• Without boundaries, dynamics can take hold in your relationships that feel impossible to change – how can you stop being a people pleaser?

  • Psychologist Dr Lauren Cook, author of Generation Anxiety, offers her tips for anyone anxious about letting people down

  • If you struggle with relationships, we have therapists and counsellors available to help here

So much of our anxiety is rooted in not wanting to disappoint others. We will burden ourselves as long as it will keep others comfortable. 

When we live for the happiness of others, we lose ourselves in the process. Yes, there’s something to be said for compromise and working with others to ensure a net positive outcome for all. But if we’re so busy trying to pacify those around us, not only do we find ourselves in a state of burnout, we also lose all self-respect because we’re unwilling to honour our boundaries.

When we people-please, it is because we respect others more than we respect ourselves. We come second. We think we’re being selfish when we stick up for ourselves. 

Now, why is this? People-pleasing is ultimately a form of avoidance. In this case, we want to avoid the possibility of anger and disappointment from others. We worry that we will permanently burn bridges if we stand up for ourselves. Our anxiety keeps us in check as the good little accommodators that we are. And that’s the thing—our people- pleasing has been reinforced from day one. People love when we do exactly as we’re told and applaud our willingness to always show up. 

So why would you stop? It feels so good to get the pat on the back. Before long, we internalise that we are needed. Problematically, we also have learned that the best way to earn love is to give relentlessly to others. We fear that people will reject us if we show up simply as ourselves, without all the accoutrement of our favours. 

Once we realise that this cycle has become toxic—you know, the one where people abuse all your energy and your resentment cup over-floweth but you just can’t stop—it feels too late. We worry that if we were to make a change and speak up for ourselves, the world would spin on its head. People would surely leave us. We would be all alone. Abandoned. What good is a doormat after all if there is no one to walk on it? 

When you set boundaries, you will see pretty quickly who loves you for who you are and who loves you for what you do for them. People will either honour the respect you’re requesting or they will shame you for it. This gives you invaluable data. 

Many of us are afraid of getting data that we don’t want. We’ll keep ourselves in a place of purgatory for months or years because we’re afraid of people showing us their true colours. Boundaries can show how the people who seemed to love you may have only loved how you made them feel. Don’t be afraid of finding out that truth. You don’t need to keep swimming in shark-infested waters. 

If you’re feeling scared to swim into unknown territory—the kind where you actually push back against the sharks in your life—you’re not alone. 

How do we actually set boundaries to protect ourselves, though? 

We’re right back at that diving board where we’re looking down into the abyss. It’s scary to take the jump. When you’ve lived a life of people-pleasing, you usually know the outcome. People will be happy with you, while you will (semi) hate yourself as a result. The idea of telling people no or saying we’re not available is pretty unpredictable—it’s vulnerability at a level 10. 

I want you to come back to the dialectic, though: you can both have boundaries and connect with others. You can still be an amazing friend and have time for yourself. You can be a loving child to your parents and still not live out every dream they have for you. All these things can coexist. It does not have to be one or the other. In fact, I would argue that operating on either end of the spectrum doesn’t put us in a place of health. 

For those with diffuse boundaries: 

  1. Slow yourself down: Whether you give yourself a rule of waiting twenty-four hours before you give an answer or you simply start saying “Let me get back to you on that,” give yourself a stopgap in responding. With people-pleasing, we have a knee-jerk reaction to say yes without really considering how the new obligation would fit into our lives. Slow. It. Down. 

  2. Let go of external flattery to determine your self-worth: Compliments are our weakness—especially when they’re attached to a request. Because we associate being needed with being liked, we’re quick to take the bait, even if it will put us out. Before you commit, ask yourself whether you actually want to take on this responsibility or you’re just basking in the glow of validation. 

  3. Practice saying no: Just try it on. Whether it’s a friend asking to go to 

dinner and you’re absolutely exhausted or you’ve been asked to sign up for an extra shift at work, see how it feels in your body to say no. You likely will feel restless and guilty at first. Give yourself a day, though, to pay attention to any waves of relief that follow. You may be surprised by how good it feels to stick up for yourself. Also, the world likely didn’t end as you may have imagined it would. 

Dr. Lauren Cook is the author of Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World 

Further reading

Conflict: How to manage when someone is angry at you

Melody Beattie on codependency

Why do I catch feelings so fast?

3 things we can do right now to improve our relationships

Why do I push away the people I love?