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How She Learned to Stop People Pleasing

Set boundaries and say no to others without feeling guilty.

An illustration by Aura Lewis of a woman watering her flowers

I was dropping off my three-year-old son at preschool. Another mom, Jessica, stopped to chat. “Tomorrow is the class Valentine’s Day party, and I haven’t even started working on the craft I volunteered to bring,” she said. “I’m so tired, and I don’t have time tonight to do it. Ugh, I’m stressed out!”

Without even thinking, I said, “Don’t worry, I can take care of it for you.”

At 10 o’clock that night, my husband, Eric, found me sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by red and pink construction paper hearts I’d spent the past three hours cutting out. “I thought you already prepared your activity for Nathan’s party,” he said.

“I did. This is for Jessica’s craft.”

“Why isn’t Jessica doing it?”

I gave a weary shrug. “She was stressed at drop-off this morning, so I offered to do it.”

“Well, you seem pretty stressed now,” Eric said. “You put yourself in these situations a lot, and you’re obviously not thrilled about it. Why keep doing it?”

Why was I always going out of my way to make someone’s life easier, even if it made my own life harder? It didn’t take long on Google to discover that I’m a people pleaser, eager to earn the approval of others. Too eager. I often did things I didn’t want to do because I was afraid of disappointing someone.

Eric was right. I couldn’t go on like this. So I spoke with three experts—even giving them some examples of my people-pleasing ways—to find out how to cultivate a healthier relationship with helping others.

I told psychotherapist Kate Crocco, author of Drawing the Line: How to Achieve More Peace and Less Burnout in Your Life, about offering to do Jessica’s craft. “We need to have faith that our friends and family can figure out things for themselves,” she says. “People pleasers sometimes think that if they don’t bend over backward for others, the other person won’t survive. Give others the opportunity to solve their own problems.”

Karen Ehman, author of When Making Others Happy Is Making You Miserable: How to Break the Pattern of People Pleasing and Confidently Live Your Life, says, “People pleasers are often passive about how they spend their time. They can be easily swayed to fill their time with someone else’s agenda and then become overwhelmed. As Christians, we should follow God’s plan for us.”

Their answers made me uncomfortable. If I didn’t offer to help people, would they still like me? Would they still see me as a nice person? A kind Christian woman?

Sharon Hodde Miller, author of Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, points out that being nice and being kind aren’t the same thing. “Niceness is often motivated by our self-interest,” she says. “We help someone because we want their approval or validation. Kindness, on the other hand, is primarily about God and showing his love to others.”

How can we determine what our true motivation is in helping others? Think about your reaction when your help is not reciprocated, acknowledged or appreciated, Miller says. Do you feel resentful and sorry for yourself? Or do you feel peaceful because you followed God’s leading to be kind?

Based on those criteria, I was definitely being nice more than kind. I hadn’t realized how often I volunteered to take care of things because I wanted the approval of others, especially at church.

“With numerous opportunities to serve at church, we might think, ‘What’s just one more yes?’” Crocco says. “But we must evaluate our commitments and set healthy boundaries. When we begin to feel worn down, we should ask ourselves, ‘In this season, who needs me most?’ Then focus on that.”

Miller recommends observing the Sabbath, resting your body and your mind, to help create boundaries. “The Sabbath reminds us to honor our limits because God is in control, not us. When we observe a weekly Sabbath, it makes it easier to draw other boundaries in our lives because we understand that our limitations are a part of God’s design.”

“We get our identity from doing,” Ehman notes. “We get another hat to wear, thinking that it gives us worth. It’s how our culture measures significance. But it’s not how God measures it. He cares much more about who we are becoming than what we are doing.”

She has a good reminder for us people pleasers: God hasn’t put every volunteer opportunity on your to-do list. Pray before accepting a new responsibility. If you don’t feel that God wants you to take on the additional obligation, step back so someone else can have the opportunity to help.

I wondered if I could learn to say no without feeling guilty.

“We forget that we can simply say ‘No, thank you’ or ‘That isn’t going to work for me’ without explaining any further,” Crocco says. “When we overexplain, it’s usually because of guilt. We need to learn to be okay with the pause in the conversation. Decline the opportunity, then wait for a response. You don’t need to apologize or explain yourself.”

“We’ve got to get to the place where we care more about obeying God than pleasing people,” Ehman says. “If he has shown you that you are overcommitted and have no room to take on more, politely decline and don’t feel guilty. Remember that other people’s feelings are not your responsibility. Their happiness is not your assignment.”

What if I follow this advice and the person pressures me or tries to change my mind?

“People have been used to your saying yes for a long time, and if you begin to set limits, they may not like it,” Crocco says. “Your yes has served their needs. But if someone cares about you and the relationship, they will respect your decision.”

“We do not need the approval of others,” Ehman says. “We have already secured the greatest approval of all, that of being a child of God.”

Recently, it was our turn to host the family Easter celebration. My husband is one of eight children, so it’s no small task. Then the children’s minister at church asked me to teach the kindergarten class on Easter Sunday. “We added an extra service, so I really need you,” she said.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I said. There was a brief pause. I started to explain, “Eric’s family is coming over, and it’s about 40 people…” I trailed off, remembering that not every volunteer opportunity was my responsibility.

“That’s okay,” the minister said. “I have a few other people I can ask.”

I sighed with relief. It may not have been a completely guilt-free no, but it was a long-awaited step in the right direction.

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