Why People Pleasers Need Boundaries Too

Oct 18, 2022 | Confidence, Stress

Is it hard to set boundaries? Are you a “people-pleaser” –  saying yes when you would like to say no?

The issue of boundaries has come up a lot in my coaching lately. It’s a common one, especially for women.

If you’re a people-pleaser, hopefully this post will help you understand why, and give you inspiration for rewriting that narrative.

Why we don’t set boundaries

If we set boundaries, we risk upsetting people. We risk social approval and connection.

Girls and women are especially taught to seek social acceptance. The loss of that can be very scary. No one wants to feel alone. Plus, the more people like us, the better we tend to feel about ourselves (i.e. if a lot of people like me, I must be a good person).

Another reason for pleasing others can be found in the brain’s reward processing system. Social approval is a reward the brain learns to anticipate when we please others. Even anticipation of that reward causes a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure.

And if you anticipate social approval but get a negative response instead because you set a boundary, like declining a request or invitation, the brain takes special note of that and will try to guide you next time to avoid the negative response, e.g. say yes instead of no.

OK, acceptance, connection, and a feel-good reward system – hopefully now you can understand the why of pleasing others.

What about some of the results?

Losing connection with self

In addition to accumulating feelings like stress and resentment, another important downside of pleasing others is losing a connection with yourself.

When we focus on pleasing others our guidepost for actions and decisions, we strengthen those neural patterns in the brain.

At the same time, if we stop checking in with our own values, desires and beliefs, we weaken those neural patterns.

Over time, we can lose our internal compass, and base our self-worth on social approval. Unfortunately, it tends to be a never-ending process.

Fatigue and indecision

When we say yes too much, we inevitably take on too much and feel stressed and overwhelmed. Not only do we give up our self-care, but we can just become exhausted.

That exhaustion has consequences for our brain, which requires a good 20% of our body’s energy on a normal day. And when the brain senses we are low on energy, it becomes what some researchers term a “cognitive miser” by trying to simplify complex decisions or tasks or just skip them in order to conserve energy.

So our fatigue can result in indecision or bad decisions because we’re too tired to consider all of the factors. (For more on what affects our decisions, check out this post.)

Confidence and compassion

Setting boundaries is not unkind, it’s about self-care, self-compassion and self-worth.

Respectfully saying no is a message to others, but more importantly it’s a message to ourselves that we deserve respect. This breaks the pattern of people pleasing because we stop basing our actions and decisions on others. And it builds our voice, confidence and our authenticity as we become the guide.

Finally, while it might sound like a paradox, I once heard Brene Brown describe a study she where she was researching what made people more compassionate than others. The answer was that the people with the most compassion also had the strongest boundaries. (Here’s a short clip of her describing this.)

Like the oxygen mask on the plane: you gotta put it on yourself first, so you can be able to help those around you… and do so without anger or resentment.

A boundaries challenge

Sometimes what is asked of us is beyond what is needed; what is expected of us is not what we truly want; and how someone treats us is not ok. The question is, will we speak up?

Setting boundaries is hard especially if we’re breaking a pattern. But the choice is always ours to make.

And it will get easier once you begin. (One client is even enjoying saying no these days!)

As I’ve been challenging my clients, I’m challenging you now: in the next week, can you say no at least 3 times?

Post a comment if you’re in!

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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