ERP 408: How To Repattern A People Pleasing Tendency — An Interview With Dr. Dana McNeil

By Posted in - Podcast January 23rd, 2024 0 Comments

Many people struggle with establishing boundaries in their close relationships due to a tendency to people-please at the expense of their own needs. This challenge often stems from early relational dynamics in childhood, leading individuals to prioritize the needs and desires of those around them over their own well-being. Worrying about  disappointing or upsetting others can make it difficult to assert one’s boundaries, as well as to engage in topics of conversation where there is conflict or disagreement.

In this episode, we explore the pervasive impact of people-pleasing behaviors on the relationship. Dr. Dana McNeil and Dr. Jessica Higgins offer actionable guidance for overcoming this challenge by addressing how to; recognize people-pleasing behaviors, understand the importance of boundaries,  effectively communicate needs to partners, and negotiate differences in a way that fosters greater intimacy and understanding between partners. The discussion provides practical exercises and examples that can help listeners develop healthier relationship patterns centered around mutual care, respect, and fulfillment for both individuals.

Dr. Dana McNeil is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of The Relationship Place, a group practice located in her hometown, San Diego, California. Dr. Dana’s practice specializes in relationship therapy and utilizes an evidence-based type of couples therapy known as the Gottman Method. Dr. Dana is a certified Gottman Method therapist and Doctor of Psychology. She also leads training at the Gottman Institute to help clinicians master the art of couples therapy.

In this episode

5:10 Dr. Dana McNeil’s journey to therapeutic practice.

13:30 People-pleasing: Highlighting the challenges it poses in expressing needs and setting healthy boundaries.

20:25 Practical ways to identify and communicate personal needs, especially for individuals struggling with people-pleasing tendencies.

26:48 Building stronger relationships through open communication and honesty.

32:55 Setting boundaries, embracing vulnerability, and overcoming people-pleasing.

39:40 Embracing differences and talking through challenges.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Recognize people-pleasing tendencies by noticing nervous system reactions like fear, anger, or feeling hurt.
  • Slow down to understand your own emotions and why boundaries are important for feeling meaningful and seen.
  • Ask yourself what behaviors or words from your partner would make you feel loved to get clarity on your needs.
  • Request needs from your partner by explaining why it’s meaningful to you and allowing them to negotiate.
  • Own the “ugly” parts of yourself and be vulnerable by sharing them with your partner.
  • Accept that conflicts will happen in relationships and work to resolve them respectfully through compromise.
  • Inquire about your partner’s life experiences like trauma to understand their relationship needs and limitations.
  • Set temporary compromises with your partner to negotiate differences and periodically reevaluate what’s working.

Mentioned

D-Spot Conversations: Navigating Today’s Complicated Relationships (download link)

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Hendricks Institute

The Gottman Institute

ERP 269: How to Break Free from the Nice Guy Syndrome That Is Holding You Back – An Interview with Dr.Robert Glover

ERP 323: One of the Most Important Relationship Skills – Being Relational — An Interview with Terry Real

Connect with Dr. Dana McNeil

Websites: danamcneil.com | sdrelationshipplace.com | dspotpodcast.com

Facebook: facebook.com/DrDanaMcNeil | facebook.com/sdrelationshipplace

YouTube: youtube.com/channel/UCTiGMC8VeLRMFl8FN9MYFSg | youtube.com/@dspotpodcast/videos

Instagram: instagram.com/drdanamcneil | instagram.com/sdrelationshipplace | instagram.com/dspotpodcast

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/dr-dana-mcneil

Podcast: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-d-spot/id1629708409 (Apple Podcast link)

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dana, thank you so much for being with us today.

I am thrilled to be here, Jessica. Thanks for inviting!

Yes. I was just sharing with you about your book and just how many conversations you support in the couple’s space, and how much information you’re helping people have in negotiating intimacy. So I’m really grateful to have you on the show. I know I was interested in focusing on people-pleasing as it relates to boundaries, I now have a lot of people that are a little bit more in that camp. So I think it could be helpful. 

But before we get started, and I’m happy with wherever our conversation goes, would you be willing to share with people who maybe don’t know you, what got you interested in this work and supporting people in this way?

Absolutely, yeah. I became a therapist as a second career, so much later in life. I was in my 40s when I became a therapist. Before that, I had worked in the corporate world doing something completely unrelated. I was a property damage claims adjuster, and that is kind of what got me the bug on wanting to be a therapist. Because I sort of envisioned that I would be a therapist in a way, but more like: “Hey, let me give you a voucher to get a toothbrush and stay in a hotel after this catastrophe has happened to you.” And what I found was, I was woefully unprepared for the trauma that my clients were going through. 

