Once upon a time, I was a doormat. Okay, that’s being a little generous. I wasn’t just a doormat—I was a talking doormat that thanked you for stepping on it. Obsessed with making the people around me happy, I never said no to favors, no matter how big or small—or how poorly the person asking treated me. It’s been a long process breaking these habits, but here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
You don’t become a people pleaser overnight. If you’re a doormat or a people pleaser, you’ve likely been one for years, maybe even decades. You don’t just wake up that way one day. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have an “aha” moment where you realize suddenly that you are one. When this happens, you’ll look around and realize you know an awful lot of people who are walking all over you and really aren’t treating you well.
It’s best to fight one battle at a time. When you decide to stop being a people pleaser, you’re faced with the task of setting new boundaries with practically everyone in your life. It’s tempting at this point to go a little crazy and start trying to set boundaries with every person you meet on every little thing. It’s a natural reaction to realizing that you’re being taken for granted, but it’s better to resist the urge. Instead, focus on one thing at a time. Pace yourself. If you don’t, you’ll burn out, especially since you’re still building new skills as you practice being more assertive.
When learning assertiveness, start with small things. One of the things you do when you’re a people pleaser is that you go along with little things that bother you that don’t matter so much. Even if these small concessions don’t cause problems, you can find yourself getting in the habit of staying quiet about big things too. Part of the reversing the cycle is practicing fighting small battles as a way of starting a new pattern. This will give you valuable practice building up skills that you’ll need to fight big battles. Start by telling the waiter (politely) that they got your order wrong instead of eating the mistake in silence. Don’t start by marching into your boss’s office and demanding a raise.
Boundaries aren’t about telling other people what to do. Setting boundaries with other people isn’t bossy. Boundaries communicate what you are and aren’t okay with—not about telling them what to do. With boundaries, you express what you need and other people get to decide what they want to do with that information. For example: “I’m sorry, but I won’t be loaning you any more money until you pay back when I loaned you before.”
Boundaries are very individual. Boundaries vary from person to person. What you might want or need might seem unreasonable to someone else and vice versa. Just because your personal boundaries are different from someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that either of you is silly or wrong for having them. However, some very common boundaries include an expectation that you won’t be called names or blamed for things that aren’t your fault and that you are able to request space from others when you need it.
When you first set boundaries, you feel like you’re shouting. When you start asserting yourself, it can be a very scary experience. If you’re used to agreeing and going along with people, any sort of disagreement will sound very harsh to you as it comes out of your mouth. A simple “No, thanks,” or “I’m sorry, but I need to set a boundary for myself around that” can feel like you’re shouting at people at full volume. Rest assured, you’re fine. Unless you’re actually starting to lose your voice or people are cowering in fear, you’re likely fine.
Some people get really angry when you start saying no. People pleasers are usually surrounded by people who are accustomed to always hearing “yes” when they ask for things. When you start working on assertiveness, the change can be really stressful for people who are used to you being a doormat. Sometimes they’ll roll with it, and it will go really well. Some people in your life will understand why you’re learning to set boundaries and be supportive. But others? Not so much.
Setting boundaries helps you learn who really cares about you. People seem very similar when you’re saying yes to everything they want, when you never set boundaries and never have needs of your own. It’s really when you start saying “no” to people that you begin to understand who cares about you. People who care about you can usually accept a reasonable no, especially when it’s something important to you. But selfish people? Become very agitated. It’s stressful when it happens, but this is valuable information about them.
Saying no frees you up to focus on more important things. When you start saying no to things you really don’t want to do, it leaves you with more time, energy, and resources (for example, money) to focus on what you do enjoy. This can be self-care and doing things you like, or it can be focusing on other people in your life who deserve your attention. Now that you’ve stood up for yourself, you’ll be able to tell the difference.
Once you stop people-pleasing, you’ll never want to go back. Don’t get me wrong—I still like to take care of people who are close to me, but I’m done making sacrifices for people who aren’t willing to give anything back. It was scary to start saying no to people, but it was the best decision I ever made.
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