Confessions of a Former People Pleaser

The Radical Act of Rethinking Your Boundaries

Alicia Muñoz

It’s 10 o’clock at night — do you know where your boundaries are?

I used to view boundaries as a fancy way of dressing up rejection, incompetence, and selfishness. When my husband declined an invitation to meet me at a restaurant for lunch or a friend chose to drop me off at the Metro rather than drive me all the way home, I viewed these choices as intentionally cruel or misguided attempts by another to sabotage my worthiness, place hurdles in my path, and interrupt the trajectory of my needs with their own pesky acts of senseless self-care. As a recovering people pleaser , panic gripped me whenever I was forced to set a boundary as a last resort, in a moment of panic or exhaustion, thereby disappointing a friend, family member, or my own partner. Setting a boundary felt dangerous, a prelude to some terrible loss.

It seemed to me that people with boundaries sacrificed love and connection for no good reason. What was the point of prioritizing yourself if it might result in being left alone, once the dust settled? I found it easier to put my own desires on the back burner, or to get them met in some less disruptive way: through minimizing their importance, laying guilt trips, or seeking out a substitute pleasure, such as online shopping, sweets, coffee, and the occasional string of alcoholic beverages at the end of a long workweek. Blaming others for my frustrations was a good last resort, when the other strategies failed.

For years, nothing was worth the risk of disappointing someone I needed or loved.

After a decade of working as a couples counselor, and growing myself up in the trenches of my own 11-year-marriage, I see a light at the end of the people-pleasing tunnel. It’s more of a chrysalis than a tunnel, actually. Most days, I emerge out of it into a bright, new world. Boundaries create safety in relationships. They foster direct communication over assumptions, avoidance, passive aggression, hidden agendas, and unspoken expectations. Boundaries aren’t just the end of something and the start of something else, a gain or a loss. They’re guardians of our life force, energy incubators, protectors of precious emotional resources, stokers and fuelers of self-respect. Although they take time to recognize, they’re the linchpin to self-empowerment, indispensable signposts that guide us. Cultivating the courage to speak what we discover about our own boundaries out loud in relationships may temporarily disrupt the status quo, but in the long run and with practice, this process aligns our day-to-day life with our highest values.

It’s not always comfortable, when I’m asked certain questions, to say, “I’d rather not talk about that.” It’s not always comfortable to decline invitations when people expect me to attend important events. It takes effort to resist the subtle riptides of expectation trickling through the interpersonal waters of my social, work and family life. But it can be done.

Where is there a Healthy Boundary Church of Interpersonal Relationships? Maybe I’ll create one. I have a vision of a beautiful stone and glass structure on a hilltop with the ocean sparkling far into the distance beyond it. Congregants set their cellphones to airplane mode as they file through the doors. Instead of chanting prayers, they make origami stop signs out of dinner receipts, without making anyone else responsible for their feelings. I picture myself skipping through the grass, scattering confetti created from the shredded emails I’ll never respond to.

After a lifetime of sidestepping “no” in favor of “yes,” “sure,” “great,” and “maybe,” the moment before delivering a refusal still gives me lockjaw. I have to exhale, swallow hard, and think. It’s awkward. Other peoples’ needs and desires aren’t going away anytime soon. Neither are mine. Somewhere on the spectrum between rigid and collapsed, our own boundaries are waiting to be fully acknowledged, assessed, and factored into our decision-making processes. It’s vigilance — awareness, if you’re not quite as type A as I am — that allows us to recognize where the needle falls. What is our material, mental, physical, and emotional boundary at this moment, within the kaleidoscope of our ever-shifting relationships, needs, and priorities? How do our boundaries change as we evolve and grow? By finding our boundary sweet spots and moving the needle over a millimeter here or there to a place of greater honesty, we become the shero’s and hero’s of our own life’s journey, relearning the ancient, forgotten art of being ourselves. Increasingly, we can show up as who we are, one small, boundary-setting victory at a time.

Old habits of accommodating, helping, and rescuing die hard, particularly for ex-people pleasers. When things get difficult, I personally like to toggle my cellphone to airplane mode and skip through grass under a rain of confetti. But that’s just me.

You do you.

***

Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified marriage counselor and desire expert based in Falls Church, VA. She’s a contributor to Counseling Today, GoodTherapy.com, YourTango, PsychCentral, and Medium.com. She's currently writing her first book, The Sexual Chemistry Attraction Myth: A Married Woman's Guide to Erotic Reset. Contact: alicia@aliciamunoz.com.

Photo © Ammentorp/Dreamstime.com

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Topic: Ethics | Professional Development

Tags: 2018 | boundaries | boundary issues | client relationship | growth cycle | healthy boundaries | healthy relationships | personal boundaries | professional boundaries | rapport | rejection | relationships | therapeutic alliance | therapy ethics

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1 Comment

Saturday, May 5, 2018 3:48:52 PM | posted by Fairley Parson
Thank you for this. I facilitate workshops on setting limits and boundaries so I'm also looking for different perspectives on what this means. Your piece really stands out to me, in part because of the playful and evocative imagery you use to describe your thinking on all this. "Where is there a Healthy Boundary Church of Interpersonal Relationships?" Ha! Yes! Love it. Sharing. Thank you.