Healthy Boundaries: Essential Steps for People Pleasers

I had two days left at work before starting maternity leave. The group therapy sessions I had been leading with my regular cohort of clients were going well. At my job, clients join and leave the program at different, unpredictable times, so I had been crossing my fingers that no one new would be assigned to my group so I wouldn’t have to say, “Hi, I’m your therapist, Kalene. I’m here for two days then you’ll have to get to know a new therapist all over again.” But that morning, my coworker walked into the office with a new client form, and looked around the room at me and the other therapists.

“There’s one new client starting today. Kalene, they can go to either your room, or Chris’s room. How do you feel about taking a new client before you go on maternity leave?” he asked. Oh, poop.

For some, this would be an easy answer to give. No, sorry, I’d feel weird taking a new client right before leaving. Can you assign them to Chris’s group? But I have a people pleaser’s mind, which goes a little something like this: He asked me first, so that must mean he wants to assign the client to MY room. I shouldn’t say no, this is part of the job; take new clients. Chris is listening in, he probably wants me to say yes. I don’t want to let anyone down. And I don’t want to look lazy. I’m sure it’ll be fine! Eh, feel it out, maybe they’ll change their mind and assign them to Chris’s room without me having to say no.

Which means the actual conversation played out like this:

Me: “If you need to put them in my room, I don’t mind.”

Coworker: “Well, I don’t need to, but would you be up for it?”

Me: “I could if you want. I’ve been warning everyone I’m leaving soon, so as long as they know and they’re okay with it, I don’t mind.”

Coworker: “Yeah, but I could also put them in Chris’s room.”

Me: “It’s up to you. I can go either way.”

Coworker: “But what would be better for you?”

Me: “Again, if you need to put them in my room that’s fine…but yeah, I’d been hoping to not get anyone new this week…”

Coworker: (laughing) “Wow. That was painful. You could have just said that.”


I could have let that drag out longer, but believe it or not, I have improved. If you’re a people pleaser like myself, that inner dialogue and resulting dance of communicating what you want may seem familiar. That’s because people pleasers often share similar fears and misguided beliefs on what it means to set a boundary and ask for what they really want or need. Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, laid out a nice list of these common fears and myths:

I can’t stand if someone gets upset with me or says no to my request.

If I say no to their request, I’ll be selfish.

If I make a request, this will show I am a weak person.

I must be really inadequate if I can’t deal with this by myself.

The problem’s just in my head. I just need to think differently; I don’t need to ask for anything.

I don’t deserve to get what I want or need.

I have to know whether a person is going to say yes before I ask for something.

Making a request is a really pushy, self-centered thing to do.

It doesn’t make any difference; I don’t care really.

I should be willing to sacrifice my own needs for others.

In general, setting a boundary is often seen by people pleasers as a bad thing; a sure path to disconnection from others. The risk of disconnection awakens the brain’s most primitive regions, in which disconnection, rejection, and criticism are interpreted as life threatening.

Early ancestors' brains learned that exclusion or rejection meant life or death but today that fear prevents the use of healthy boundaries

What is often forgotten is that boundary setting is necessary for meaningful, genuine connection with others. A boundary is your way of asserting your personal comfort zone, whether it be in terms of your comfort with how you delegate your time, how you share your thoughts and feelings with others, how protective you are of your possessions, your preferences for different types of physical touch, etc. If you’re not honest with someone about what your comfort zone is, you’re not allowing that person to be a part of it. You’re disconnecting from them. Additionally, by crossing your own boundary in order to people please, you’re telling yourself that your own comfort zone is not worth protecting. It’s a self-esteem issue. You’re disconnecting from yourself.

How do you find your way back to connection? Here are some essentials for practicing healthy boundary setting:

Pause. Be mindful of when and how your fears speak up.

Which of the fears in Marsha Linehan’s list stood out to you? The mind typically has its favorites. Start by pausing, and acknowledging when your mind starts telling you its scary story, and name it: “I’m having the thought that if I say no, I’ll be selfish.” Notice and label what emotions the story sparks, and what it does to your body (Shallow breath? Higher pitched voice? Fidgeting? The feeling of not being able to speak?). This mindful pause helps to open the channels in your brain that allow you to make more effective choices on what you’ll do next, rather than following a knee-jerk reaction to the fears.

Arm yourself with realistic reminders of your true goals and values.

The nature of these fears is that they may never go away. The idea is to change your relationship with them so they aren’t driving you. So instead of telling yourself to stop being afraid of setting boundaries, allow the fear to be there while you keep redirecting your focus onto your true goals and values. This can be in the form of reminder statements (Speaking up will help this person understand me more. Setting boundaries leads to genuine connection. Saying ‘no’ now will prevent future resentment.) It could also come in the form of questions for yourself (Is focusing/acting on this fear leading me closer to the relationship I want? Am I being fair to myself? Am I being honest with myself and this person?). Speak to yourself with kindness; it’s a noble act to stick to your values, even if it means saying something that someone won’t like in that moment.

Walk the self-talk.

Once you’ve taken a pause for mindfulness and given yourself some reminders, set your boundary with effectiveness in mind. What’s the most effective way to communicate what you want/need? What’s the most effective way to show the other person that your request is meaningful to you? Here are some useful tips:

  1. Appear confident even if you don’t feel it. Keep eye contact, use an assertive tone, stand in a confident posture, don’t over-apologize, repeat yourself if you need to. There’s a reason why they say to stand in a Superman-like power stance before an interview; your body can trick your brain into actually feeling a bit more confident.
  2. Directly state your preference before you negotiate. People pleasers often do the opposite (if they ever even get to stating their preference). For instance, when asked what I want for dinner, even if I really want sushi, my typical people-pleasing reaction is, ‘I don’t know, I don’t really have a preference, what do you want? Is there a genre of food you feel like? We can narrow down from there…’ When someone asks my husband, his typical assertive reaction is usually, ‘Ribs. But what do you feel like?’
  3. Express your feelings about it. What better way to build understanding of you and your boundary than saying your feelings about it out loud? Name emotions driving you to make a request. Feel free to name emotions about making the request itself. “I hope I don’t sound lazy, I’m just afraid it’ll be too disjointed for a new client to be with me for just a couple days before I leave.”