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Takeaway: People-pleasing can lead to anxiety, exhaustion, and burnout, but setting boundaries can help reduce these negative effects and improve overall well-being.

How to Set Boundaries With People When You’re a People Pleaser

If you’re a people-pleaser, you may find yourself constantly putting the needs and desires of others over your own– to the point of anxiety, exhaustion, and burnout.

In my practice,working moms that I see are at a breaking point with people-pleasing. My clients come to me because they’re exhausted, on edge, and anxious. They often have difficulty in their relationships with their spouse and kids and even own parents. They usually know they need to learn to set better boundaries in order to protect their well-being, but they don’t know where to start. 

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. And luckily, people-pleasing doesn’t have to be a life sentence. If you want to feel less anxious, cultivate self-compassion, and feel more comfortable in your relationships, understanding how to set boundaries with people is a crucial skill to have. So let’s talk about what people-pleasing really is, and tips for setting boundaries as a people-pleaser.

Where Does People Pleasing Come From?

Being a people pleaser often dates back to childhood. If you’re like many of the people I work with, you may have grown up trying to make everyone around you happy in order to avoid conflict or hard feelings.

Maybe you had a sibling who was always getting in trouble. You knew this stressed out your parents, so you did everything possible to be the “good” child. Maybe you grew up with a dysfunctional family dynamic so you tried to keep everyone happy and calm. Or it’s possible your family fought a lot. You may have learned that if you behaved a certain way, you could take some of the tension out of the room during fights. 

People pleasing exists for a valid reason. It comes from a primal need to avoid danger. It’s actually a very clever coping mechanism, because its original function was to keep you safe. When you’re a child, you don’t have the skills or functioning required to take care of yourself, let alone the people around you.

In childhood, being abandoned or rejected can be very dangerous. Therefore, kids are wired to do whatever it takes to stay safe and connected to their caretakers. But while people-pleasing can help you get through challenging times in childhood, it often makes your life harder in adulthood.

People Pleasing and Boundaries: Why You Need Them

At its core, peopl- pleasing is about trying to reduce negative emotions and feelings of stress in others in order to feel secure. But bending over backward to keep other people happy is unsustainable. You simply can’t control the emotions and reactions of others.

Trying to control the experiences of other people can lead to big problems. Ultimately, when you engage in people pleasing behaviors, you hurt yourself in the process. You often bypass your own needs, desires, and emotions. People pleasing can hurt your relationships, make you feel resentful when your own needs aren’t met, and lead to more and more anxiety.

That’s where boundaries come in. Boundaries are limits or behaviors that protect you and your energy. Think of boundaries as a way to tell people the truth about how you want to be treated. Sometimes a boundary can just sound like saying “no” to a request you don’t have time or energy for. Other times, a boundary can be walking away from someone who says rude or offensive things to you.

How to Set Boundaries With People

My clients are often afraid of setting boundaries because they don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or disappoint others.. At first, figuring out how to set boundaries with people might feel really scary. It may seem like you’re being mean or bad. And it’s normal to feel this way. 

Learning any new skill is often uncomfortable. You’re likely to mess up at some point. It’s common to feel like you’re doing it wrong somehow. And that’s okay. Learning how to set boundaries is rarely easy or fun. It takes effort. It can bring up a lot of fear or discomfort. But the fact that it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. The discomfort is just part of the process.

Setting boundaries with people is a skill that requires practice and patience. And your boundaries may end up hurting people’s feelings sometimes. But that’s okay, too. Remember, you’re not responsible for other people’s emotional responses. You’re only responsible for yourself and your own responses. As long as you maintain respect and integrity while enacting your boundaries, you’re doing a good job.

The best way to set kind boundaries is to be honest, clear, and direct with people. For example, let’s say a coworker asks you to cover their work shift on your day off. You had other plans that day, even if those plans were to rest. It can be tempting to beat around the bush or soften the blow of a “no” by saying something like “Maybe, let me get back to you.” But if you already know you don’t want their shift, a response like this isn’t doing you or the other person any favors. It’s actually more likely to lead to confusion and hurt feelings. An honest, clear, and direct answer might look like, “No thanks, I can’t work that day.” 

Tips For Setting Boundaries

Even though setting boundaries can be really challenging, it’s a worthwhile skill to learn. Boundaries can be anything that teaches other people what you need and expect. They help prevent resentment and communication problems. They build trust and respect in relationships. And they can greatly reduce anxiety and people-pleasing habits in the long run.

Here are 4 tips for setting boundaries to get you started. 

  1. Notice where boundaries might be useful in your life. If your default setting is people pleasing, it can be hard to know when you actually need to set boundaries. Notice when you behave in ways that causes any form of self-abandonment. That might look like: stuffing down your needs and feelings, putting someone else’s desires ahead of your own, or saying yes to something that makes you feel resentful. These could all be situations where more boundaries would be helpful. Just noticing these scenarios can connect you to your needs, feelings, and desires in a healthy way. Then, once you’ve noticed, you can start to enact the boundaries you need.

  1. There’s no one “right” way to set boundaries. Setting boundaries doesn’t always have to be a big scary production. There are plenty of ways to do it effectively. You can write it out in a text, note, or email. You can talk to someone in person. And you can simply set your boundary without saying anything. How you set your boundary will depend on you, the other person or people, and the situation. 

  1. Practice with people you trust. Setting boundaries can feel scary, so start small. Think of someone you love who would support your boundaries. Talk to them about your tendency to people please, and why you want to start setting boundaries. Then practice with this person (or people). Tell them if they hurt your feelings, for example. Or if you live together and they aren’t pitching in equally, ask them to do their share of chores. 

  1. “No” is a complete sentence. It’s easy to fall into the habit of overexplaining your decisions. Saying no can feel uncomfortable, and many people tend to try to justify their boundaries to avoid discomfort. But this can come from a place of subconsciously wanting to control the other person’s reaction. Remember: you are not responsible for other people’s reactions. Only your own. Practice saying no without overexplaining yourself.

Boundaries can be difficult to implement, but with practice and patience they become easier.  And as you hone the skill of setting boundaries, you’ll likely feel calmer, less resentful, and more content in your relationships. You will also model this to your children and give them the gift of learning to protect their boundaries from a young age.

Therapy Can Help Support You With People Pleasing and Boundaries

If navigating people pleasing and boundaries makes your head spin, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to figure it out on your own. I can help. Together, we can figure out which boundaries you might need more of in your life, how to set boundaries with people around you, and how to manage the anxiety around advocating for yourself.

Get in touch to learn more about counseling with me and see if anxiety therapy could be a good fit for you.

If you don’t feel ready for therapy yet, try my online mini-course for anxiety management for working moms called The Path to Peace . This can help you manage the worries that you feel about becoming more independent. You can check out my program here.

Meet the author

Justine Carino

Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.