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Mental Health

Are You a People-Pleaser? Here’s Your Guide to Healthy Boundaries

Saying yes always may be your second nature, but learning to say no sometimes is healthier. Check out this guide on how to set healthy boundaries and live the ‘good life.’ 

Jun 28, 2024

7 min read

Written by Rhea Kadakia
Medically Reviewed by 

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A hand stopping dominoes from falling and takings down more with it to inidicate what boundaries are

We’re all familiar with the word ‘no’, but how often do we use it without feeling guilty? As a victim of chronic people-pleasing, I’ve constantly struggled with how to set healthy boundaries. Whether it was someone entering my room without knocking or my boss asking me to stay back at work till the early hours of the morning, my default setting was ‘yes’. But setting boundaries is essential to your mental wellbeing. Establishing healthy boundaries, i.e. clear communication about your comfort and discomfort, can help avoid potentially distressing situations.

We learn that boundaries are about balance — a safe space we create where we can feel comfortable while sharing our most authentic selves. Creating boundaries by asserting limits and emphasising and advocating for your needs allows this authentic self-expression. 

Your personal boundaries are the limits and rules you set for yourself within a relationship. Remember that setting boundaries doesn’t mean closing yourself off to others. It simply means allowing yourself to say no but remain comfortable within your close relationships and safe with intimacy.

The importance of boundaries

Setting boundaries is like putting up signposts to protect your mental wellbeing. They work like an alarm system, and the bells go off when someone is getting too close for comfort or pushing your mental and emotional limits. For example, if a conversation or interaction leaves you feeling anxious or drained, it could signify a crossed boundary. 

Furthermore, setting boundaries is essential to help regulate stress levels. The prolonged secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can cause your body to suppress non-critical functions, keeping you in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. Setting boundaries to regulate stress allows your body to return to normal functions. 

Dr Malini Saba, psychologist, founder and chairman of the Anannke Foundation, highlights the importance of boundaries in interpersonal relationships. “Boundaries serve as the cornerstone of healthy interpersonal relationships by fostering respect, trust, and emotional safety. Beyond their fundamental role in defining individual autonomy and self-expression, boundaries create a framework for intimacy and connection within relationships. An often overlooked aspect is the role boundaries play in promoting empathy and understanding between individuals. By clearly communicating boundaries, individuals provide valuable information about their needs and preferences, facilitating deeper empathy and mutual respect,” she says.

What are healthy boundaries?

Healthy boundaries are firm and flexible. They allow us to accept people and actions that nurture personal growth, those whose actions are positive and helpful. While maintaining healthy boundaries, it’s important to protect yourself from people and actions that are harmful or interfere with how you would want to live your life. In an effort to protect yourself, it is also likely that your boundaries may become overly rigid. However, on the flip side, people searching for validation tend to bend over backwards so that people will like them. This leaves them too vulnerable and allows others to hurt them easily. Healthy boundaries are protective and give every individual a choice regarding whom they want to foster a relationship with and how much they trust that person.

Porous BoundariesHealthy BoundariesRigid Boundaries
Lets almost anyone get close to themSelective about whom to let in and keep outKeeps most people at a distance
Overly trusting of others, even strangersTakes time to build trust with othersVery untrusting of others
Overshares personal informationShares personal information appropriatelyVery guarded with personal information
Has difficulty saying “no” to othersAble to say “no” when neededSays “no” to others most of the time
Overly involved in others’ problemsSupports others without being too involvedDetached from others’ problems
Quick to adopt others’ opinionsValues both own and others’ opinionsTends to ignore others’ opinions
Avoids conflict by giving in to othersAccepts conflict as a normal part of lifeAvoids conflict by pushing others away
Does not assert personal valuesStands by personal values, but can adaptHas inflexible personal values
Communicates passivelyCommunicates assertivelyCommunicates aggressively
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By clearly communicating boundaries, individuals provide valuable information about their needs and preferences, facilitating deeper empathy and mutual respect.

Dr Malini Saba, psychologist, founder and chairman of the Anannke Foundation

Why is it so difficult to set boundaries?

Research tells us that when we align our values with our behaviour, we can achieve more out of life. Essentially, it is a way to get to the ‘good life,’ a term used by psychologists that describes a life characterised by mindful presence, connection, and impact.

These values also influence our ability to set boundaries. However, running an endless race on the treadmill of overcommitment can result in behaviour that is harmful to your mental health. Boundaries exist to help you maintain healthy relationships. 

Dr Saba outlines the most common reason people struggle to set boundaries. “While the reasons for struggling with setting boundaries are multifaceted, a unique perspective to consider is the influence of internalised beliefs and schemas. Individuals may internalise beliefs about their worthiness or fear of rejection from early experiences, shaping their ability to assert boundaries later in life. Moreover, societal narratives around gender roles and power dynamics can exacerbate the struggle, particularly for marginalised individuals,” she says. 

She also emphasises that people have the most difficulty setting boundaries with those close to them. “Individuals commonly struggle to set boundaries with close friends and family members. These relationships often entail deep emotional ties and historical dynamics, making it challenging to assert one's needs without fear of causing conflict or disappointment. Furthermore, cultural and societal expectations regarding familial roles and obligations can add layers of complexity to boundary-setting within family dynamics,” she adds.

Reasons you have trouble setting boundaries

1. Societal and cultural influences

We live in a society where altruism is prized, almost to a fault. Constantly hearing about being selfless and putting it into practice can manifest into guilt when attempting to set boundaries. Societal pressures frequently influence the difficult process of setting and maintaining boundaries.

