazipura

People pleasing is not harmless though it may seem like it. You are not acting out of your sense of goodness for others but rather it’s deeply seated in your fear of rejection, feeling of helplessness, risk of failure, discomfort from displeasing others and not having the courage to receive their disapproval.

It’s utterly damaging to your own self and your relationship with others. Overthinking and evaluating every move to make others happy prevents you from speaking up your mind, expressing your true intent, come to reality with your own beliefs and do things that will bring actual value to work.  

Risks of being a people pleaser 

1. Live with a sense of mediocrity as opposed to establishing excellence 

Being always ready to help others at the cost of your own time and health, pushing your commitments aside to make time for others and never learning to say no will make you over commit. As you find it hard to catch up on your commitments, you will end up doing mediocre work and may even fail to deliver on some of your promises. 

Your performance will suffer, team members will despise you for producing low quality work and others may lose trust for breaking the promises you should have never made in the first place. 

Since people are not privy to your other commitments, they will use their own yardstick to define your value through the value you deliver to them. 

Being a people pleaser will subject you to intense criticism as opposed to being an object of their affection.

2. Struggle with focus and poor quality of decisions 

Restraining yourself to act on your impulse and pretending to be someone you are not will consume large amounts of energy leaving less energy for doing focused work. 

Research shows that our willpower is like a muscle that can get tired. After exercising self control and pouring all your energy into pleasing others, your mental resources will be depleted. You will fail in your attempts to do focused work which will add to your sense of frustration and cause you further stress and anxiety. 

With less control over your emotions, you will react to things around you instead of acting with intent. 

Being a people pleaser, you will consciously make a series of decisions based on other’s sense of right and wrong as opposed to standing upto what’s right. Instead of making a few decisions and making them well, every activity will turn into a struggle to align with other’s interests and sense of approval leading to decision fatigue. 

And when these decisions turn out bad, you will be questioned for your sense of judgment. It will come as no surprise that others will not trust your opinion and disregard it when making important decisions. 

3. Drown in misery and break relationships instead of strengthening them 

“We put so much of our time and energy into making sure that we meet everyone’s expectations and into caring about what other people think of us, that we are often left feeling angry, resentful and fearful”, says Brene Brown in I Thought It Was Just Me.

and 

Melody Beattie writes in Codependent No More “We rescue people from their responsibilities. We take care of people’s responsibilities for them. Later we get mad at them for what we’ve done. Then we feel used and sorry for ourselves”

As a people pleaser, you will go above and beyond to meet others expectations, constantly shuffle your own priorities and try to squeeze out every bit of your attention to make time for someone or something. 

Eventually, overwork, burnout and exhaustion will create a feeling of resentment towards the same people you volunteered to help. You might even realise that you are being taken for granted or that others take advantage of you because of your enthusiasm to never turn anyone down. 

Your anger and resentment towards your own behaviour will impact your well being and also build bridges of misunderstanding with your coworkers. Instead of strengthening bonds, it will break relationships. 

Recognise if you are a people pleaser 

Maybe you are not a people pleaser. How about a friend, family member, colleague or anyone else you care about. Does it seem like they struggle due to their desire to please everyone?

Do them a favour and send them this list of questions that can help a people pleaser recognise and acknowledge their struggle. Remember, before any transformation comes acceptance. 

  1. Are you making the right commitments, first to yourself and then to others
  2. Are you fearful of saying no
  3. What’s driving your current behaviour - fear of being rejected or genuine desire to help
  4. Do you prioritise helping others at the cost of your own health 
  5. Do you have the courage to be disliked 
  6. Are you constantly comparing yourself to others
  7. Are you truly making a contribution or pretending to add value
  8. Do you find it difficult to define boundaries
  9. Do you push your personal commitments aside to make time for others
  10. Do you have hard time delegating work 
  11. Do you feel angry and resentful in trying to meet others expectations 
  12. Do you feel taken for granted 
  13. Do you have a hard time letting others down 
  14. Are you exhausted from pretending and trying to keep everyone happy  

What causes you to be a people pleaser and what to do instead

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

How we behave and what we believe is the creation of our own minds. We make a lot of assumptions about how others perceive us and also how they think and act. Our version of the story seems to align beautifully with the way we picture everything around us. 

