One of the biggest lessons I have learned through lived experience is the importance of setting personal boundaries. For the majority of my life, I have been addicted to being a people-pleaser. As people-pleasing typically does, for me it began with wanting to first make my parents happy and to be seen as a good kid. Relatives and friends of the family would often comment that I was a pleasant and quiet little girl and that my parents must have been doing something right. It made my parents so happy and proud to hear that and I'm not going to lie, I lived for those comments. As I got older I wanted to please my teachers because it was really important that they liked me. At parent-teacher meetings the teacher would tell my parents how helpful and polite I was and I would beam. I was a praise-junkie. There isn't anything wrong per se with wanting people to like and respect you, that is, so long as you aren't sacrificing your own values, principles, beliefs, happiness, or self-respect along the way.
Eventually people-pleasing extended toward my romantic partners. A previous relationship I was in years ago ended in large part because I wanted so much to make him happy that I sacrificed so many parts of myself along the way. We dated for almost six years beginning when we were both in undergrad at university. He was a quiet, intelligent, even-tempered guy that my family really liked. When I was in my final year of undergrad (he had already graduated and was working), I told him I wanted to pursue a Masters degree. There were only a couple programs I was really interested in, but the one I had my heart set on was at a school on the other side of the country 4,400 kilometres away. He told me if I got accepted to that school we would have to break up because he did not want to be in a long-distance relationship so I should not waste my time applying to that program. I know what you're thinking - I hope you told him to shove it! Well, I didn't. I was twenty-three years old, we had been together for three years, and I thought he was the love of my life. In other words, I was stupid in love. I hadn't realised it then but a seed of resentment had been planted in that moment. A few years later, when I finished my Masters' program at a university closer to home, I told him about wanting to apply for a six-month internship in my field of study in Trinidad, which happens to be where I was born. It would have been an incredible opportunity and, if I got the position, I would have been able to spend time with my grandma and relatives who still lived there. He gave me the same spiel as before and I felt guilty at the prospect of making him unhappy. I did not apply for the internship. By this time the resentment seed from years before had grown into a full-fledged resentment tree. And not a small one like a bonsai, I'm talking California redwood big.
There were other compounding reasons, but our relationship did not last much longer after that. He was, of course, out of line for forcing me to choose between him and my educational experience and career development. However, realistically, I cannot blame him entirely for making me miss those opportunities. We were each other's first long-term relationship. Now at twenty-six years old, we were different people than we had been when we were twenty. He was insecure and I felt smothered. I see now that if I had defined my personal boundaries, stood firm in my decision to apply to the school or internship I wanted, and not allowed someone to guilt me or influence my life choices, then I would not have developed so much resentment toward him. This is not to say that we would have stayed together, because I truly believe we would not have made each other happy in the long-term, but at least I would not wonder about the road not taken.
I choose not to set up camp living in the past so all I can do is take that experience and make sure I don't repeat my mistakes in the future. That relationship taught me so much about the importance of speaking up and vocalising my wants and opinions even if it does not please others or makes me less liked. I would rather look in the mirror and like and respect who I see - a person that stands firmly by her principles and decisions - than smile and nod in agreement so that everyone else will hopefully like me but not really know whether they respect me. I am not advocating living a self-centred life or deliberately being a difficult person to get along with. Instead I am encouraging people-pleasers and the like, myself included, to determine what really matters to them and live life with that in mind. Life is too short to spend your days doing things you don't want to do, or conversely not doing the things you do want to do. Understand that saying no to others' requests does not make you selfish or a bad person. If you are going to do something for someone else, do it because you want to, not because you want their praise or recognition or because you are afraid you will lose them if you don't do what they want. Maybe you will lose them, but if they do not respect your right to disagree and think for yourself then maybe they just aren't the people you should bend over backwards to have in your life.