The power of setting boundaries
I had a client explain to me recently they were terrified of saying no to a family member’s requests to help with their ailing parent. It had become a daily part of their life to help with their mother’s appointments, finances and manage her mental and physical health. As you can imagine, it had become incredibly stressful for my client. The worry for her mother’s declining health coupled with the responsibility to be available at all times was playing havoc with her ability to work, look after two young children, manage her own home plus juggle all the other responsibilities that come with being a working mum. And when she said no to cancelling a day’s work to take her mum to a doctor’s appointment, it was met with accusations of selfishness so vitriolic, my client was left wondering if she was not just a terrible daughter but a terrible person.
This is a common dilemma I see in my therapy room. Family members take client’s emotionally hostage, making demands the client feels unable to say no to, lest they look like they are abandoning a family member. Often the family members accusing clients of this will claim to be disadvantaged in some way and will remind the client they have it easier than them, so they owe it to them to help. This guilt trips my clients into a dysfunctional dynamic that sees the same family members getting their needs met at the cost of others. This behaviour often stems from childhood, when one sibling learns to manipulate the family into seeing them as the victim and will play the family off around them.
make a conscious decision to step out of the drama
Karpman calls this the Drama Triangle, where a victim will encourage a rescuer to repeatedly save them, whether it be by behaving in a helpless way or creating a narrative that always paints them as the innocent. Those family members that feel empathy towards them will take on the role of rescuer, helping in a way that usually means the victim doesn’t have to take responsibility for their behaviour or actions. The third point in the triangle is the perpetrator, a family member who can see what is happening and calls out the victim’s behaviour. The victim will become defensive and accuse the perpetrator of being selfish or jealous and the rescuer will step in and make excuses for the victim. The roles can swap at any time, and thus a merry-go-round of manipulation, frustration and drama ensues. Karpman explains the way to release yourself from the Drama Triangle is first to notice what it happening, identify the role (or roles) you are playing and make a conscious decision to step out of the drama. This can be done by refusing to rescue or get involved in heated discussions regarding family members.
And this is where boundaries are crucial. Many of my clients see saying no or setting limits on the amount of help and support they give family as not just selfish but disloyal. They have been indoctrinated to believe family is everything so saying no means you are letting down the people you love. It can seem counterintuitive but setting boundaries can be one of the most loving and caring things you do for your family and yourself. No one can keep stepping up for family if they are burnt out or if their mental health is at rock bottom. No one can create a loving, compassionate and supportive space when they feel resentful and frustrated. By naming what you can do on a daily or weekly basis means your family knows where your limits are. And if they try to cross your boundary, you can gently but firmly remind them what they are. This can be done in a loving way by making statements such as, ‘I really want to keep helping you take care of (insert name of family member) but in order to make sure I can do that and manage all my other commitments, I can only take (insert name of family member) to appointments on the following days and times.’
If you receive push back of any kind, stay calm and do not get drawn into debates or arguments of any kind. A further response could be, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way but I’ve made my decision and I feel it’s best for all of us.’ If they insist on arguing, end the conversation and walk away.
Deciding to change the way you manage family members is never easy. It takes time and practice and will feel uncomfortable at first but the more you can assert your needs, the more you will feel able to manage your anxiety levels. This can leave you feeling calmer and more in control. You may notice you start sleeping better, have more time to look after yourself and you have more patience with the rest of your family.
Setting boundaries is never about being selfish. It’s about respecting yourself and your family enough to ensure you’re looking after everyone’s best interests.
Why people pleasing could be robbing you of your authenticity
Have you ever laughed at a joke that wasn’t funny? Said yes to something you didn’t want to do? Smiled and even agreed when someone insulted you? Or truly believed other people’s feelings are more important than yours?
These behaviours are just a few examples of people pleasing, a learnt behaviour that becomes an unconscious compulsion to keep others happy, no matter the cost to ourselves. It is women who are the most common perpetrators of this social crime, but these aren’t crimes women commit against others, we commit them against ourselves. It might sound ridiculous to think that just being female means you’re the kind of person who would agree to something you don’t want to do or perpetually put others’ feelings above your own but as women and girls, we didn’t choose to behave this way, we were taught. It’s what society has expected of us for thousands of years and despite all the changes we’ve seen in society and women’s rights, it’s still expected of us today.
Remember when you were a girl, and you were praised for being polite, compliant, helpful, caring? And remember being admonished for being selfish, outspoken, aggressive or competitive? There was a crushing shame attached to feeling like we were too much, too loud, too needy. So many of us complied, we demonised that side of us, believing it wasn’t acceptable. The need to be accepted was so great we pushed that part of us down where no one could see it.
As we became young women, we were urged to be organised, cheerful, positive, and friendly. So we did and boy, did we get good at it. The need to please had become strong in us by then. When we entered the work force, we were encouraged to work hard, follow the rules, be a team player, don’t cause trouble, don’t argue. It made us likeable, valuable. We continued to internalise these qualities, believing our identity and self-worth came from embodying these attributes. We would feel proud when we were praised for our hard work, for going the extra mile, for being liked. It all sounded so simple, do as you’re told and be nice and everything will go in your favour.
But the mind has a funny way of twisting these messages. A simple phrase such as ‘you should be nice to people’ takes on another layer of meaning and we begin to believe, ‘you’re only allowed to be nice’. A voice develops in us, echoing the often strict voices of our parents that becomes our inner critic, judging our every move, every decision, every thought.