I remember going to Tuscaloosa one time, and there was a devastation from a tornado that had come through. I was there with my little clipboard, ready to write an estimate so that they could get their damages taken care of. But almost everyone I met wanted to take me into the basement and show me where they hid, and talk about the trauma that they had gone through and how they survived it. And at the time, not knowing much, I didn’t really realize that people needed to process their trauma. So I was like: “Yeah, I see the tree on your house, I get it. There’s a thing.” But I really had to slow down, because I was starting to feel some vicarious trauma. There was like, how do I help support a community that doesn’t feel like it’s okay to talk about what’s happening to them, because it’s happening to everyone? It just kind of got me really excited and interested, and I started doing a journal for my company and started writing notes from the field, and meeting with agents and talking to them about how we can be more emotionally supportive for our clients. So that was kind of the entrance.

I was also in a long-distance relationship at the time, and I was that weird unicorn that wanted to have a good relationship by getting tools at the beginning. I found the Gottman method, and I loved it, it resonated with me. So when I decided to become a therapist, I knew I wanted to do couples therapy. That’s kind of my journey.

Well, thank you for speaking to just your process, and also the places in which you felt really moved and called. I mean, it sounded as though you were very focused on the role that you were in and helping people with their claims, and yet humanity, being in contact with people and their real lived experience. Yes, when we have distance, we can see you have the thing, many people have a thing, and we need to handle the business around the thing. And yeah, you’re confronted with real people, real emotion, real experience, that can’t just so quickly be ushered into the task. You really felt that, and thus sounds like wanted to help.

Well, it was the reality of I didn’t know it at the time, because again, I wasn’t trained in that, and most people who have jobs are not trained in understanding the trauma that their clients might be going through when they’re not therapists. Clearly, my clients had PTSD. They were not able to take in whatever. They were in shock. They were flooded, as we call it in the Gottman world. So they weren’t present. They would just be looking at me, and I’d be talking about like: “Yes, we’re going to replace your window,” and you could tell they weren’t taking it in.

You weren’t able to metabolize the intensity of that experience.

Absolutely. Like, talking about replacing the roof when you just had a tree nearly decapitate you wasn’t something that my clients were able to do, and there weren’t enough resources to help them. Even have psychoeducation about what they were going through, and just kept trying to push themselves to go back to “normal life,” and no resources about how to make that happen, or what the coping skills that they might utilize look like, or even how they might get resources to help them. I didn’t know all of that at the time. So I kind of just foolishly am like: “Well, I better do this so I can get my job done. I better figure out what’s happening, because everyone kind of has the same blank look on their face. Maybe I should let them talk about their trauma. Maybe I should try to be more of a source of support.” So I mean, that’s just kind of how it evolved for me.

I know we probably don’t want to spend the majority of our time on this. But I am interested, do you feel like the corporation that you were working for was responsive and receptive to your attempts to help bridge some of this?

I think that after I started bringing in awareness. I’d also point out, at the time, I was one of very few females that were doing sort of, stereotypically, a male job. I think that there was some culture that needed to develop in our company about the role of an outside property damage adjuster that you’re sending into a catastrophe. Like, what are you doing to prepare us for that? Because at the drop of a hat, I would have to fly within 24 hours across the United States, stay in a hotel for three weeks, navigate myself through the National Guard, and rely on a GPS that often wasn’t working, and then stand there next to someone whose whole life is devastated. How does that not impact me? So by me sort of having that feminine voice, that was just a matter of who we are as females; we talk about our emotions, we talk about how something has impacted us. It gave permission to some of the males in the company to start responding to it. So yeah, I think moving forward from me having a voice and being brave about the things that I needed to accomplish in my job, started a conversation about how do we not only help those in the field, but then also help our clients? So I feel like in some small way, I impacted my corporation.

Well, let me just say, I think there are other versions of this in different industries happening more collectively. It’s not to say that male-dominated fields weren’t experiencing what you’re describing or the impact. But the ability to compartmentalize or the pressure to compartmentalize, there’s a lot of layers to this. I also appreciate what you were saying about, on the front-end of your relationship, really wanting to set it up for success, having more tools and resources, being better equipped. I think that also is becoming part of the greater conversation with all the podcasts and various videos and articles and programs, the things that are available that are helping educate people around the landscape of intimacy. So I do think this is very timely, that we are bridging some of these gaps around industry and humanity and masculine and feminine traits, and just how this all integrates together and plays together. So appreciate that. I love that. 

So I’m curious. As we talk about people-pleasing, it’s a total pivot, but as we turn towards that topic. Unless there’s something you wanted to say before we do that?

No, and it is a people-pleasing. I think some of the reasons that we don’t bring things up that impact us, or some of the reasons that we are fearful of asking for our need, is that beautiful segue that you just gave us, which is, maybe I’m a people pleaser, and it doesn’t feel like I want to burden somebody with my stuff. I want to make sure that they view me as somebody that is willing and hopeful and agreeable, and a team player and just makes it happen and doesn’t complain about things. That is very much a people-pleasing mentality.

