How to Set Boundaries (and Stop Feeling Guilty About It)
I'm a textbook people-pleaser, quick to make folks feel comfortable and cared for—even at the expense of my own happiness.
I'm automatically good at anticipating and meeting other people's needs. It's become so knee-jerk that I’ve caught myself catering to people before they even speak: “I know you like sushi (never mind that I prefer my meat cooked), so I looked up some options for us…”
I like to blame it on my Midwestern roots, but, when it comes down to it, my people-pleasing stems from my desire to be liked—to be seen as a good friend, a good co-worker, a good everything.
I know I’m not alone in this. In my experience, plenty of people equate being accommodating and agreeable with being good and lovable. But the truth is, you can be "good" and "lovable" while also asking for what you need.
In fact, a classic study published in the journal Human Relations found that doing someone a favor makes you like them more. Let me repeat that: If you ask me for a favor and I go ahead and do it, afterward I’ll be left with warm fuzzies for you, the requester. Your coworkers, friends, family members, and even strangers aren’t going to hate you for making requests; in fact, they may wind up liking you more.
Which is cool news, but getting your needs met is trickier than just running around demanding things of people. It's often tough to serve up a "Sorry, I can't," But I’ve found a simple tool that really helps.
When it comes to the day-to-day negotiations of managing my own friendships and social calendar, I’ve found a simple question that completely changed my life: "What do I need right now?"
By training myself that ask that question every few hours, I’ve realized how out of touch I've been with what I need. And, better yet, it's becoming more and more automatic to notice and ask for what I need to be comfortable (instead of devoting all my brainspace to others’ desires).
Knowing what you need when you need it is the first step toward getting it, and using this question can help you figure that out.
Here’s how that simple but powerful query can totally change your day.
When Lunchtime Rolls Around
Your coworker asks you to lunch. Who doesn’t love eating with work friends? Introverts, that’s who, especially when they’re feeling depleted from a morning packed with meetings and water cooler chat.
Take a second to check in—what do I need right now?—and you might find the answer is, “to pick up a salad, find a sunny bench, and enjoy a little solo recharge time.”
Knowing that, you can tell your coworker: “Thanks so much for the invite, but I need some solo time to recharge!”
Even making simple requests like this helps train you to be more assertive: When you get a positive response (e.g., your coworker smiling and saying, “Sounds good!” and making it clear it’s no big deal), you’ll learn that you’re just as appreciated when you assert your needs—and that’ll embolden you to keep putting yourself first.
At the End of the Work Week
When it comes to making plans with friends, I’ve always been eager to please. In fact, I think I sometimes house an irrational fear that if I say no to a hangout, that friend will be ticked off, think less of me, or, worst of all, stop wanting to see me. But that thinking? It's ridiculous. If a good bud says no to my invitation, I don’t take it personally—people are busy, right?
I’m trying to reflexively ask myself "What do I need?" whenever I get a last-minute social invite—say, an invite to drinks that evening. What do I really need? Sometimes the answer is, “some quality time with my friend, yay!”, but other times it’s "to stay in and relax, even if that means saying no." Or it might be "to meet for dinner, not cocktails, because I don't want to drink more this week." It may even be “to not instantly abandon my plans to go to yoga tonight so that I can make it to happy hour—yoga is important to me, so I’ll try to meet them later.”
Prioritizing yourself takes practice, but your friends want to see you happy and whole, and that means taking care of yourself.
As Your Workload Piles Up
It’s flattering to be asked to take on new projects: It shows your managers have noticed your talent and competency and think you’ll do a good job. Problem is, no one else is an expert on all that’s on your plate, so if you keep serving as a yes-man, you might just find your workload, well, unworkable.
When your superior asks you to take on something new—or when you find yourself sitting at your computer, blood pressure soaring, and you feel overwhelmed by all you have to do—hit pause and ask yourself the magic question: What do I need now?
Maybe you need a quick check-in with your boss to help you prioritize your to-do’s. Maybe you actually need to offload or delegate something on your plate so that you aren’t chained to your desk until late in the night. But you have to know what you need before you can go out and get it.
When Your Partner is Driving You Bonkers
We’ve all been there: Your significant other (or your friend, or your sibling, or your mother…) is pushing the exact button that transforms you from a functioning human into a snarling, snapping pitbull. Inevitably, your negative self-talk creeps in: “YOU are so mean! YOU are being unreasonable! YOU no-good, two-timing, rotten, low-life....”
You get the idea.
But a profoundly powerful shift occurs when you instead take a breath and ask yourself, “What are my needs right now?”
Maybe you’re in the middle of something and can’t have this discussion right now. Maybe you need five minutes to cool down before you can see the situation clearly and approach it calmly.
Suddenly you are back in the driver’s seat, which gives you a sense of control. And—all together, now!—once you’ve tapped into what you need from the moment, you can calmly ask for it. Even if you don’t instantly get it (“No way, we’re having this conversation now!”), you’ll at least know where you stand.
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