It becomes our doctrine, a mode of behaviour we hold ourselves accountable to on a daily basis. ‘I must be nice,’ ‘I shouldn’t be difficult.’ We berate ourselves if we do anything that feels or may be perceived as selfish. We constantly worry we are being too much, if we’ve said the wrong thing, if we’ve upset someone. We agonise over how we are perceived, even develop anxiety, OCD and eating disorders to become the person we believe we ‘should’ be.
There’s been much talk of boundaries in recent years, of saying no, me time and self-care but I often work with women who tell me they don’t have time for these things, they often see them as just another task they are supposed to perform. When I suggest it’s about carving out time to meet their own needs, they become uncomfortable, like this isn’t something they deserve. They’d go on to describe an inner critic who was so hard on them, they didn’t even know how to speak kindly to themselves. When I’d ask some clients what they really wanted in life, some of them didn’t even know. I began to suspect they were too scared, even in the safe confines of the therapy room, to voice their needs. Many didn’t even know what their needs were. I’d keep hitting a wall with my clients, how could I encourage them to look after themselves if they didn’t even know how. And more importantly, why was this the case?
As my case load increased and I began to focus specifically on women’s therapy, I noticed many of my clients were struggling with the same issues. Anxiety, depression and other disorders were a symptom of the same disease, people pleasing. The belief that they didn’t have the right to ask for what they needed or to put themselves first was having an adverse effect on their mental health and well-being. These women’s sense of self had been moulded from childhood, creating women who were often high achievers, but also highly anxious, and all too often on the brink of burn out or worse.
I began to realise the answer wasn’t promoting me time, it went much deeper than that. That sense of self that orbited around being a good girl was robbing women of the ability to discover their true, authentic selves, before the world told them who they were supposed to be. We began stripping back the layers of who my clients believed they needed to be and began asking who they really were, discovering the little girl that lived inside each client. We explored her likes, dislikes, dreams and beliefs. I also began to uncover another crucial element to this process, the ability to get back in touch with our instincts. Call it intuition, gut feelings or knowing, people pleasing teaches us to ignore this crucial part of our true self. By getting back in touch with their instincts, my clients could begin to identify how they felt, what it meant and what they were going to do. It began to give them choices that weren’t influenced by the world around them, but from an inner experience, an inner knowing that had their best interests at heart. From here we could begin to decipher their values and create boundaries that reflected them.
Women’s empowerment therapy encourages women to side-step the trap of people pleasing and invites them to stand in their own power. Each client goes on their own journey, to understand how and why their people pleasing tendencies developed, to make peace with their past and to re-engage and develop their true self. By going on this journey, not only do my clients notice their well-being increases, they find they’ve developed the skills to better manage their mental health. Some even find their issues dissolve completely.
The journey to being free from people pleasing isn’t easy. However, living in perpetual anxiety and fear isn’t easy either. Making the decision to choose yourself can be the most rewarding and important decision you will ever make.
How to cope and offer support this Mother’s Day
Mother’s Day gives us the chance to celebrate the wonderful women in our lives and show them how much we care. But for those who have lost their mum, are estranged from their mother or child, whose mum is sick, who’ve lost a child or for those who would like to be a mother but aren’t able to, Mother’s Day can be a source of great pain and sadness. If you fall into any of these categories, we’d like to help you navigate your way through this difficult time so we’ve put together a few ways you can take care of yourself and your wellbeing this Mother’s Day.
Take a break from social media – Seeing others celebrating with their families on Mother’s Day can be triggering and feelings of sadness, anger, resentment and jealousy can make getting through even more difficult. Giving yourself a break from social media for a few days can give you the space to manage your feelings.
Honour your Mum – If you feel able to, you could spend the day honouring your Mum. This can look different for everyone, you could look at photos, cook her favourite meal, write a card or poem, visit her grave/memorial or do something she loved. Taking the time to connect with your Mum and remembering her presence in your life can feel nurturing and fulfilling and can help us feel more connected to our loved one. By honouring their spirit, it can help with the healing process, allowing us to feel stronger and lead a more meaningful life.
Allow some self-compassion – Pushing away or burying our feelings may help us cope in the short term but it can lead to anxiety and depression in the long term. Acknowledging your feelings and letting yourself know it’s OK to feel how you’re feeling can be incredibly healing. Make some time in your schedule to give yourself space and some time for self-care before, during and after the day. If you can, try sitting with your feelings and allowing them to come to the surface. Practice kind self-talk such as, I am feeling sad right now and that’s OK, it’s normal to feel this way and if I allow myself to feel, it will pass and I will be OK.
Reach Out – You don’t have to do this alone. Reach out to family and friends who understand what you’re going through. Share with them how you’re feeling but also allow space to share memories and laughter. Losing a loved one can remind us the power of connection and helps us recognise and appreciate the wonderful relationships we still have.
Support someone you care about – If you know someone who has lost their mum or anyone who finds Mother’s Day difficult, don’t be afraid to reach out. It might feel uncomfortable but most people will be grateful you’ve thought of them. If you’re unsure how best to approach it, it can be as simple as asking them how they are going. Just remember to be gentle in your approach and to acknowledge where the person is at. They may feel ready to talk or they may not and that’s OK. The fact that you’ve reached out shows you care and are there to support them.