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The Challenges of Being Assertive and Setting Boundaries for Pleasers and Self-Sacrificers

Many people struggle with being assertive or setting boundaries. The prospect of setting limits or asserting that your needs be met can provoke anxiety as this may require some form of aggression or expression of anger on your behalf. Aggression and anger – in proper measure – can help clearly signal to others what you’re willing to tolerate and is implicated in your capacity to take up space when it’s appropriate.

Some people disavow their aggressive drives – because of conditioning within the family or the broader cultural surround – as they fear that it may negatively affect how others see them or even how they see themselves. However, disclaiming anger or aggressive drives when it may be needed doesn’t mean that these parts of you vanish; instead, it accumulates within, and it may eventually be experienced as resentment and bitterness toward others and the world. Indeed, many clients I see who attempt to preserve relationships by disavowing their need to set boundaries or assert themselves, swiftly cut people out of their lives. Or they displace their anger onto “safe” relationships that are ultimately not the source of their frustration. Others may direct their anger inward, which mutates into a nasty self-critic that sometimes ends in them physically hitting themselves in frustration.

Another common outcome for people-pleasers or non-asserters is burnout. Habitually prioritizing others’ needs over one’s own is untenable and may lead to exhaustion and symptoms of depression. During burnout, their identity as someone useful and helpful is compromised, making their dominant ways of maintaining closeness and connection unavailable to them. This experience can further exacerbate distress, as people in this situation often feel unable to communicate their needs to others – the language to do so may elude them.

Therapy can help people like the ones described above to understand the context of their people-pleasing habits. Everyone is born ready to assert their needs in the world. But, in a global sense, your experiences will shape your attitudes regarding whether being assertive is perceived as negative. Understanding how you went from being an infant who only knew how to need to someone who disavowed your needs can help reorient you to a more moderate space where you can set appropriate boundaries, and where a reciprocal exchange of needs with others is possible.

Mental health professionals at CFIR can also support you in addressing problems often associated with perfectionism, including anxiety, depression, anger, eating disorders and relationship problems.  Contact us to inquire more and to begin or continue on your journey toward making yourself and your mental health a priority.

Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice) is a psychologist in supervised practice at CFIR’s Toronto office. He has provided clinical and assessment services in a variety of settings such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the McGill Psychoeducational and Counselling Clinic, and the Health and Wellness Centre within the University of Toronto. He has alsoI completed his Ph.D. in clinical and counselling psychology at the University of Toronto. In individual therapy, he help adults struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, as well as those trying to cope with the effects of past and/or current verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.