Boundaries: A People Pleaser’s Best Friend
Rabya Lomas gives her tips on avoiding burnout and learning how to say no
Hello, I’m Rabya. I’m thirty four years old and I’m a recovering people pleaser. If you’ve clicked on this article I’m guessing you have a people-pleasing thing too. It’s okay, it turns out no matter what background or circumstance, us people pleasers are common and the good news is we can clamber out of our acquiescing ways. Here’s my story, I hope it helps with yours.
I was an only child for seven years to first generation immigrants from Pakistan. With the Desi (South Asian) traditional culture acting as an anchor for my parents, they were keen for their first born to know where she came from. Having moved to a drizzly Manchester, they wanted to instill pride in my heritage to combat all the new and strange experiences.
For those sibling-free seven years, my parents were not just my lifeline but also my best friends. I wanted to please them, to keep them happy with me, and at the same time I had to learn to make friends – and learn to keep them too. My teenage years brought conflict. When my English friends invited me to join them shopping on a Saturday, my parents felt I was too young to go unchaperoned. I desperately wanted to fit in and belong, but also didn’t want to disappoint my parents in any way. That was the beginning of my people pleasing ways.
In later years people pleasing took many forms. After I had graduated and started “proper” work I was very much oblivious to this aspect of my personality. It manifested in me going above and beyond to solve issues that weren’t mine to solve. It showed up when I used to work long and late hours because I didn’t want to miss a deadline (anything to avoid appearing weak by asking for an extension, ugh!). I found myself saying yes to additional work so I was seen to be a team player. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
In my social life I would be the one to always organise the meet ups, I’d also be the one to travel to my friends and not the other way round, and I’d always take an interest in them and try to keep in contact, even when it was barely reciprocated.
Any of this sound familiar?
The upshot of my people pleasing ways meant that by the time I reached twenty-nine I was tired of just about everything. The burnout came when I was heavily pregnant. I started my maternity leave two months before my due date because I just didn’t have it in me – “it” being the energy. Looking back I think that was one of the kindest gifts I ever gave to myself; rest. I found solace at home where I had no commitments to anybody apart from me, and the impending birth of my little one.
But hiding away from the world isn’t a long term solution, and inevitably at some point I had to show up again. Although there is respite, hiding doesn’t stop the people pleasing ways. Going back to work, I was almost immediately exhausted, and no it wasn’t because I had an 11 month old at home. It was because I had not equipped myself with the tools to deal with people pleasing, but at least now I was aware of it.
Three and a half years later and I’m getting there. I’m learning about setting my own boundaries. Boundaries are like an internal threshold of what you are willing (or not willing) to put up with. I imagine it as being like a sacred circle around your energy where you get to decide what you will spend your energy on and how you want to spend it. It starts with you being the advocate of your own wants and needs, which is something that I still find hard to give myself permission to do.
If you, like me, are in the people-pleaser club (welcome, pull up a chair!), here are some lessons in creating and upholding boundaries that may help you:
Take charge of what you want
Tell others what you want. Seriously, say it out loud. Write it down. No one is a mind reader. If you find a situation unfurling that you don’t want, vocalise what it is that you DO want. You don’t have to be a bystander in your own life. Your wellbeing, desires and needs is your greatest responsibility.
A phrase you can use: “I don’t want to be a part of this initiative anymore, I actually want to do [this new thing] instead.”
It’s OK to say no
The world will not end if you say no. Trust me. You do not have to cater for something because you feel bad about refusing. It will leave you depleted. Remember, your energy and time is a precious commodity.
A phrase you can use: “I haven’t got the capacity to take on this project as I am currently busy with [this thing].”
Stand for something
What I mean by this is don’t be afraid to express where you stand in something. Changing your view based on what you think other people may think leaves no room for what YOU truly believe in. You have a heart and mind of your own, so you do you.
A phrase you can use: “I know you’re not a fan, but I really love mixing sweet and salty popcorn at the cinema.”
Let go of what no longer serves you
Yes, that includes people. You may have relationships that over time run its course. You don’t need to exert all your energy for very little in return. Although, I don’t believe relationships are necessarily transactional, they should be nourishing and reciprocal to an extent, otherwise what’s the point?!
You can’t control other people’s reactions or emotions.
You can’t own them. You can’t look after them. Because of that, do not alter your life course for other people’s feelings. I spent the majority of my life making choices – right down to my law degree – to please my parents. I am absolutely not a lawyer! How others react to your life choices is on them – NOT YOU.
All this is to say, I take joy in delighting my friends and family, and having a good day at work – but I can only do that with boundaries. Without boundaries no one gets the best out of me, not them, and certainly not me. There is this quote by Prentis Hemphill that I will leave you with: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
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