Being nice, kind and flexible may get you the likes and acceptance of those you seek validation from or keep you out of the conflicts that you fear having… but having no boundaries is self-betrayal of the highest order.
It’s a rarity as an executive coach to have clients work with me to conquer their people-pleasing tendencies, yet it’s one of the biggest commonalities in personality patterns that I get to work on with clients.
A life without boundaries means rarely saying ‘no’ and prioritizing everyone else’s feelings before your own. Not only are these people-pleasing tendencies exhausting, they:
These are lessons I’ve learned the hard way and it’s why I am now so passionate about empowering people to honour their boundaries in a healthy, mature and confident manner.
Personally, I started as an entrepreneur with zero boundaries, the nice guy with the big and often unrealistic goals, saying yes to everything and everyone, over-serving and always wanting to set a ‘work hard’ ethic to my slowly growing team. My start-up was excelling, it was building at a pace I never even anticipated it to, but whilst my business was building, I was starting to fade.
It’s fair to say that my lack of boundaries was one of the demises of my successful start-up career. A devastating breakdown of my health put halt to my entrepreneurial mission and forced me to step down as the CEO of my company.
An experience that has taught me that not setting boundaries isn’t serving anyone; not me, not my team, not my investors, not my relationships, nor my business. But above all, it has taught me that expecting the world to be fair with me because I was fair with them, is not how it works.
It’s like expecting a snake not to bite you, because you don’t bite him.
People will take advantage of you until you show them how to treat you based on how you allow yourself to be treated. And vice versa, people will only respect you to the degree that you accept and respect yourself. And so in order to actualize the best of our human potential — whether in business, relationships or life in general — we must find the courage to present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.
This is where boundaries come into play and if I can have 10 minutes of your time, please allow me to explain.
Boundaries are these imaginary lines that separate you from others, highlighting where one thing ends and another begins. They separate not only your physical space, but help you honour your needs, values and goals, so that you can make the most of your individual journey.
Think of them as a guideline, or limit that you create to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards you and how you will respond when someone violates those limits.
They come in many forms, however, there are five main types when considering them, these are;
The problem with boundaries is that we likely were never taught about them, or modelled how to implement and honour them. Therefore, as an adult, we now have a duty to ensure we know when and how to set strong boundaries so that we can show that it’s safe and normal to stand up for our basic human rights.
To provide insight, and to put any confusion to rest, I invite you to do this questionnaire to see where you sit in terms of holding strong boundaries, or needing to implement them. Indicate for each statement below whether it is T (true) or F (false) for you. There are no right or wrong answers. Score your results using the rubric provided.
You are aware of and feel comfortable setting boundaries.
You are aware of your boundaries and have started to implement them but you struggle to enforce them appropriately.
You are gaining awareness that boundaries need to be implemented, however you are yet to create the change needed.
You have little to no boundaries in place, your energy feels drained, you question your identity regularly and you don’t know what to do.
If you scored 20 and above or felt triggered by any of them, then you probably want to invest some of your time in knowing where and how to set boundaries. If all of the above resonated with you, then we have a few things that we’re going to have to work on, as it seems you may in fact have a boundary issue that’s impeding your life.
Like with all change, acknowledging the fact that you have difficulties honouring your needs can feel uncomfortable and confronting. However, understanding why you’ve adopted these people-pleasing tendencies can provide you with solace in knowing that life can be lived in a different way.
In moving forward it’s important to not identify yourself with or judge yourself for being a people-pleaser. In fact, I invite you to approach these tendencies with respect and compassion as the first step in reclaiming your authenticity is to differentiate between who you are at the core of your being and the adaptive survival strategies that you have developed in early life.
People-pleasing is one of those adaptive survival strategies.
The reason why many people experience difficulties setting boundaries is due to the deep-seated fear of being seen as difficult, disliked, selfish, or because of the risk of losing their job or ending up alone. This is especially true for those who strongly identify themselves with being a good, kind or easy-going person.
As they have learned that being good & kind = helpful, accommodating, saying yes.
The (ugly) reality is that people-pleasing isn’t about being kind to others; it’s a coping skill — a survival strategy — to make others think favourably of us. To manipulate how they perceive us by saying and doing things that make them happy, seeking constant validation to establish our own sense of worthiness (safety!).
This may sound silly from an adult perspective, however, when you — as a child — like many of us — have been raised in an environment that did not approve certain parts of your personality or where your caregivers were not capable (or unwilling) of attuning to your core needs then you had no other choice than to sacrifice your authenticity for the sake of being loved, nurtured and protected.
As Dr. Gabor Mate stated in one of his talks:
If our environment cannot support our gut feelings and our emotions, then the child, in order to ‘belong’ and ‘fit in’ will automatically, unwittingly and unconsciously, suppress their emotions and their connections to themselves, for the sake of staying connected to the nurturing environment, without which the child cannot survive.
A lot of children are in this dilemma — ‘can I feel and express what I feel or do I have to suppress that in order to be acceptable, to be a good kid, to be a nice kid?
Most people-pleasers were once caregiver-pleasers (some of them still are). Throughout their upbringing, many of them have learned to adapt their behaviours as a way to maintain connection and closeness with their caregivers. Due to the lack of parental attunement, whether unavailable, inconsistent or incredibly strict and rigid (fixed beliefs), they learned to maintain the connection through;
As a result, they established all sorts of subtle agreements with their caregivers — if I give up myself, you’ll love me; if I hide, do what’s “right”, fit in, not rock the boat, our relationship will stay intact and I’ll be safe.
Moving on and upwards in life, these behaviours continue as a way to seek love, connection and validation through means of ‘earning’ it, or being liked, just as we did in childhood. The problem is that we can’t really cut off our core needs, nor our unique personality traits and that is exactly what is causing the tension that we experience when we don’t express our needs and limits, or when we allow others to violate them.
It’s like pushing a ball underwater, the longer you hold it underwater, the more tired you become and at a certain point — after your 3742nd attempt to ‘earn’ your basic human rights — the ball shoots back up through the surface of the water and, if you’re unlucky, smacks you in the face.
It’s the unwanted and often unexpected aha-moment, the shift from child to adult consciousness, that many people need in order to realize that the way they learned to survive may not be the way forward. That, as a child, they may have learned to allow these behaviours because they were helpless and depended on the big boundary-crossers for their survival.
However, that, as an adult, unless a situation is extreme (read; dangerous &/or harmful), they are now participating in the violation of their own boundaries by failing to properly express and defend them.
If that triggers certain emotions &/or feelings in your body, I invite you to take some time to chew on it before you swallow. Take a few deep breaths (4 seconds in) and full long breaths out (6–8 seconds). Sigh it out…. aaahhhh!
Before we move on, we must also address and acknowledge the significant role of our innate personality traits. Even though our childhood explains a lot, it doesn’t explain everything. Some of us have higher levels of agreeableness, sensitivity to conflict, a natural tendency towards cooperation, politeness, kindness empathy etc. which makes it more likely for them to engage in people-pleasing behaviours.
However, through my own experience and thousands of hours of dedicated coaching practice, I’ve also learned that the beliefs and assumptions we hold around who we are, are often the ones that are separating us from becoming who we have the potential to be.
As Dr. Gabor Mate stated in his book The Realm of The Hungry Ghost:
What we call the personality is often a jumble of genuine traits and adopted coping styles that do not reflect our true self at all but the loss of it.
It’s to the degree that we’ve learned to attach our identity, worth and personal security as dependant on pleasing or placating others, that we lose touch with our authenticity — our innate personality, gifts, needs, values and the things that we need to feel safe, connected and alive.
And instead of our life, relationships and career being a reflection of our true selves, our sense of self becomes a reflection of the standards, needs and expectations of others.
The disconnection from our identity often translates itself into traits, such as; shifting responsibility onto others, refusing to take and accept responsibility for our own actions, expecting others to read our mind and blaming others for our dissatisfaction.
Which of course makes it incredibly hard to set boundaries with others when in fact we are; unclear on how to remain authentic in relationship with others, express our wants and needs, and set limits when someone violates them.
And although this section has been hard-hitting, it doesn’t mean that there is no way out. In fact, shifting from child to adult consciousness allows you to see things from a new and more brightful perspective, one that allows you to — step by step — express reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards you and set clear boundaries for those who violate those limits.
Going through life without having adequate boundaries in place can often lead to feeling misunderstood, depleted of our energy, taken advantage of, hurt or even depressed. Which in turn can cause built-up tension, anger, resentment, a decreasing zest of life and like myself — a brutal collapse of my health and nervous system.
But not setting and protecting our boundaries doesn’t only affect us on a personal level, by suppressing our needs, wants and limits, we also create an environment that reinforces — actual or perceived — the belief that “If I please others, give them everything they want & don’t create any discomfort, then they will like me, love me, and approve of me”.
We constantly move in a cyclical pattern;
Craving love, acceptance or approval → suppressing our needs and wants → receiving false acceptance or approval → confirming the false belief → craving love, acceptance or approval → …
Which then further weakens our sense of self and makes us even more prone to people-pleasing or placating others.
The good news is, you have the power to reverse this cycle.
And this is where strong healthy boundaries come into play. They are the line in the sand that you get to draw out about anything. Anything that has to do with your relationship to self, to another, and to your emotional or physical world.
They help you to take care of yourself; not the salt-bath or lord kumbaya circles kind of self-care, but the self-care that empowers you to move forward from a place of authenticity and wholeness. That empowers you to eliminate the things that are in conflict with your integrity and values, to not take everything on or personally, and to walk away from those who intentionally and repeatedly violate the boundaries we put in place.
But above all, strong healthy boundaries help to you show others how to treat us based on how you allow ourselves to be treated. You give them the opportunity to show up for what you need and want from them, which in turn will provide you with powerful feedback about your environment.
Your boundaries are the gateway to your needs being met, which may as well — after years of people-pleasing — be one of the most limiting and empowering experiences.
Of course, everyone is unique and we all have different comfort levels with regards to aspects such as intimacy, privacy, lateness and sharing, but we — as humans — all know and feel when something isn’t right. Our intuition doesn’t lie, however, we must learn to act upon it.
Think of it like this; If somebody breaks down your door without any permission, that is a very obvious violation of your privacy and space that you’ll most likely not allow (read; defend or fights against). However, if somebody is violating your basic human rights, whether this is your right to say no without explaining yourself, to make mistakes, to make your needs as important as theirs, or to not meet their unreasonable expectations of you, then why do you tolerate it?
I invite you to pick one of the below scenario and take a moment to imagine how it would feel to fully show up for yourself.
How would it be for you to:
These scenarios are all possible, but the inconvenient truth is that there is no silver bullet to setting healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries require practice, patience and willingness to go against the flow and disrupt the established order, even when that may trigger the other person or disrupts the whole group or community that surrounds you.
To delve a little deeper, boundaries aren’t as easy as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ or black and white, they’re malleable, forever changing and can shift and change throughout our lives. At first, we may think the simple act of saying no is an enforced boundary, but this is surface level.
It’s not as simple as throwing in an overboard boundary in hope that it sticks, as chances are you’re just inputting emotional walls, however, when you get clear on what is and isn’t okay for you, you can start articulating boundaries that clearly indicate reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards you and how you will respond when someone violates those limits.
To give you some examples of unhealthy versus healthy boundaries, and how to express healthy boundaries in both your relationship and professional life, here are some opportunities for you to visualise and take note with.
A boundary is NOT:
You always think you’re right and expect me to agree with everything you say. I’m done communicating this way!
A healthy boundary may sound like this:
When we talk about this topic, I need you to respect and listen to what I have to say. If that’s not available to you, I won’t be communicating until you can.
Boundaries With Your Partner May Sound like:
Boundaries in Business may sound like:
As already highlighted, our people-pleasing tendencies are (more than) often adaptive survival strategies that we have developed in response to the environmental failures in early life rather than fixed personality traits. Therefore, when moving away from pleasing others, we need to acknowledge the fact that we’re stepping out of (false) safety, into growth.
This can feel uncomfortable, scary and for some even overwhelming.
Therefore growing out of survival mode requires a different mindset than the ‘tear down your barriers’ that is often promoted by coaches and self-help gurus, which only encourages the all or nothing mindset that causes people to not follow through on our promises.
Even though our brains are hard-wired to deal with change and challenges, we’re only able to resolve these adaptive survival strategies, when we operate within our window of tolerance; the zone in which we’re able to function most effectively.
It’s when we’re most likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn. This is worth paying attention to since these abilities are of crucial importance in outgrowing your people-pleasing tendencies.
So instead of being brave and bold, be compassionate and gentle. Try picking one relatively safe situation in which you struggle to express reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards you and spend some time reflecting on the following questions.
From there on, make the commitment to show up as your highest self in this specific situation and continue to follow through. This will help to start trusting your own word, develop your skills and collect the evidence of your lived experiences that will grow your confidence to honour and express your truth.
Then repeat the process, repeat again, until you’re wondering what the heck you were even worried about.
With a lot of information to digest, it’s important to remember that each small step you take is creating a brighter future for you in the long run. However, on your journey, you will come across those who will protest your boundaries so remember not to get upset with their upset.
In addition to this, people will often (pro)test, more than once, in hope your behaviours won’t last, and just because you love somebody, it doesn’t mean you can’t say no. It’s your basic human right to make your needs as important as those of others and to be respected for who you are, therefore it’s important to withdraw from negative behaviours.
Setting boundaries can also be hard due to internal guilt and frustrations, but to live a truly fulfilled life, boundaries are needed, in all senses. Whoever has taught, told or modelled that putting yourself first is selfish, is wrong.
Neither are you responsible for other peoples happiness.
And if you’re still with me, I would like to thank you for your time and attention. My hopes are that this article has inspired you to honour and speak your truth.
Footnote: If you have any questions in regards to this article, feel free to reach out to me. Furthermore, I’m just a guy sharing his perspective based on my own experiences, along with the studies and work of believable professionals in the industry. I fully expect that I have made a mistake somewhere in this article, in referencing an idea or tool to the wrong person or not at all. I’ve no intention of taking false credits, so if there’s anything not aligned regarding referencing, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org