Yes, thank you for acknowledging that. It’s really, really important. And when we talk about changing culture, that that is highly-confronting, might not be popular, might be taking a huge risk. Also, there’s a continuum here. If we just do the people-pleasing, we’re going to likely perpetuate the existing norms, as well as maybe compromising ourselves for what we’re experiencing in service of that perpetuating the norm. Would you agree? 

Yeah. I think what happens is, at least for my clients, we don’t give ourselves permission to ask for our needs when we’re a people-pleaser, and therein lies the conflict. Because it’s almost like you’re on this pendulum where, when you’re swung over to one side, you’re agreeable to everything, you never say no, you’re always there, you’re always available. It is your version of trying to have some control in your relationships. Then when you start to realize, I need to have this thing called a healthy boundary, and I need to perhaps evaluate if people-pleasing is not serving me, or giving me the control that I hoped that it would, then you almost swing over to this other side of the pendulum where everything is No, and you feel aggressive, and you feel hard. It feels very uncomfortable, because you’re not used to hearing yourself that way, and you have to be hyper-vigilant about everything that you agree to do or don’t agree. At some point, you’re going to land in the middle. But it’s a long process. Getting in the middle means I can have empathy for how it’s going to impact you, and nevertheless, I still ask for my needs. That is kind of what we’re talking about is it’s so uncomfortable to do that pivot, that people in our life don’t know how to do it. Because it’s so uncomfortable, and it feels like they’re losing control. Does that answer the question, or did I go off on a weird tangent?

No, I think this really helps for people that recognize. I do want to honor that there’s probably many ways in which this is expressed, the people-pleasing tendency, whether or not it’s being very helpful, or whether or not it’s taking care of other people. It could be in the masculine or the feminine traits. I think what you’re describing, I remember years ago, I was putting it on a continuum of balanced assertiveness and being a little bit more in the middle. That on one end, we don’t want to be in a place where we’re all for looking out for number one and not considering anyone else. That’s not going to bode very well for relationships. Or to be so self-effacing or not considering the self at all, then that is that I’m for everyone else and not myself. That doesn’t result to anything necessarily sustainable, sort of really like what you’re describing. 

Yet the journey, thank you for acknowledging just how this is one thing to talk about in theory, entirely different. I will say, more and more, I recognize how deep my people-pleasing tendencies have run. I really like people, and there’s a genuine part of me that really wants to be helpful. And if I can slow down and recognize how much might be operating in my nervous system, I think it’s likely, I don’t know if you would agree, related to more of the fawn nervous system response, or even anxious attachment style tendencies. That this was very much my best move, my adaptive move in my early childhood experience. So good reason, really important, protective way.

Trying to get through childhood, it was the way that you figured, based on your black and white thinking and your limited understanding of how relationships impact each other. It’s a coping skill. Really, it’s like: “I’ve got to get through childhood. I can’t make my own peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can’t change my own diaper. I can’t drive myself to school. I need to make sure that I am not any kind of problem for anybody. I’m agreeable. You want to do things for me, you want to have me around. I must survive childhood.”

Right, I need to have that relationship intact. To your point, I’m dependent. Then the nervous system knows that dynamic, knows that so strongly that it’s operating unconsciously, and to challenge that. I think I remember interviewing Terry Real, and here’s like, let the bad thing happen, or let the terrifying thing happen. To confront that that might jeopardize my relationship, to not please, or to not be Yes, Yes, Yes. Like you said a moment ago, I think some of the masculine expression, and I don’t like to think in binary, but when we talk about traits. I think it was Glover’s No More Mr. Nice Guy, and he was talking about the covert contracts, and he was looking more at an identified man having grown up as a young boy and having more of a dominant mother and having to please to get needs met. So it’s this covert contract. If I help you get everything you’re needing, then you will give to me. So in adulthood, that can be very disenchanting, when it’s like: “I’m doing all these things for you, and I’m still not getting what I want, or you’re still upset with me, or you’re still critical, or whatever the dynamics are.” 

So what do you do to help people, A: recognize the people-pleasing tendency exists? Because I think it looks different for different people. Then B: as you’re saying, this is a journey. You’re talking about boundaries. You’re talking about knowing what one wants. But how does one begin to experiment or even challenge these tendencies. So I’d love for you to talk about that.

I think you start by understanding how you’re feeling it in your body. That nervous system response that you’re referring to, when I feel fear, when I feel anger, when I feel a sense of injustice, when I feel hurt, when I feel like I have to shove something down, that is my body saying that there’s a healthy boundary that needs to be set. It doesn’t mean it aggressively needs to be said. It doesn’t mean you yell at people and change your personality. You can still be kind, gentle, loving, supportive, and you cannot ask for your needs and simultaneously take care of somebody else’s. So your point earlier is that I’m not asking you, and I don’t know if you can see me, it’s almost like a pedestal. Like, you’ve put someone up here and you’ve let yourself be down here below them. If you can’t see me, if you’re listening to this, think of this. 

