Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Growing up as the youngest in my family meant learning to go with the flow. I rarely could voice my opinion, and when I did, it wasn't taken seriously. I wore hand-me-downs and looked up to my brothers. They told me what music I should listen to. I played the games they wanted to play and watched the shows they liked to watch. The things I loved, roller skating, playing with My Little Ponies, dancing - meant being alone. All my memories of playing with my brother are of Transformers, jumping in giant piles of leaves, climbing trees, and doing all the things he wanted to do.
The result of my experience is that I grew up without a strong sense of self. I grew up without really know what I personally valued or liked. As I became a teenager, I started to explore those things but was rejected by my peers and felt even more at odds with myself. Looking back, I can see little hints of my true self glimmering through, but they were often stamped out by boyfriends. Like a copy of my brothers telling me what was right and good, I looked to my dates for the same approval.
Codependency - the gift of many empaths
Codependency is letting your emotions be determined by the actions of others. It's needing the approval of others in order to feel whole. People-pleasing is putting others' needs above your own, consistently, and to the detriment of your own health.
Being a people-pleaser means that you are spending a lot of time thinking about other people's feelings. Worrying about their feelings. And trying to control their feelings. You feel responsible for others' feelings. This is something that I've been working on now for about 3 years. I came to it very late in life. It has not been an easy path.
Because of my codependency, I've struggled my whole life with boundaries. To have boundaries meant I first had to discover my own values, likes and dislikes. I had to learn to allow these things to guide my behavior, even if I was afraid of how it would make others feel. Your values will determine what you are willing to put up with. They determine what you will allow in your space, in your life.
The beginnings of my break from people-pleasing
One day I was listening to a podcast about boundaries, and the woman gave a simple example. She said, "Let's say your boundary is that you don't want to answer the phone after 9pm. How would you express that \? You would not say 'don't call me after 9pm' that's not a boundary, that's a demand."
I was absolutely baffled. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I had no idea what the right thing to say was. In case you aren't sure either, the right thing to say is, "I don't answer the phone after 9pm."
Once I heard it, it seemed obvious, but I was curious why it wasn't apparent from the start. I started asking people I knew. I could tell right away who had good boundaries. They were the ones that said, "I would say I don't answer my phone after 9pm." Like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And then others said that they would ask people not to call them after 9pm. I'll be honest, this was a real eye-opener to me.
A communication tool that freed me from codependency
The most essential tool I've discovered for creating boundaries was learning Non-Violent Communication. I happened upon it when I was doing my coaching training. We only spend about a week learning about it before moving on to something else, but I continued studying it for months. What was meant as a communication tool is actually an incredibly effective method for working through codependency and people-pleasing.
I've since taught this method in many workshops and one-on-one with coaching clients. In every instance, folks say how simple yet effective it is. I'd like to share a little bit of the practice now. And even if you're familiar with the process, you may be new to how it can help you with boundaries.
Non-violent Communication: a primer
NVC is a simple process. First, you identify what you are feeling. NVC offers a list of feeling words if you need clarification or aren't that great at identifying your feelings.
I am feeling exhausted and anxious.
Second, you identify the need that is either getting met or not getting met. If you are feeling negative feelings, a need is not getting met. If they are positive, a need is getting met. NVC also offers a list of needs for clarification.
I am feeling exhausted and anxious because I have needs for rest, security, and understanding that aren't getting met.
Finally, you try to meet that need. Either for yourself or if you need to, you can request another person's help.
I am feeling exhausted and anxious. Would you be willing to make dinner tonight so that I can take some time to rest and recharge?
Start with feeling
There are different points in the process where you might get hung up. When I first started to learn this process, I actually had to spend quite a bit of time just understanding my own feelings. Again, being a people-pleaser, I'd spent most of my life in two states, denying my feelings and feeling resentful. And to add to the crazy, I was in denial of my resentment! The process of familiarizing myself with my feelings began with meditation.
I was so bad at identifying feelings that I actually did this. I would set an alarm to go off at random times throughout the day, and when it did, I'd ask myself, "what am I feeling right now?" then I'd write it down. Not the why, and definitely not what I should do about it, just whatever I was feeling.
