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How to Stop Being a Doormat and Become More Assertive

From one doormat to another, with love.

Jessy Wrigley

Jessy Wrigley

Tuesday, 26th June 2018

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Let’s face it: a doormat isn’t something we proudly go around calling ourselves. But perhaps someone close to you has called you one (playfully or not), or maybe you’re just starting to get fed up of being trampled on...

If so, you’ve come to the right place.

As a recovering doormat myself, this one’s for you.

I’m taking this as an opportunity to impart some of my own hometruths in leaving doormatdom behind and winning the battle against the disease-to-please.

Most of us associate the term doormat with being a pushover. Maybe the softly-spoken wife who never stands up to her opinionated husband at the dinner table, or the self-sacrificing mother who allows her kids to run amok whilst running herself into the ground meeting their every demand.

But Doormat Syndrome is a little more complex than this. Most of us wrongly associate being a doormat with weakness in character, which normally has little to do with it. Behind most doormats is a strong - if not severely frustrated - fighting warrior. It might be, for example, that your nearest and dearest know you as the sassy opinionated one at home, but at work you never stand up for yourself and regularly get walked over by colleagues.

In other words, we can be a doormat in one part of our lives, and not in another. And that’s because people-pleasing is a coping mechanism; it’s something we’ve learnt because it was reinforced or it worked for us in the past.

For the sake of ease - and because it sounds a lot less harsh - I’m going to refer to us doormats as people-pleasers from hereon in…

What are the signs of people-pleasing?

  1. Saying ‘yes’ to everything, including the unreasonable (and usually dreading it or feeling resentful afterwards).
  2. Feeling uncomfortable when you have to express your likes and dislikes (particularly dislikes).
  3. Failure to stand up for yourself. For example, you completely disagree with what’s suggested at a meeting but stay quiet, only to leave feeling frustrated.
  4. Feeling fearful of people with more authority than you.
  5. Taking criticism to heart. For example, someone says something negative about you and you find yourself thinking about it for days or weeks afterwards.

Before you go saying “I just like being kind to people”... I hate to break it to you, but kindness doesn’t have much to do with it. There’s a key difference between doing nice things and being a people-pleaser. People-pleasing is all about putting other people’s value above our own. It’s about feeling so anxious about what other people think or feel that we self-sabotage our own hopes and dreams in the process. This slowly chips away at our sense of self and we might start to question who we are underneath it all.

Of course it's a good thing that we're kind to others, but it’s possible to do this and retain our own boundaries at the same time.

What’s so wrong with being nice all the time?

It’s exhausting
Being “on form” all the time is like living our lives in a constant interview. When we spend all our energy keeping everyone else happy it’s easy to lose sight of our own goals. This can leave us feeling out of balance and burnt-out.

You can never be the real you
Not being true to our own needs can leave us feeling disconnected and lost. When we’re constantly putting on a face to the outside world, it can make us wonder whether our friends choose to be friends with us because we spend our time doing nice things for them or because they truly love us, warts and all.

You overwork at the expense of your loved ones
Overcommitting ourselves will always come at the expense of something else. Try as we might, it will never be possible to do everything. And here’s where people-pleasing can be ironic. Most people-pleasers - hell-bent on proving their value - will over exert themselves in the working environment too. A failure to prioritise the things or people who are important to us, means we can end up putting our time and focus towards the wrong things.

Unexpressed emotions sour with age
When we bottle up difficult thoughts and feelings, they tend to just reappear elsewhere (and often worse). You can’t give relentlessly without feeling it somehow in the long-term. Most people-pleasers will find themselves feeling grumpy, angry and burnout. And even worse: resentful. A very different picture to what’s being portrayed on the outside.

You're passive-aggressive instead of expressing things fairly
Anger can easily transform into passive-aggression when it's not expressed. Communicating how you feel is the only real way to prevent resentment. Talking about uncomfortable things might feel difficult at first but it’s a risk worth taking. And most people will respect you more when you do.

It breeds anxiety
Trying our best to keep people happy all the time, exacerbated by the stress of a calendar filled with unwanted obligations can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety.

You end up being walked over (intentionally or unintentionally)
People-pleasing leaves you open to being taken advantage of. We need to teach people how we want to be treated. When we fail to set boundaries, others will never know how far they can push us.

A desire for control
Far from the selfless act it might seem, people-pleasing actually stems from a feeling of powerlessness and the need to be in control.

How did I become a people-pleaser?