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“Think of a pillar, where somebody is standing on a pillar taller than yourself. All I am asking is that you put yourself on the same level as somebody. I’m not saying treat yourself like you’re better than, and I’m also suggesting that you stop treating yourself like you’re not as important as everybody else.”

What is it that you need? That sense of this doesn’t feel okay that you keep shoving down because it’s inconvenient, or it makes it feel like you’re going to lose that relationship, as you talked about. My God, I would rather you lose that relationship than lose the relationship with yourself. Because that is what you’re doing. You keep choosing this fear that you have, this catastrophe scenario, that you’re not going to be okay if somebody else doesn’t love you. But you’ve abandoned yourself in the process, and you can’t even love yourself. So how can you be a person that is lovable if you don’t know how to love yourself?

Yes. I’m aware, Dana, even as you’re talking, that one might not even know what they want. They’re still in a practice of being likable, being polished, not doing anything that typically would be unfavorable or unpopular. So they don’t even recognize that as people-pleasing.

I find that with my couples over and over and over again. Typically, I’ll have a couple come in, and one partner is frustrated, because my partner is not meeting my needs, and they’re not being the person that I want them to be. I’ll be like, okay, so I want you to start asking for your needs. Well, I don’t know. It’s like, so you don’t know what you need, but you’ve expected your partner to mind-read. Or worse, because you’ve put so much energy into them that you’ve done this, not because that’s who you are, not because you’re a loving kind being. It’s because you’ve been hoping that you’ll get something back in return, because they’ll either feel obligated or they can’t imagine their life without you. So you kind of feel that you have this power that they’re never going to leave you or that you’re never going to be alone. It’s a hot mess! I want my clients, especially in couples, to figure out what it is that you need, not because the other person can even do it. That’s not even what this is about. It’s about asking for it so that you can hear yourself asking for your needs. It’s not whether or not somebody else can do it. It’s you allowing yourself to have them and to find a voice to articulate them, so that you’re more in contact with who you are and what’s important to you.

Yes, precisely. I wonder if you have more prompts, because I recognize that question can feel so big: what is it that you need? It’s like absolute. So I loved what you just said. Because I tend to ask something similar around: if your partner was to do the thing that you’re asking, what would that allow you to feel? It’s almost a way to get at it. So can you tell me some other ways that people can route around for understanding this?

I think what is helpful to couples is, you have to be willing to ask for the behavior that you want your partner to do, or the words that you would like them to say. It never ever works for you to say: “Well, if you will just act like you love me.” I will pause them every time, because this is a well one road. If you just act like you love me, and then the other partner rolls their eyes, and then we shut down. It’s like, you can do that at home, you can’t do it on my couch. So what does that mean? That’s just some weird umbrella term. I don’t know what that means. If I acted like I love you, does that mean I rub your feet and give you cookies? What is it that feels like love to you? What behaviors would your partner be doing or what words would they be saying? Then you get to ask them for it, which I know is scary when we’re people-pleasers. Asking for something is like pulling all of your eyelashes out. What if they say no? What if they reject me? Okay, again, you’re rejecting yourself. 

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“I need you to hear yourself asking for your needs, and remembering that anything that you as a couple do for each other is a gift. It is not required by virtue of the fact that we’re in a relationship with each other.”

So you get to ask for the gift, you get to tell your partner why it would mean so much to you if they were willing to do it, and then let them say: “Yes, that’s something I’m willing to do.” Or no. But because you’ve asked it in such a loving way, looking out for why it would be meaningful to you, you’ve now opened up an entire new conversation where your partner can negotiate with you. Versus hearing, which is what happens with lots of my people-pleasers, is they get to the end of their rope, they’ve not asked for anything, and they’re like: “You just need to take out the trash. You act like you don’t live here.” I can’t respond to that. That’s not a gift. That’s telling me that I’m a bad character if I don’t do that thing. So I really want my clients to ground in what makes them feel loved. If it’s that I text you and I’m on the way home from work, and you take out the trash, and that’s how I feel loved because I know that I can come home and relax, say that. Don’t just assume that they see you taking out the trash all the time, and they want to treat you the way that you’ve been treating them. Because you’ve been kind of manipulating. Sorry, you’ve been trying to control getting the outcome that you want by not asking for it and circumventing it with modeling. That rarely works.

