Setting Boundaries

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Scott Drotar Purple People-Eater
I am a huge “people-pleaser,” not to be confused with a “flying purple people-eater.”

I have something I have to tell all of you, but it is not going to be easy. I have not addressed it explicitly thus far in my Roll Models articles or talks, but I have decided that I need to be open with you. If I am going to share my world with you, then I need to share the good, as well as the bad, in order to give you an accurate depiction of my life. I hope this will not change your opinion of me, but I will totally understand if you see me differently after this post. I better just do it before I lose my nerve, so here it goes. My name is Scott, and I am a “people-pleaser.” That is right. I, Scott Drotar, your wise, witty, wheelchair-using wordsmith, is a “people-pleaser.” Not only that, but I am probably one of the worst “people-pleasers” in the world. I have a compulsive desire to please others and make people happy. I have a problem saying “no,” volunteer for things even when I have a full schedule, and often burn the candle at both ends. I fear missing a deadline and “dropping the ball” on a project more than death. My drive to help others live better lives even caused me to create (at least partially) my own speaking program and website to motivate and inspire as many individuals as possible, and if that does not scream, “people-pleaser,” I don’t know what does. However, I know that admitting I have a problem is the first step to coping with my issues, so I am here telling you today that I am a “people-pleaser.”

Ok. I know that this is a bit over-dramatic, and I do not mean to make fun of addiction issues or recovery groups, but I am a bona fide “people-pleaser.” When I get the sense that someone is not happy with something I have done, I get this physically ill and uncomfortable feeling throughout my body. I do not know why I get such a strong physiological response, but when I say “no” to someone, do not meet someone’s expectations, or otherwise let someone down, I get these horrible, sick feelings. I get this nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach, my breathing gets shallower, and my body gets

Scott Drotar Setting Boundaries
Growing up, my siblings and I were always being told to think of others before ourselves.

flushed and sweats like a sinner’s on judgment day. While I do not know why it happens, I do have a good idea of how it started. Growing up, one of the things that my parents were constantly preaching to my siblings and I was the importance of thinking beyond ourselves. They were always telling us to put the needs of others before our own and to focus first on the happiness of the people around us. These altruistic ideals are something we all need to learn, and they have been quite valuable throughout my life, but it is important to remember to keep things in perspective. Just like everything else in life, you need to find the right balance. If you are only ever worrying about the well-being and happiness of others and completely ignoring your own needs, you will end up being just as bad off as people who only think of themselves. Sure, people may like you a lot more than these greedy, self-serving individuals, but you will not be any better off since you are not addressing your own needs. By constantly giving to others all the time, you will end up burnt out and miserable from ignoring your own wants and desires. This is not only bad because you deserve to be happy, but also since in giving too much of yourself and burning out in the short-term, you will no longer have the drive to help improve the lives of others over the long-term. In order to help others as much as possible, maintain your own happiness, and avoid fizzling out and imploding on yourself like a dieing star, you have to learn to set boundaries.

When I was in my first semester of graduate school, since I was new to the quantitative psychology program, had almost no knowledge of theoretical psychology, and had a much different background than my colleagues, I felt like I had something to prove. I felt like I needed to show everyone that I belonged and could be an asset to the department. In an effort to prove my worth, I would volunteer and sign up for anything that I was even remotely qualified to do. When my boss would start looking for people to handle certain jobs at our weekly staff meetings or email the entire department looking for someone to take on a new client, I would be the first to speak up or hit reply. As you can imagine, after a couple months of signing up for anything and everything I could, my plate was very full. It got to the point by mid-semester where I had zero free time or personal life, and if I was not in one of my own classes, I was working on something for a client. I was well on my way to burning out, and if I had continued much longer this way I am certain I would have (probably ending my academic career), but thanks to some wisdom from a professor, I was able to avoid this unpleasant fate and learn an important life lesson.

I was sitting in a lecture hall the week before Fall Break waiting on one of my classes to start, and as I was quietly sipping my Starbucks latte, the professor walked over and asked how my first semester of graduate school was going. I told him that I was enjoying myself and thought I was doing well in my courses, but I was still struggling with finding enough time to complete all of the projects I was working on. He smiled and said that time management was a big part of grad school, and then asked me what projects I was currently helping with. I started going through my mile-long list of current projects, and after about the sixth one, my professor stopped me. He said that I had more projects going than he did even as a tenured professor, and that I was definitely doing way too much for a first year graduate student. He then went on to ask me who had assigned me to all of this work. I shook my head quickly and told him that no one had assigned these projects to me, but that I had volunteered. I added that I thought as the new person in the department and being “low man on the totem pole,” that I was supposed to volunteer a lot and show people what I could do. At this point, a gentle smirk came across my professor’s lips as he said that I had things “completely back-asswards.” He then gave me two great pieces of advice. The first was that the people that mattered already knew what I could do, or I would not be there in the first place (a universal idea that we all forget occasionally). The second, and more valuable, nugget of wisdom was the importance of setting boundaries.

My professor explained to me that in academia, one of your most valuable commodities is your time. There is only so much time in the day, and you will always end up having more work to do than time allows. Unless you can learn to set some boundaries, you will end up going crazy as you painstakingly try to do everything for everyone. If you do not protect your time today by learning to say “no,” you will not have the drive or mental faculties to say “yes” later on when you do have time. It is all a matter of having the ability to help as many people as possible in the long run. It is much better, both for you and others, to help on a few less projects every year, but be around for four years, than to help on every project this year, but burn out and leave after this Spring semester. Having it explained to me this way, as a cost and benefit type problem, really put everything in perspective for me. I realized that you have to balance your “yes’s and no’s” by setting boundaries, in order to get the best result and participate on the most projects.

Scott Drotar Totem Pole
As the “low man on the totem pole” in my first semester of graduate school, I rarely said “no” to a project.

As important as my professor’s sage-like advice was for surviving my grad school career, it was only after I thought about his words for a few days that I realized their real value. It turns out that this same concept about protecting your time and setting boundaries is applicable to nearly every part of life. Just like I needed to say “no” to some projects early on in my grad school career in order to maintain my sanity, graduate, and achieve my long-term goals, you also need to create and sustain limits in all of the other areas of your life if you want to be happy and successful. By developing boundaries you will be able to better prioritize your life and maintain a healthy balance even when you are being pulled in a thousand different directions. Whether it is turning down a “happy hour” invitation from a colleague to have family dinner, or saying “no” to your boss’s request that you stay late to watch your child’s dance recital, your boundaries will ensure that you do not get beaten down by life or lose sight of what is most important to you. Developing these limits, learning to say “no,” and remembering that long-term success is most important, will make you feel much happier and fulfilled with your life, and since you will be better equipped to help others in the long run, it will improve the lives of others as well.

I am a “people-pleaser,” and that will never change. The feelings I have to make everyone around me happy and not disappoint others will never completely go away. Like any other compulsion or addiction though, you can learn to manage these feelings and live a happy, successful life. Developing good boundaries, and sticking to them, will go a long way towards controlling your “people-pleaser” urges. If you too suffer from this horrible affliction, take the time to really think about the wisdom my professor shared with me. What areas of your life are making you feel burned out? What parts of your life are you ignoring because of other obligations? Make a list of what aspects of your life are the most important to you, and then create boundaries that ensure you devote your time to the right things. If you develop good boundaries, and stick to them even when it is hard, you will no longer be a slave to your urges as a “people-pleaser.” You will enjoy a long, happy life with your loved ones, and better yet, in the long run you will be able to give more of yourself to others.

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