We’re not born people-pleasers. People-pleasing is something we adopt as we grow up. All people-pleasers are lacking an internal compass to guide their own values and worth, and this can happen for a number of reasons. Typically it stems from childhood and conditional (rather than unconditional) love. Maybe a parent left or was emotionally unavailable to you. Or perhaps one of your parents was very critical or authoritarian, instilling an anxiety that you wouldn’t be loved unless you did as they said.

A child that’s laughed at, undermined or shouted down when they express their opinion might learn that they’re only loved when they comply with what others say.

Women seem to be more prone to being people-pleasers. One example can be drawn from the fact that women are much less likely to ask for a raise at work - probably for fear of rocking the boat. From a young age women are taught to be the peace-givers, to accommodate and to shy away from conflict. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to get their hands dirty, play rough and take risks. These kinds of social stereotypes are damaging to both sexes for reasons we're fortunately starting to realise.

What’s holding you back?

If you’ve spent a lifetime pleasing other people, you might be worried about what’s going to happen when you start making the necessary changes. Here are a few misconceptions:

“People aren’t going to like me if I say what I want”
Turn your attention to friends or colleagues who are assertive... Have you ever thought less of them when they’ve stood up for themselves or said no (nicely)? The chances are you actually respect them more for setting their limits. People generally like to know where they stand - and this extends from personal relationships into the workplace too.

“Being assertive is selfish”
Being assertive doesn’t mean trampling all over people. It simply means valuing yourself to the same degree as you value others. Remember that you’re actually doing people a favour when you let them know where your limits.

“My friends won’t understand”
If the people around you have got used to you saying yes all the time, it's true that you might come up against some resistance at first. But you should never feel guilty about putting your own needs first. The people who really care about you will love and respect you for it. Think of it as an opportunity to see your friends true colours.

“I don’t know how to say no”
Breaking old habits can be a challenge, but it’ll be worth it in the long-run. Learning to become assertive meaning having a strong sense of YOU and YOUR VALUES. It doesn’t mean trampling all over someone else’s - that’s aggression. Being assertive is all about learning to express your needs in a positive way and that takes practice. Stick with it until it becomes a habit.

How to be more assertive in life

Get clear on your goals to find your boundaries
If you're not sure what your boundaries are, you can be sure that no one else does. Take some time to think about your own personal goals. What do you see yourself achieving in the next few months or the year ahead? What will it take to achieve this? Once you know where you want to go, you can look at setting your priorities and know what you need to do - or not do - to get there.

Change your language
Words are powerful. Changing your language can make a big impact, not only to others but it will also help reshape how you see yourself. Try making the following changes in the way you express yourself:

Instead of “I need” say, “I want
Instead of “I could” or “I should”, say “I will
Instead of “have to”, say “I choose to”

Remember than NO ONE has power over you
Stand your ground. Remember that it’s only you that can give your power to someone else.

Call yourself out when you feel guilty
Being assertive can feel unnerving when you’re used to taking a backseat. Anytime a negative thought crops up, try replacing it with something positive instead. An example might be thinking, “I should have cooked dinner for my friend's dinner party”. Trying switching this kind of thought to, “I deserve to be happy and what I do with my free time is up to me”.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself
Some people like to push and push and push…. When that happens, standing your ground can feel tough. But never be afraid to sound like a broken record if someone isn’t listening to you.

Think long and hard about why you do it
Do you like to be someone’s crutch or to take the role of “the fixer”? It might feel like you’re being the epitome of niceness, but most people-pleasers turn to service out of their own fears rather than kindness. If you decide to do someone a favour, make sure you’re doing it because you really want to, not because you’re expecting something in return.

Learn to balance empathy with a big fat “no”
Empathy is everything, and it’s good to be sensitive to others needs. But it’s possible to be empathetic whilst also setting clear boundaries..

Say “no” and then move on
Saying no might be so foreign at first that you feel compelled to come up with excuses to justify your decision. Never be afraid to state your limits but do so and then move forward. Try to avoid tactics like justification, complaining, eye-rolling or passive-aggression.

Make self-care a priority
Taking care of yourself is an act of self-love. We inevitably end up losing sight of our own needs when we choose other people’s happiness instead. Taking time to indulge in the things we love is a healthy practice to help bring balance back again.

Buy time before making a commitment
Learning to be assertive is a skill and it takes time. When someone asks you a favour, take a step back and say you’ll get back to them later to give yourself time to see whether it’s within your own personal limits.

Stuck in a people-pleasing pattern? If you're finding it difficult to assert yourself it might be the result of low self-esteem. Find a therapist today to start making real, lasting positive changes in your life.

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