Right, the indirect hope that they’ll get it through osmosis. I love what you’re saying because it is so disarming, that when one can be in more reveal, be more clear and transparent and distilled about the thing, the request, and also the meaning around it. I mean, typically, in relationship if there aren’t a ton of blocks and issues and baggage that interfere with that seeing, that is what we’re after is understanding and seeing. I mean, that’s where intimacy is, seeing the other person, understanding or vice versa, and we’re making greater contact. When one leads with you don’t love me or you don’t care, some character or some accusation, the person is likely going to get defensive and try to counteract that narrative. So this is a much more direct access to getting, A: what you want, and then B: creating more of that intimacy. It’s so important.

Because it’s vulnerable for the people-pleaser. A people-pleaser does not like to ask for their needs. As someone who is a recovering people-pleaser myself, I don’t like to ask for my need. Because then that means I have a vested interest in whether or not you say yes or no, and that could hurt me. Versus like, I’m vulnerable enough to ask for my needs, knowing that you may not be able to do it, or God forbid, you reject me. Okay, but that’s not me you’re rejecting, that’s the task that has been asked of you. That’s the thing that they don’t want to do. That’s the vulnerability that they don’t want to give. I can be vulnerable and say: “This is really important to me. I would love you to recognize, acknowledge. If you can’t do it, can you be kind when you let me know? Because I’m probably going to be sensitive about it.” I have to own my portion of this too. I can’t just do for you all the time, so it seems as if I have no needs, and me try to get power that way. Because that doesn’t work.

I love that you’re saying this too. Because I see a high correlation between people who identify as being a little bit more Type A, or being very intellectual and assessing even; maybe in their careers, they’re attorneys or scientists. That they use these critical thinking skills, and so they try to apply it to the relational space. Typically, partners or their significant other isn’t interested in unsolicited feedback, or leveraging around getting consensus. To your point, it’s like: “This is true for me, and you’re my person, and I’m hoping that you’ll care and want to help. And it is. It just is. So I’m showing you, and please be gentle in your response if you can.”

You’re allowed to ask for that. You’re allowed to ask for how your partner responds. You’re allowed to say: “If this changes, the way that you feel about me, could you let me know? Because I’m going to worry about it. Can you make sure that if you can’t talk about this right now, that you let me know when you can talk about it? Because if not, I’m going to feel wounded, and I’m going to feel rejected, and I’m going to feel abandoned.” But that means you have to do your own work and know why it is that you’re responding the way that you’re responding to things?

Yes! I would love to give listeners a little bit more example. I can just use myself here, not super-specific, but generically. That I’ve done a lot of work on myself, and years and years ago, I was really in the practice of speaking the uncomfortable truth. I think I was working with Gay & Katie Hendricks’ work at the time. This was, again, early 2000s. I remember when I would say the thing that I thought was unlovable or not likable or shameful, it was the very thing that drew my now-husband, probably partner at the time, close. It was the thing that even though I felt was so not okay, that if I could bring awareness to that, give some space for that, and have the vulnerability to say: “I don’t know if you like me as much as I like you, or I don’t know if you’re as committed or want the same thing.” That that was what was juicing it all along. So he could feel like: “Oh, that’s the thing! I knew there was something, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know if you thought I wasn’t good enough.” Like, people get all twisted in their interpretation. So if we can set a lot of that free, it’s usually the quickest path towards connection. What do you think? 

Absolutely. Owning what it is that you think is the ugly parts of yourself is healing in so many ways, because you’ve been vulnerable. You’ve given that person a gift of saying: “I’m willing to stand here naked and show you all the bits of me that I think are going to repulse you. But also, I don’t want to hide from the parts that I think are repulsive either. So I’d much rather you know what you’re getting into, all the parts that I’m terrified that we’re in this down the road two years and I won’t be able to be okay. So I’d rather just let you know now. Here’s all the parts I’m terrified about. If you’re out, God bless you, go on. I can only do what I can do, and I am doing my work, and I’m going to continue doing my work, and I own that it will probably have an impact on you. And this is who I am, and I’m owning it.” 

Yes, thank you for saying that. Because that was true for me that in this example, I did feel that I had my own back, I did feel deeply committed to cultivating more authentic conscious relationship. So I was in service of that. So that meant grieving him and all of the things. I was definitely committed. But I did feel like I had my own back and I didn’t abandon myself, and that felt incredibly empowering.

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“You might not be a good fit for everyone. But it doesn’t mean you’re not a good fit. There’s a difference between you being broken and you not being a good fit for that other person, for where they’re at on their journey, or what they’re able to tolerate, or their perspective, or what growth they still need to go to, so that they can have an understanding of where you’ve been.”

It’s not so much about you. It’s about the connection of the two people and their ability that they have to navigate things.

Yes. It’s almost as though being so much more direct about some of this is increasing the speed of implementation. When we think about spending two years with someone and then not really knowing the deep truth, that is a long road if we think about putting that type of energy into several relationships that aren’t a good fit. If we’re looking at really maximizing and getting the good fit, it’s like, the closer we can get to the good fit would be more optimal.

