Why being a people pleaser can be so emotionally draining!

I have always described myself as a “people pleaser” in interviews or when meeting new people. It was a phrase that I thought best described the kind of person I am, one who is willing to go the extra mile for others, someone who will always put others needs in front of my own. But I never for one second stopped to think about what it cost me. Until recently, when I attended the Humanitas course through Vita Nova where one of the speakers Mariska Van Der Meulen shed light on how dangerous that can be for someone. At whose expense am I giving so much of myself to others but my own. Looking back now on what that has meant for me makes me wonder if I could have saved myself many weeks, months and even years of being emotionally exhausted. You see, when you go the extra mile for others who don’t give you anything in return, or put others needs in front of your own, you are the one who ends up with an empty cup at the end of the day. Mariska gave such a beautiful analogy of what it means to be a people pleaser. Think of yourself as a cup and the emotional energy you have as the water. We start life as a full cup of water, and every time we give to someone else we pour from ourselves. So emptying slowly a bit of our full cup out. If we continue to do this with not receiving some “water” from someone else or replenishing it ourselves through self-care routines, we end up with an empty cup which ends up with us feeling mentally and physically exhausted. Sometimes leading to having very sad empty days or even leading you in to a state of depression. Something that I saw in myself when trying to go the extra mile at work, I was giving all my positive happy energy to a company that didn’t appreciate it, then getting home and not having any energy to give to my family and friends. I’m sure you can see where that would end up. Lots of fights or short phone calls or sometimes a lack of communication. That famous saying in the safety briefing before flying “make sure you put your oxygen mask on before helping others” should work the same in life. How can you help others breathe when you’re struggling to breathe or lose oxygen yourself?

Merriam Webster defines a people pleaser as someone or something that pleases or wants to please others. As a person, it is someone who may have the emotional need to please others often but generally at the expense of their own needs or desires. Even in the definition of people pleaser there is a red flag for that individual who defines themselves as one. But I completely get why people become people pleasers or think it isn’t as bad as it is. I mean, isn’t it rude to say no when someone asks us for a favor? Especially when it is family or friends, or friends of the family. I have always felt like I owe it to them to do the favors no matter how big or small. I often feel the urge to have to explain exactly why I can’t do something for them when there is a legitimate reason I can’t. And then once I have said no, and have said no because I really can’t do what they have asked, I feel extremely guilty and awful that I have let them down. But in reality I know it is not their expectations of me but the expectations I have put on myself. The truth is, you have every right to say no to someone without having a legitimate excuse or without having to explain yourself. This is called having healthy boundaries.

Henry Cloud explains in his Boundaries book that “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” This tells me that the first and most important reason to set boundaries for ourselves is to protect ourselves. To protect us from people harming us physically, and emotionally. It tells people how we want to be treated and to show them what we will tolerate and what we won’t. Having boundaries says to others that we respect ourselves, we have self-worth and that we will not allow others to define us. I feel that children should be taught this as early as possible. Let us teach our children about boundaries, how to set boundaries for themselves and to respect others boundaries. Boundaries can also teach us how to respect ourselves, be more confident in who we are and who we want to be, having a better self-image, knowing that how we feel about certain things and what we think are our own and not because others told us to think that way. Having boundaries in relationships with our families and friends, or any kind of relationship is a way of creating healthy communication and interaction. One where both people know what to expect from each other. They will know how to respect one another when they accept each other’s boundaries. Boundaries therefore create healthy relationships.

As someone who is in the process of getting my own counselling practice started it has become very clear that I need to work on and develop some boundaries. And as someone who labels themselves as a people pleaser this makes me rather anxious. However, it can be done. Below are some things I intend on implementing to help me achieve healthy boundaries for myself and in my practice.

Setting Healthy Boundaries: The How to Guide:

Step 1 – Identify where in your life you need boundaries.

Think about the things that drain you, these are indicators of areas you need to set boundaries. Think about what you would like a healthy day to look like, or what makes you frustrated. For example, in a private counselling practice boundaries that I will need to consider are my working hours, ensuring everything is completed at work and that I don’t take any of it home. What will my availability to clients be after hours? The time of a client’s session is to be respected by myself and them. In my everyday life time is also an issue. I have decided to draw up a schedule for myself to respect and then ask people to respect. I have time for work/studying/research from 8am – 3/4pm depending on the day. After that I have time to either go to the grocery store or come home and get ready for gym and sometimes prep for dinner. After gym it is shower time, dinner time and down time with my boyfriend. I will allow a Friday from 12pm to be free time for running errands for others but only if I am ok with it. So my first boundary I am working on will be my time.

Step 2 – Enforcing the identified boundary.

This can be done by letting people know that I have decided to set this boundary, and what the consequences will be if my boundary is not respected. This is the tough part. Reminding myself that I have the right to say no and not have a reason or have to explain myself. So with my private counseling practice I will enforce this boundary by having it in my contract and also talking to the clients in the first session regarding this boundary and the consequences for ignoring this boundary. For example, phone-calls and texts won’t be answered after 5pm and before 8am. If they are late for a session, their session will be shortened to whatever time is left of their session. If they don’t arrive for their booked session without notifying me within 24hours they will be expected to pay for the missed session. In my personal life, I will say yes to certain tasks I am happy to do but be clear that it will be done in my free time when I get a chance or go in a specific direction if it is not close to me for instance. If they are not happy with that then I will ask that they find someone else who could do it in the time they need. I will also start to say no to things I am uncomfortable doing, or just don’t want to do. This I will try as politely as possible. By saying things like “I am sorry, but I can’t” and then avoid having to justify. Trying to remain calm and not get upset when they get annoyed because I said no. I will in the beginning remind them that I am trying to set healthy boundaries for myself and that I would appreciate if they respect them.

Step 3 – Don’t give in.

I think with setting boundaries in the beginning it will be difficult because I am in the habit of saying yes. But in both work and personal life I will need to continue to push myself to say no and stick to my schedule as much as I can until it becomes easy and natural. I will need to keep reminding myself that healthy people will respect my boundaries and those that don’t aren’t good for me.

Step 4 – Remember self-care.

Remember to take care of your needs and to replenish your own cup as often as you can. My self-care routine will include seeing a counsellor once a month. Having a hot bubble bath while listening to some music at least once a week. Going to gym every day. And allowing myself to have days to just sit on the couch and watch TV, or lie around the pool or on the beach and do nothing.

At the end of the day if I want to gain my self-respect, self-worth and independence back it is important for me to establish boundaries and enforce them. It is healthier to set boundaries than it is to put up walls or constantly be resentful towards others for taking advantage of me. It is my responsibility to teach others to respect me and my boundaries and to be patient with myself while doing this.

Author: Ashleigh Reynolds; Counsellor in training, Humanitas Counselling Student