Without realising that everyone has enough of their own challenges to deal with and do not have time to over analyse our actions, we try to assume a central position in everyone’s lives - what will he think of me if I say a no, will she despise me if I tell her that her idea is no good, will my boss consider me unreliable if I skip a meeting to attend to a family commitment and so on. 

Driven by our past experiences, upbringing and many other environmental factors, our thinking is just one version of the reality amongst many possibilities yet unexplored. 

Tendency to please others is a line of thinking that regards - 

1. External validation as a measure of one’s worth

Reluctance to take up new challenges with the fear that you might fail and make others think less of you. Willing to push your own commitments aside to make time for others and earn their admiration. Trying hard to avoid mistakes with the fear of being ridiculed. Saying and doing things that make others happy even if you disagree with their point of view. Seeking approval on ideas as opposed to engaging in a healthy debate. Considering conflict as an attack on your identity instead of a means to seek alignment. 

When your sense of self-worth is tied to external validation, you strive hard to stay in the spotlight. You constantly seek opportunities where you can be praised. Approval defines happiness, availability is mistaken for productivity, acceptance becomes accomplishment and agreement symbolizes admiration. 

Being a people pleaser will trap you within the boundaries of your own limitations by seeking external validation instead of utilising your true potential. 

What to do instead 

Instead of seeking an external measure of your worth, compare yourself to your own ideal self. Identify who you wish to become, what values are important to that person and then seek internal alignment with those values by asking :

  1. How is my behaviour in line with my value system
  2. What can I do to be better 
  3. How can I learn
  4. What does this failure teach me about myself 
  5. How can I develop a growth mindset
  6. What’s my sense of right and wrong
  7. What do I believe  

2. Agreement implies respect and admiration

When you consider agreement as a sign of respect and well disagreement just the opposite of it, you automatically incline towards popular opinions and stay away from anything that might draw attention. 

You do not realise that by withholding information and not speaking up your mind, you end up doing more harm than good. You deprive others from a chance to fix the situation, correct their behaviour, think more clearly, explore alternate viewpoints and make the best decisions with the relevant information. 

What if you kept quiet and did not tell your boss that their idea sucks with the fear of disappointing them only to find out later that it costed your company a lot of money. How about not standing up and fighting for your case when you see that your manager is clearly biased in not promoting you. What about committing to unrealistic timelines only because your stakeholders pushed hard on it and you believed that pushing them back will hurt your reputation.   

As a people pleaser, you believe that you have to choose between being honest and being likeable, disagreement and respect, speaking with candor and saving your career.

What to do instead 

You don’t have to choose. You can be authentic and still be effective. “At the very core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories. They willingly and capably share their views, even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular - Joseph Grenny

Speak up not with the desire to please others or save their feelings, but with the intent to share your beliefs and opinions, whatever they may be. Choose what’s right and not what’s popular. 

Putting this into practice requires starting with low stakes situation at home or with people you can trust, feeling comfortable in pushing your point of view forward, practicing and slowly building your way up to confront other situations and people at work. 

It’s going to be uncomfortable in the beginning, but you can draw strength from knowing it’s the right thing to do and the only way to communicate effectively.  

3. Saying no hurts reputation  

Can you deliver this new feature next week, can you do my code review, can you help me debug this piece of code, can you come on weekend for interviews, can you join the office party this Friday, can you attend this meeting, can you share your views on this design...yes, yes and yes.  

You say yes to everything that comes your way since you believe that saying no will make people judge you, think of you as mean, incompetent, lazy, uncommitted, ungrateful, biased, rude. You associate negative feelings with “no” and feel a sense of relief by blurting out “yes.” 

By saying yes, you have at least saved yourself from their brunt at the moment. But did you think about what’s going to happen later? Do you really believe that you can manage everything and still do a great job? Well, your over enthusiastic yes will soon be a source of stress as you struggle to barely keep up with your commitments. You will definitely mess a few things up and that’s not going to impress people. Saying no will not hurt your reputation, saying yes to everything surely will. 