Well, I think it’s telling the other person: “Hey, I’m being brave right now, and you can expect this behavior from me in every part of our relationship two years down the road. I am brave now, I show up now, and I don’t even know you really the way that I would know you two years from now. Think about how much more we’ll grow and how much more we will be able to rely on each other because we do hard things now.”

Yes, yes, yes! And the mutual, hopefully, commitment to that, that we’re both in agreement to participate in that to the best of our ability. I get that it’s not all or nothing, that sometimes we’re not going to be aware, and other times we will have awareness. It’s just that when we are aware, we can bring more fully. 

So tell us. I want to, again, slow down for more examples, and also anything that you do to work with people to help put this into practice, both with recognizing those tendencies. You talked about the nervous system responds, that we might be reacting. Slowing down enough to know what is it that I need, what is happening here for me, what is it that’s my request? Can I be in practice of vocalizing that? It is an emotional risk to ask for something, especially when that’s not been safe perhaps in the past. Is there anything else that you want to talk about, that helps people get greater awareness around this, and also be in practice of new moves that support them?

I think there’s kind of some building blocks that need to happen. So if you’ve gotten in touch with that emotion, which again, you may have been so in service of others that you don’t even know what your own emotions are, or have turned down the volume on them because they’re so inconvenient. Because they will sort of pride you to want to do something that you may think is not in alignment with your goals of being a people-pleaser, this sort of internal conflict. So once you’ve started doing your work, understanding your emotions, it sets you in place to understand why the boundaries are so important. Because I’ve not been navigating my life in a way that feels meaningful or real or seen or acknowledged, because I’ve been making everything about everybody else, and that’s not working for me. 

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“Nobody can make you set a boundary until you’re ready to do it. No wonderful therapist can be like, it’s time for you to set a boundary!”

There’ll be some experience in life, some relationship where you’re like: “Oh, I considered everything all the time. I’m the best person on a trip with you. I brought a map just in case our GPS wasn’t working. I brought your favorite snacks. I packed the 80s music.” I did all these things, and you got in the car and you said: “I can’t eat those pretzels, I’m gluten-free.” I didn’t even know that. So now I’ve done everything to make sure that you’re happy with me, and there’s still going to be some reason, no matter how hard I try, that we don’t get along or that I didn’t serve your needs. That experience will happen, and you are going to have this freeing moment where you’re like: “I need to start setting some boundaries and stop being a people-pleaser. It’s not serving me. It’s not getting me where I want to go.” 

Great! Now you’re clear why you need to do it. What are they? What are your boundaries? That is some of the work that you get to figure out. Nobody can tell you. You can work that out with your therapist, I think that’s a really good option. Because your therapist is also going to help you understand where the pitfalls for you are, or the rabbit holes that you go down. Because what typically happens is if you’re new at setting boundaries, you feel as if you have to get the other person to agree that they’re important. So we tend to over-explain. And if we get like a raised eyebrow, even the smallest facial gesture, because we are so in-tuned, we are so empaths about what’s going on over there. So if I don’t see you say yes and nod your head, I’m going to start saying, well, this is because of my childhood. You start talking at like a really rapid pace, and you’re trying to get them to agree with you. If they don’t agree with you, then you abandon it. You abandon your boundaries. Because you are a people-pleaser, and you need to make sure that everybody is okay with you. Guess what, everybody is not going to be okay with you. Because if you live with and experience life with boundary-pushers, who are probably going to be really attracted to you, they are, believe it or not, assuming that you do everything in life because you want to, not because you’re trying to please other people. 

This is shocking to all of my clients! “Well, I finally set a boundary down and they weren’t okay with it.” Uh huh, because that’s your boundary, not their boundary. They were perfectly content with it the way that it was. They got all their needs met, things were groovy. You are going to have to be okay simultaneously. This is a lot of work. I’m not lying to you. You’ve got to be okay with that person in your life not liking it, challenging you, pushing you. And you’re going to have to come up with the strength to be okay with that. But it’s worth it. Because you will have gotten into one of those relationships in your life where you’re like, I cannot do this anymore, and that’s where you start. 

Well, I want to acknowledge and just underscore what you’re saying. In some ways, for established relationships, if one is asserting a boundary for, let’s say a new time around an issue, that the other likely will be surprised, doesn’t fully get it, and it’s going to take some practice and educating the other.

Everyone in your life. Your friends, your co-workers, your siblings, your parents. They are all used to you showing up and taking care of their needs, and they are not, believe it or not, recognizing how hard that’s been for you. Because most of us assume you do things because you want to, not because it’s your way of making sure that you have people love you.