2. Your upbringing

Nurture plays a significant role in your ability to set boundaries. If you’ve been raised without healthy boundaries, recognising and setting boundaries for yourself could be more difficult.

3. Fear of conflict or confrontation

Oftentimes, people try to avoid confrontation or conflict, prioritising keeping the peace and maintaining harmony within their interpersonal relationships. The preconceived worry that asserting boundaries could lead to strained relationships deters people from defining their needs and limits. 

4. People-pleasing tendencies

A people-pleaser is someone who has the need to please those around them, even at their own expense. People-pleasing behaviour stems from feelings around fear of abandonment. In the case of setting boundaries, people-pleasers prioritise others’ needs over their own in order to seek validation or approval or even because they have the misguided notion that if they’re not entirely selfless, they will be left behind. Therefore, they neglect their own well-being and avoid setting boundaries.

5. Past trauma

Trauma in children has a lasting effect on most adults. It especially hinders their ability to set firm and healthy boundaries. Trauma can skew one’s perception of control, safety, and personal autonomy. This leads individuals to believe that the same might happen with the new boundaries since their boundaries weren’t respected in the past.

Moreover, children raised in neglectful, abusive, or dangerous situations had to depend on adults who put them there, which in turn puts them in a very stressful situation and makes it harder for them to communicate their boundaries. 

Dr Saba reiterates why most people struggle with setting boundaries, “Setting boundaries can be particularly challenging due to a myriad of reasons deeply rooted in individual psychology and societal norms. From a psychological perspective, past experiences of trauma, neglect, or invalidation can shape one's perception of self-worth and ability to assert boundaries. Additionally, societal expectations often glorify selflessness and sacrifice, leading individuals to prioritise others' needs over their own.”

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Individuals may internalise beliefs about their worthiness or fear of rejection from early experiences, shaping their ability to assert boundaries later in life.

Dr Malini Saba, psychologist, founder and chairman of the Anannke Foundation

How to establish boundaries

Knowing your needs and what you require to be healthy, retain your sense of identity, and establish good self-esteem are integral to setting healthy boundaries. Your boundaries should be based on your values or things that are important to you.

Dr Saba offers her expertise on how to establish healthy boundaries. “An often overlooked initial step in establishing boundaries is cultivating self-compassion and self-empathy. Acknowledging one's own worth and inherent right to set boundaries lays the foundation for assertive communication. From a practical standpoint, leveraging technology and digital tools can offer unique ways to reinforce boundary-setting efforts. For example, using calendar apps to schedule self-care activities or setting automated reminders to check in with personal boundaries can provide tangible support in maintaining boundary consistency. Additionally, seeking support from community groups or online forums can offer unique insights and validation during the boundary-setting process,” she says.

Setting boundaries one step at a time.

Step 1: Be Assertive

Assertive language will let others know what is non-negotiable without placing blame on the recipient. Effective communication is key to being assertive while setting boundaries. Remain confident in your boundaries and inform the recipients about why these boundaries are being set. Explaining emotions can help with this step.

Example: If someone reads your private emails, you can let them know that their behaviour makes you feel violated since you value privacy and appreciate space when communicating privately.

You are explaining why your boundary exists, how violating it will make you feel, and asking for what you need so that this boundary isn’t crossed again.

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An often overlooked initial step in establishing boundaries is cultivating self-compassion and self-empathy.

Dr Malini Saba, psychologist, founder and chairman of the Anannke Foundation

Step 2: Learn to say no

Saying no is a daunting concept and novel to many who have trouble with setting boundaries. But it’s important to note that the word ‘no’ by itself is a complete sentence that you’re allowed to use.

A firm ‘no’ alerts people that you might be uncomfortable, and this is purely a personal tolerance that they are violating. You can say no without the emotional labour of explanations.

Step 3: Safeguard your space

Remember to set boundaries not just for your person but also for your spaces and belongings (including your emotional spaces). Your time and energy need to be safeguarded along with your physical boundaries.

Research shows that taking time off for yourself and tuning out for a while can help you recuperate and boost wellness. In fact, just the expectation of needing to be available at all times can harm one’s mental wellbeing and create conflict within interpersonal relationships.

Ensuring you use clear communication to set boundaries that protect your energy is an effective way of maintaining mental peace and protecting intimate relationships.

Step 4: Get help and support

All too often, we struggle to set boundaries because we’re unsure how they would be construed, whether they would be respected, or even if they’re valid boundaries. Talking to a professional and getting help is the most important step you can take to protect yourself.

Dr Saba suggests some more simple methods for setting and maintaining boundaries.“In addition to traditional methods like assertive communication and self-awareness, incorporating mindfulness practices can offer a unique approach to setting healthy boundaries,” she says.

Meditation and deep breathing exercises, which are mindfulness techniques, can help people develop self-awareness and control over their emotions. This, in turn, helps them recognise their personal limits more distinctly.

Furthermore, integrating boundary-setting rituals into daily routines, such as journaling or visualising personal boundaries, can reinforce their importance and make them more tangible in everyday life.

 Draw your lines and build your walls

We’re leaving you with a gentle reminder that boundaries exist for you to protect yourself. They also show you how to recognise and cherish your values. Establishing healthy boundaries also gives you a chance to grow in your relationships. So set your boundaries, and don’t feel guilty about prioritising your health and wellbeing.

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