After doing that for a few weeks and doing a meditation practice of exploring different feelings and how they felt in my body, I was ready to explore the needs list. Needs are universal. It's vital to study the list. For a codependent person, our feelings and needs are often expressed as "I feel sad, and I need you to do ________ so that I won't feel sad anymore" This is critical. It goes back to the example I gave above about telling someone not to call you after 9pm.
Move on to needs
Needs are universal, so it's also essential to figure out the real need in each situation. I don't need to stay off the phone at night. I need rest, or quiet, or peace. Those needs are universal; everyone needs rest, quiet and peace at some point. Not everyone needs to stay off the phone after 9pm in order to get them, though. Drill down until you get to the universal need (or just study the list).
For a people-pleaser or codependent, this could be months of work. Learning how you're feeling, learning what need is or isn't getting met, and then figuring out how to get those needs met. You may work on this alone for some time before you are ready to express these feelings and needs to someone else. And here's the biggest lesson of all.
As adults, we are responsible for our own needs.
Let's say you need to rest in the evening. You've stated your boundary, you don't answer the phone after 9pm. But, your roommate loves to come into your room at night and chat about their day. They end up venting to you because you're SUCH a good listener. (This is common with people-pleasers!) What do you do? In the past, I would have done a few things:
One - I would have ignored my body. It was probably feeling fatigued, tight, maybe even anxious, I would have either disconnected from it entirely or,
Two - I might have used a substance to alleviate that. Either having drinks with the roommate, or junk food, or both.
Three - I would have felt significant resentment. But, because I was also in denial of my resentment, it would have just channeled into passive-aggressive behaviors. Maybe gossiping or complaining about them to someone else. Or just slowly starting to dread being around them. Avoiding them. Making up excuses not to hang out.
Request what you need
What NVC teaches us is how to make a request.
I really need to rest and have some alone time right now. Would you be willing to chat about this tomorrow?
The thing about a request is that the person can say no! They are allowed to express their feelings and needs too. Let's say your roommate has had an incredibly hard day, and they really need someone to talk to. Their request may sound like this.
I am feeling really upset, though, and I could use some support.
You need rest, they need support. Your needs are at odds. So what happens next?
Ideally, you would be able to develop a solution that both people can feel good about. That solution may be that your roommate calls a friend. Or that you agree to give them 20 minutes, and then you get your downtime.
In each case, both parties feel heard and respected.
What happens when your request is denied
It can be excruciating when you express a need, and the request is denied, but you've learned something valuable. You may be realizing that they are not a good person to have in your life anymore. If you express your need for rest and your roommate says something like, "You never want to help me! I'm always there for you, but you don't want to be there for me" or "What have you done that's so tiring? I'm the one who was working all day!" You can see that your needs aren't important to them. They are telling you no. They are denying your request.
It can be incredibly painful to realize this. Especially for those of us who are codependent, we see their reaction, and we feel responsible. We may rush to make them feel better. But in the process, we are denying our feelings, denying our needs, and only setting ourselves up to feel even worse later.
Unfortunately, if you are new to creating boundaries, you may find that you're surrounded by people who don't respect them. They are used to having access to you whenever they want it, and when you take that away, they might be upset.
It can also just feel awful to express boundaries and needs if you are a people-pleaser. I can attest that even as I write this, my brain is screaming in the background. The idea of having a person I live with be mad at me feels awful. The idea of telling them that I need some rest and would like to be left alone seems mean and selfish when they are looking for support. Are you having these thoughts too? Well, I promise you two things.
Your thoughts aren't facts, and it will get easier.
Whatever judgments arise around this process is probably what you were taught growing up. You may have been raised by someone with poor boundaries too. My mom didn't know how to express her needs and often burnt herself out. The idea of not being 100% available as selfish was deeply ingrained in my psyche. It's tough to remove this belief.
But yes, with practice, this process can become more accessible. It can become second-nature even.
If you are interested in learning more about NVC and getting to try it out in a workshop environment, please join my upcoming course Embodied Holidays! My dear friend Misha and I are working on a four-week course that will cover the topics of Gratitude, Nourishment, Communication and Joy. If the upcoming holiday season has you worried about communication breakdowns, stress, overwhelm or loneliness, we've got you.