Yes. So in some ways, it’s changing the rules, it’s establishing new ways of relating, and almost fostering a new relationship that is requiring some adaptation or modification to what has been true. I agree that this match where one is a little more dominant, one is a little bit more just naturally assertive or comfortable being assertive, will presume the other is doing what they want. When in all actuality, they’re hoping that if I can help you get all your needs met, that then I’m going to get something in return at some point. 

I just want to also reflect that discontent can be a good teacher. If we look at our lives and recognize this isn’t in alignment with me, or I don’t really like this, or this isn’t working for me, those are really good teachers. As well as maybe when we feel envy or inspired by something, that’s also a good teacher. Like, I love that, or that sounds really good. Those are good indicators when we talked about what one wants or what one needs. If we’re not super clear, those can be good teachers. Then the other thing that you said, there’s no way to avoid conflict. Even if one is a masterful people-pleaser, in relationship, if you’re in a monogamous relationship with another individual that is a different person, there’s no way to not have conflict. 

Conflict is natural. All the research that we’ve done in the Gottman method, the average couple has one conflict per week. That is not avoidable. Half of my job as a couples’ therapist is convincing my clients that you should have conflict. How could you not? To your point, you’re not the same person. Meaning, you didn’t grow up in the same household, you didn’t have the same family of origin, you didn’t have the same modeling of what conflict avoidance or conflict resolution looks like. You have different expectations. You’ve had different prior experiences of relationships. How is that avoidable? It doesn’t mean that you have to have a throw-down/punch-out, like you don’t talk to each other for a week. But you should have some differences that come up. That would be weird if you don’t.

Yes. I remember, I believe it came from the Gottman Institute that there are at least seven irreconcilable differences in every relationship. I remember coming across it and I’m like, that’s a lot. Then I reflected on it and I’m like, yup. So for listeners, we’re usually familiar with irreconcilable differences in the legal terms, but this is like things that are not going to change: extrovert/introvert, the planner/the saver, the one that’s more expressive. Do you want to add to this? Because I know you’re trained in this.

Yeah. 

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“In the research, we have found that 69% of couples experience perpetual issues that are not going to resolve in the course of their relationship. So the good news is, stick with who you have. Because it doesn’t matter, you’re going to have a set of problems no matter what relationship you’re in, they’re just going to look different as you travel from relationship to relationship.”

The work that we do is, how do you keep it from coming world war three every time it comes up? You have to talk about it. You’re going to, for the course of your relationship, have to come up with some temporary compromises that you’re checking in about; we call them the state of our union. So if we put a temporary compromise in place, and then for a month or so, we try this new temporary compromise and then we check in. It’s like: “This part looked great, let’s keep this part. This part, nuh-uh, lose it, not good. Okay, bring this other part in, new temporary compromise.” And we keep marching down the road, so that at least we’re talking about the things that are different. 

We have to accept the things that we can’t change about our partner. I know it’s easy for me to say, it’s really hard to do. But how are we going to? Because you have negotiated non-negotiable things in your relationship. You may not give yourself credit for it, and you may not have understood how great you figured out. Maybe you’re using humor. Maybe you’re letting one person win, and the other person, if it’s not important to them, they let it be a pass. You have been negotiating things. This is just another part of your relationship that you get to negotiate that can feel like a perpetual issue. Once you make change, one person’s change can impact a relationship. You’re going to have to continue dealing with how is this change impacting the relationship?

Oh, there’s so much we could dive in. This could be a whole episode in and of itself. Quick example of one thing that I noticed. One of our many perpetual differences is, my husband aims to have more simplicity, likes to do less, to have less stress, and I tend to be more ambitious, more excitable, optimistic about what we can get done.

Are you at my house? Wait, did you just talk about my relationship?

So sometimes if we’re talking about a trip we want to take, I will feel him dig in, or have felt him dig in the past. I was like, is he just shutting down my ideas, like what’s happening here? Then having a little inquiry, and he was able to say: “Oh, I’m really conscientious about us doing too much or getting stressed.” I’m like, oh, I can get behind that, I’m in service of that! Because if it’s not a win for him or it’s not good for him, he’s not going to want to engage, and vice versa. So when we look at trudging along, and the goal is to really be in collaboration, these things are really important that we’re looking at our needs, we’re looking at how do we support each other when we are operating really differently. So this is really critical.

You guys would be great with a tool that we use, because the Gottman have 50 different interventions, so we’ve got a tool for everything. So there is a tool that would be perfect for you guys called Dreams Within Conflict. So you’re really doing an inquiry with each other about. I don’t want to think that you’re rejecting me. But you have some sort of life experience or expectation about trips, or some kind of catastrophe scenario that if we over-plan, what will happen? Well, we’ll come back exhausted and we won’t be able to work the next day. Or did you only take trips where you went to your family cabin, and all you did was fish and like lay in the sun? Like, where is this coming from? Because I don’t want to think it’s that you don’t love me. So here’s a way to give us some space about it. Actually, do sort of a mini-interview of your partner about how did they get to this position that they have? It leads you to what does compromise look like? Because it’s not that you get shut down and you don’t get to have any adventure or excitement on the trip. But what are the things that are non-negotiable for you, and what do you have wiggle room around? What’s non-negotiable for him? Really working those things out, trying a trip that way, and then evaluating. How did that work? Did I get all my needs met? Did I get to see the 12 museums in three days that I wanted to see? Did you get time to have a nap? So what worked, and what didn’t work? So that we can then project that down the road for the next trip.

