Case Study


Case Study

The Challenge of Helping the People Pleaser: Setting Boundaries Can Be Risky

July/August 2018


Boundaries bind. They limit, stop, and inhibit. But they also free people up to be themselves. It’s hard to live with them, interpersonally speaking, and even harder to relate well to others without them. They’re at the crux of so many clients’ struggles. With couples, whether the presenting issue is affair recovery or split loyalties in a blended family, it’s the joint boundary-setting skills of two often vastly different individuals that can either expand or deplete their relational resources. Add a people-pleasing partner to the mix and things can get even more complicated.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of myself as a bit of a boundary specialist. My father was an Andalusian miner’s son who didn’t care what people thought of him. He believed children learned morality lessons best at the end of a leather belt. For my mother—a college-educated prom queen—being liked was a guiding principle. As an apple that fell from these trees, I’ve grown up sensitive to the ways boundary setting and people pleasing can collide. And yet, as a clinician, I’ve learned there’s no way to know for sure how relationship dynamics will alter when clients try to do less people pleasing and experiment with assertive boundary setting. Like changing lanes on a highway, no matter how many times you’ve checked your mirrors, setting new boundaries in a relationship involves a degree of risk. In my work with Sophia, helping her assert her boundaries led to an unforeseen therapeutic…

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