According to psychologist Lauren Appio, Ph.D, “people pleasing is a survival strategy, and it becomes so well-practiced that setting limits can be frightening and seem impossible.” Appio specializes in working with individuals in New York City who are caregivers and people pleasers and struggle with codependency.
Fara Tucker, a clinical social worker in Portland, also noted that setting boundaries “can feel like a risk to [one’s] survival.” Early on, people pleasers learn that their value derives from meeting other people’s needs and from being helpful and overly accommodating, said Tucker, 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 is not hyperbolic to say that many people pleasers never learned that they are separate people with needs and preferences who exist independent of their value to others. Therefore, the idea of saying no to what someone else wants is almost unthinkable and often terrifying.”
It also can feel threatening. According to Tucker, people pleasers may think, “who am I if I’m not doing what other people want me to do?” In other words, she said, if you pride yourself on being “generous,” “dependable,” and “someone people can always count on,” saying no and setting boundaries can feel threatening to your very identity.
People pleasers say yes for all sorts of other reasons, Tucker said. You yearn for approval and love. You want to avoid conflict or abandonment. You believe you don’t have the right to set boundaries. You believe that saying yes is what you’re supposed to do. Because being agreeable and nice is what good people do.
However, setting boundaries is critical—for your relationships, for your sanity, and for building a fulfilling life. Because if you’re constantly saying yes to everyone else, when do you have the time and energy to devote to what inspires and uplifts you? When do you say yes to your own needs, wants and wishes? Do you even know what they are?
Still, as a seasoned people pleaser, it’s really tough to see and appreciate the value of boundaries, especially when setting them feels so uncomfortable and foreign and counter-intuitive for you.
As such, below you’ll find some things to keep in mind, including precisely why boundaries are so essential. Think of this as a kind of pep talk to help empower you to set and maintain firm boundaries that sincerely support you.
You can change. The term “people pleaser” is used here for brevity, but it’s very easy to assume that this is part of your personality. It’s just the way I am. As Tucker said, labels “can suggest permanency or that this behavior is part [of your] identity…”
But that’s just it: People pleasing is “just a behavior, a pattern, a habit.”
Tucker noted that we’ve learned this kind of behavior, which also means that we can unlearn it.
“We develop strategies as children based on our assessment of the best way to stay safe and get our needs met in our particular environment. Then, often these strategies can become automatic and carry into adulthood and into situations where they no longer serve us.”
In other words, it’s understandable why people pleasing comes so naturally to you, and why it’s so tough to change your ways. But! The good news is that you can change these ways.
Boundaries provide critical information. According to Appio, boundary setting is revealing when it comes to the nature of our relationships. If someone is unwilling to accept that you have different needs or boundaries than they do, this is likely a sign that “something about your relationship may need to change.” Those changes might include everything from spending less time with the person to attending therapy together to going your separate ways.
Boundaries reduce resentment. When you say yes all the time, you might be consciously or subconsciously waiting for all your selfless deeds to be repaid, or for the other person to shower you with praise and gratefulness, Tucker said.
And you might be waiting a while. Which only grows and deepens your resentment, which only chips away at your relationship (and your affection toward the person).
Setting limits, however, protects you from feeling resentful, and it reduces the strain in your relationships, Appio said. She shared a quote from Brené Brown that speaks to this: “Choose discomfort over resentment.”
“By doing the stressful work of setting a boundary in the short term, you choose relief, trusting relationships, and self-respect in the long-term,” Appio said.
Loose boundaries lead to burnout—and a loss of identity. Not having boundaries spikes stress and leads you to feel “depleted, depressed, anxious, exhausted,” Tucker said. The more you hustle for approval, the further away you get from yourself, she said.
People pleasers “often feel lost, disconnected, like they don’t know who they ‘really’ are or what makes them happy because they are always focused on what others want them to be.”
Loose boundaries lead to disconnected relationships. As a people pleaser, you assume that saying yes will lead to feeling accepted, loved and valued, Tucker said. But it doesn’t. Instead, it leads to relationships that are empty, inauthentic and have a “false foundation.”
After all, how can you feel seen and known and heard when you aren’t being yourself?
One of the biggest reasons we try to please others is because we want to hold on to all relationships, Tucker said. However, “the goal shouldn’t be to keep all relationships, but to nurture the ones that are healthy and mutually beneficial.”
In other words, as you start asserting your needs and setting firmer boundaries, some people may balk at this—and you might have to spend less time with them, or end the relationship altogether.
“This can be very painful, but it also makes room in your life for people who will not only tolerate your boundaries, but celebrate and honor them,” Tucker said.
And “discovering and articulating our boundaries is incredibly empowering. It’s a way of saying to ourselves and the world: I exist. I matter.”
Because you do.