I’ve noticed that people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to be people-pleasers. Whether this is due to a fear of abandonment and subsequent desire to be liked at any cost or not, I don’t know. The desire to be accepted, however, is strong and can be dangerous.
Why I try to please people
I recently wrote this in a journal entry:
I don’t remember when my need to please or rescue people started. I’ve had it my whole life, I guess. I feel that therapy has helped–I can set limits now, when I couldn’t before. However, I still have a need for approval from others–I don’t know how to get my own approval.
I have a lot of accomplishments, but I don’t feel like I’ve earned any of them. I did well in college–Baylor [University] for Pete’s sake–but it was easy. I feel like all I did was show up. The book deal had some luck involved; the publisher approached me. I feel like I failed my life’s only challenge–my time in the Army [I didn't complete Basic]. It still bothers me.
All my life, I’ve wanted to be brave. All my life I’ve wanted to be the hero. I’ve tried to rescue people even when it hurt me–my drug-addicted brother, my youngest brother [when I couldn't support myself, let alone him], my ex-fiance. I had to be the hero because heroes were all-good. Heroes didn’t get hurt. Heroes were loved.
The dangers of pleasing people
The desire to please people at any cost can be dangerous. It can lead you to make poor choices or take foolish risks. For example, my ex-fiance coerced me into unprotected sex, and I contracted pelvic inflammatory disease as a result. It was a poor choice and a foolish risk that has led to lifelong consequences.
People-pleasing at any cost can cause us to put ourselves in dangerous situations. For example, I stayed with my ex-fiance even when his abusive conduct became apparent. He often shot me with a pellet gun. I was so afraid of the argument that would follow a break-up that I tolerated this. It wasn’t until he grabbed a knife one night and set out to rescue his ex-girlfriend from a drug dealer that I got the courage to end the engagement.
Another danger of pleasing people at any cost is self-hatred. Although one of the symptoms of BPD is an uncertain sense of identity, we have an internal code of ethics. When the desire to please people overrides our this internal code of ethics, we begin to wrestle with self-hatred. We feel as if we are bad people, and the belief we need to punish ourselves. Self-injury is a strong possibility in this scenario.
Finding the courage to set boundaries
In order to set boundaries, we have to believe we are worth having boundaries. We must believe that we have the right not to be violated. We must have the self-esteem to say no.
Therapy helped me get to this point, and can do the same for you. You can learn to say no, to set boundaries, to stand up for yourself. I don’t have any magic bullet on how to do this–I had to practice this in therapy before I got to this point.
Like anything worth doing, setting boundaries and saying no to people pleasing at any cost requires practice. Start small. Set limits on something like lending money. Then move on to the bigger limit-setting. Be prepared for people to wonder why suddenly you are no longer a doormat. Be prepared to hear things like “But you always did this before.” Stand strong–you’re worth it!