I love it. I have so many things I want to respond to. But I recognize we’re winding down here, and I don’t want to lose our time with you without asking. You had mentioned trauma in the beginning, just kind of what you were experiencing in your different role, and now being in the therapeutic space. For people that have experienced trauma, or even complex trauma in relational patterns, that maybe they experienced neglect or abuse, their needs were not met and often minimized and intruded upon and dismissed or even injured. Is there anything you want to say about the path of coming into contact with one’s needs and being in relationship with another around setting boundaries or advocating, just as it relates to having trauma in one’s background?

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“I’m often surprised at how little partners share with each other their prior trauma. I really encourage and spend quite a bit of time with my partners, letting them hold space for each other’s traumas and asking really curious questions about how has it impacted the way that you perceive yourself in relationships?”

How have you healed from that? What have been the consequences of you going through that, and how does it relate to our relationship? Sort of explaining to their partner in a loving way: “Here’s what some of my limitations are. Or here are some of my untended-to wounds. Or here’s some things I’m still guarding against and I feel very protective around. This is not a you thing, this is what I’ve done as the armor so that I could get through the trauma that I have. Can you please understand this about me?”

Yes, and here’s what’s still really scary for me maybe.

Yeah. I think I’m often surprised at how little couples feel safe enough with each other, because they don’t know how to put bumpers on how to talk about that. So I work a lot with my clients, helping them find a safe space to talk about those traumas with their partner, so that their partner can be loving and supportive versus defensive about how those wounds have impacted their partner and still kind of come into the relationship with them. That is where you really do need sort of a professional to help guide you through some of those. If you don’t know how to talk about them and ask for your needs, you probably need to do some Me stuff and some We stuff. Couples’ therapy isn’t going to heal it all. You might have to understand some of your own needs, and that might be sorted out through individual therapy.

Totally, and to have the scaffolding and the support so that there can be more practice without the support professional, so that it can be part of re-patterning and more accessible. 

Okay, wonderful. Well, as we’re winding down, is there anything you want to say about our conversation that we haven’t mentioned, before we pivot to how people can get in touch with you?

I just think you’re such a nice interviewer. You just have such a lovely presence, and I can tell how much you care about the work that you do. So this has been really rewarding to get a chance to connect with you. 

Thank you, likewise. I can feel how present you are, and just how much wealth of knowledge you’re pulling from, and how invested you are in helping people really create healthy relating. It’s really needed and important, so I’m grateful. For people who want to get to know your work more, what would you encourage?

We have a couple of websites. So I have a group practice in California, it’s called The Relationship Place, and I’m sure you’ll put the links on there for it. One of the things that I am passionate about and that I very much focus on, so my clinicians do regular work, but I do something called intensives. It’s called Therapy Getaway. So couples from around the United States come and hang out with me for two or three or four days, and we do very deep work. I spend the whole day with couples, sort of unpacking some of these relationship issues, and the people-pleasers, and the traumas, and the conflict. It is so rewarding. I’ve been doing it for the last several years now, and we can get so much work done by just really focusing on a few days with each other. So that’s what I get really jazzed about these days. We practice the Gottman method, which is an evidence-based type of couples’ therapy. For me, it’s really the gold standard of working with couples. So if you want to learn more about the Gottman method, or the intensives, or the work that we do, our website is a great place to check it out. It’s SD, so short for San Diego, www.SDRelationshipPlace.com.

Okay, and I will have the link on today’s show notes.

My website is DanaMcNeil.com. All roads will take you there.

And what might people find at Dr. Dana McNeil website?

I have a podcast, so you can find links to it. I have a book that came out from the first season of the podcast, I will be happy to give your listeners a free digital copy of that if they would like to. So however we can negotiate that, I’m happy to give it. Some blogs that I’ve written, I write for quite a few article media outlets. I do a lot of things. I’m very ambitious like you, so I drive my partner crazy. It’s like, whoa, whoa, can you slow down, what 12 things are you working on right now? I came so late in life to being a therapist that I have a lot of time to make up for. So I’m very engrossed in my work, and I’m always excited to meet somebody that wants to know about it. So thanks for having me.

Okay, I will also have the link to your personal website that sounds like it has a plethora of resources. Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your valuable time with us.

 Absolutely, this is great.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching