When you’re a people pleaser, setting boundaries can feel painful. We worry we’ll hurt someone’s feelings. We fear we’ll fracture the relationship. We think saying no is rude or cruel or not compassionate—and we see ourselves as the opposite of these things.
And we simply don’t have much practice with setting boundaries. And so, it’s so much easier to simply not set them. It’s so much easier to stay quiet. But it’s certainly not healthier.
Many view boundaries as walls. But, according to psychotherapist David Teachout, LMHCA, boundaries are more like sponges.
“Nobody can escape the world they’re in, so we’re constantly being slowly saturated by our experiences until we’ve reached a personal limit and/or ‘squeezed’ ourselves to let go of what has stuck around.”
When we engage in people-pleasing behavior, we become convinced that we’re responsible for the other person. Which means we neglect to go through the “squeezing” process—quickly becoming fully “saturated” or overwhelmed, Teachout said.
But here’s a fact: We’re not responsible for other people. We’re not responsible for their emotional experiences or the stories they hold, he said.
What we are responsible for is being aware of and intentional about how we express ourselves.
In general, “boundary setting is about reminding yourself and others that you have different bodies, social and familial backgrounds, and skills,” said Teachout, who joins with individuals and partnerships on their mental health journey to encourage a life of valued living and honest communication at his practice in Des Moines, WA.
But how do you set boundaries when it’s so unfamiliar and awkward, and you’re so out of practice?
Below, you’ll find seven tips to help—from navigating your stubborn guilt to making it easier for you to say no.
Use self-soothing techniques. Setting boundaries is going to be uncomfortable, and bring up other surprising reactions. This might include everything from anxiety and fear to shame and sadness to guilt and anger, said Fara Tucker, LCSW, a clinical social worker in Portland who supports helpers, healers, and people pleasers in clarifying and communicating their needs and boundaries so they may care for themselves as well as they do others.
It also might include physiological responses, such as increased heart rate, sweating, tense muscles, upset stomach and feeling spacey, stiff, heavy, and restless, she said. This is why it’s helpful to start with your body, and physically soothe the discomfort. Psychologist Lauren Appio, Ph.D, suggested practicing deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, along with engaging your senses by listening to your favorite music or going for a walk.
Try empowering self-talk. Pay close attention to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations before, during, and after you set a boundary, said Appio, who specializes in working with individuals who are caregivers and people pleasers and struggle with codependency in New York City. Notice what you’re saying to yourself that makes you feel guilty or leads you to quit on boundary setting—and “come up with countering statements that make you feel calmer and empowered.”
Appio shared these suggestions for countering statements: “Everyone gets to set limits, including me,” “You’re doing the right thing,” or “It’s OK. You’re OK. You’re going to make it through this.” Tucker shared these examples: “This is hard and unfamiliar. This feels uncomfortable. I have a right to set boundaries. This is new to me. I’m scared, but I can survive this.”
Start super small. Tucker suggested setting boundaries in “low-stakes situations,” such as “telling the server they got your order wrong” (versus telling your mom you’re not going to her house for the holidays).
Practice with a supportive person. When you’re a seasoned people pleaser, it’s hard to imagine the benefits of setting boundaries, Appio said. “Your brain needs new data: People pleasing is not the strategy you have to use to keep yourself safe and maintain your relationships.”
Which is why Appio recommended picking a supportive person (e.g., a friend or therapist), and honestly expressing your preferences or setting boundaries. This way, “you can have positive experiences that will motivate you to keep trying.”
Buy time. “Instead of expecting yourself to say no on the spot, which might feel impossible, get in the habit of saying something that gives you a chance to think it through,” Tucker said. This is also important because, as she said, the point of boundaries isn’t to say no to everything. The point is to be intentional. It’s to check in with yourself and make sure you actually want to do what it being asked of you.
Think of a statement or two that you can have at the ready. According to Tucker, those might be: “Let me look at my calendar and get back to you.” “I need to think about that. I’ll call/email/text you later/tomorrow/next week.” “Hmm. I’m not sure if I’m able to do that. I’ll be in touch soon.” “I need to check with my partner first to see if we’re free.”
Realize that you have limits—everyone does. Guilt stems from having unrealistic expectations. That is, we feel guilty for setting boundaries because we believe we should be able to do it all. Teachout said “This is living in the land of “what if.” Which is based on our imagination, not the reality.
“Reality says we have limits to how many things we can keep track of, how much energy we have in a given day and the extent of our skills for working within any given situation. If someone asked someone with no training in automobiles to take apart the engine of a Tesla and put it back together, should they feel guilty for being unable?”
Similarly, saying no, Teachout said, isn’t about denying someone want they want; it’s about knowing yourself because you wouldn’t be able to do it anyway—again, because you don’t have the time or resources or energy.
Be patient and kind with yourself. Remind yourself that you’re learning a new skill, and that takes time and practice. You might have many slip-ups, and take a few wrong turns. Try to be kind to yourself the whole time. As Tucker said, the part of you that believes you don’t have a right (or it’s not safe) to set boundaries may be screaming. This part is trying to protect you, and keep you safe. “That part needs love and tenderness, not more judgment.”
Having a hard time with setting boundaries today doesn’t mean having a hard time tomorrow. That is, with practice, boundary setting will feel more natural, and it will get easier. The key is to start—and keep going. You can absolutely change your behavior. Because that’s really all it is: People pleasing isn’t some permanent trait. It’s a behavior you can alter. One boundary at a time.