As a people pleaser, saying yes to everything will prevent you from focusing on what matters, chase after unrealistic goals, add frustration, stress and anxiety to your life while not really adding value to your work or to others. 

What to do instead

Do what matters. Say yes, but not at the cost of your own time and health. If something doesn’t align with your goals and values, say no. 

Saying no is not easy, but it’s possible with a few key practices:

  1. When you aren’t sure of saying yes, take a pause. Don’t say yes immediately. Ask for time to evaluate before making a decision. 
  2. If the request doesn’t align with your goals or fit into your priorities or you simply don’t have time for it, say no. 
  3. If the request makes sense but your plate is full, reach out to the right person to help you reprioritise. 
  4. You can also help the other person by directing them to someone else who’s equally capable. Go ahead, initiate the connection. 
  5. Use the right language while saying no. Don’t try to justify your no, be clear and concise in your message, show respect, thank them for considering you and then politely deny. People will not think less of you if you put across your no in the right manner. They would rather appreciate your honesty.   
  6. Do not leave people hanging. If you promised to get back, make sure you do so within your promised timeline.

Workplaces are filled with requests, someone is always in need of help. Saying yes will not add more value to your team and your organisation, saying no when it’s the right thing to do will.   

4. Independent value creation is the path to establish credibility  

One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on "going it alone." Somehow we've come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we're very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It's as if we've divided the world into "those who offer help" and "those who need help." The truth is that we are both - Brene Brown

You are reluctant to reach out for help with the assumption that it makes you look weak, you do not share knowledge to create dependency and prove your worth and you prefer doing things yourself instead of delegating to your team with the mindset that independent value creation is the only way to build credibility and earn respect. 

Instead of bringing value to the team with your knowledge and skills, you end up blocking their progress. The mindset to “do it alone” impacts the collective output you can produce as a team. 

Your charade to please others by over indexing on the self is damaging to your team and the organisation.

What to do instead 

Share your knowledge, empower your team with the right tools and resources to help them succeed, show your vulnerability and say “I don’t know” to seek out help and learn from others, recognise and appreciate others, share credit when others deserve it, don’t pass on blame when things don’t work out, acknowledge your mistakes and own them. 

With your actions rooted in a shared definition of success, you will build trust and earn respect from your team and others. 

Simple questions to set you on this path: 

  1. What can I learn from others
  2. How can I add value by sharing my knowledge
  3. What can I do to delegate well 
  4. How can I collaborate to achieve more together 

5. Availability signals approachability 

Being approachable is a good sign at work. When people find you approachable, they naturally trust you more. But, being a people pleaser can make you go overboard with it. You mistake availability for approachability. 

You believe that if others can reach out to you without constraints, they will consider you as dedicated and committed to the job. You give up on your personal commitments when it’s time to help with an issue at work, attend to calls while having a family dinner, check emails and respond at your kids birthday party and even feel guilty taking time off away from work.  

Always being on impacts your productivity and distracts you from doing the right thing. Emailing and messaging at odd hours creates unnecessary pressure within the team. People start taking you for granted and may even find you crazy for not taking a break.  

What to do instead 

Value your own time and set healthy boundaries:

  1. Communicate when you are available and when you can’t be reached
  2. Feel comfortable taking breaks and actually enjoy them. They will enable you to be more creative and productive in your work
  3. When you are on vacation, detach mentally and physically

You are not born a people pleaser, you become one. Your thinking makes it so. 

Summary:

  1. External validation is not a measure of your worth, it’s internal alignment with your values
  2. Agreement does not imply respect and admiration, it’s the courage to stand up for what’s right
  3. Saying no does not hurt your reputation, it signals an awareness of your own limitation 
  4. Independent value creation is not the path to establish credibility, it’s in shared measure of success
  5. Approachability is not availability, it requires setting healthy boundaries 

Leaving you with this thought from Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher “Care about what other people think, and you will always be their prisoner.”

Also published here.

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