How to Stop Being a Doormat (Without Giving Up Your Common Decency)

Maybe it’s happened to you. A friend or a partner frustrated on your behalf might say it outright: Stand up for yourself. Stop being such a people pleaser. Don’t let them walk all over you. Stop being such a doormat.

The term “doormat” makes it sound as if those with doormat-like tendencies lie flat and still, passively getting stepped on. But if you suspect you have a doormat-style mindset, it’s more likely that you’re super busy. You never say no, never make requests of your own, and take on everyone else’s responsibilities, often at great personal cost. Of course I’ll cover your shift today. Yes, I’m sure it’s hard to come to work after playing video games all night. Or perhaps: My boss never brings up giving me a raise; I’ll just work harder and harder until she notices.

People with a doormat mindset bend over backwards to be agreeable. You always go along with the crowd. Sure, I’d love to go to the new steakhouse for dinner! Yes, I’m a vegetarian, but really, it’s fine.  

You might also work really hard never to give negative feedback. Your performance this month was great. All those times you put customers on hold until you finished a level of Candy Crush? Not a problem.

But then that nagging feeling starts. There’s that sneaking sense that others are taking advantage of you. All the overbusy juggling is making it hard to keep that smile on your face. Resentment starts to leak out in the form of irritability and small rebellions. Even if you magically find a moment to yourself, you realize you have no idea what you’d like to do with it, plus it gets contaminated with feeling selfish and guilty.

Okay, you think. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I care too much what others think of me. Maybe I don’t know how to say ‘no.’ But how to change?

Well, the root of doormat-itude is a mindset that subjugates you to the rest of the world. So let’s shine a bright light on three beliefs that are keeping you on the doorstep. Shift your mindset and the rest will follow.

Belief #1: There’s a double standard for me and the rest of the world. The doormat mindset is rife with double standards. The doormat can’t have an opinion, but it’s fine–preferable, even–for others to say what they want. Doormats think standing up for themselves is somehow selfish, though they’d never say that about others. Finally, the doormat believes their wants, needs, and rights are unimportant, while the wants, needs, and rights of others are paramount. These are all double standards that put the doormat in a position of passivity and opens them to overwork and exploitation.

Equalizing the playing field will bring relief, but giving up double standards also means letting go of beliefs that may have given the doormat a sense of value or purpose. Serving others is the only way for me to be worthy (though others are worthy just because they exist). Or, Doing everything means I’m super capable (though others can be capable through quality, not quantity). Letting go of these double standards are harder, but ultimately freeing.

Either way, a helpful method to assess if a double standard is lurking is to turn the tables. When you’re considering expressing a want or need, but it feels unreasonable or selfish, put yourself in the opposite position and see if your hesitation still holds.  How would I react if Jill asked if we could choose a different restaurant? What would I say if someone politely asked me to take my cell phone conversation outside the library? Would I ever ask someone to work a double shift on his birthday? Sound reasonable when you turn the tables? Go ahead and assume it’s reasonable for you to say it, too.

Belief #2: Being a doormat means I’m a nice person. Search online for, “how not to care what other people think,” “how to stop being a people pleaser,” or something similar, and you’ll be rewarded with dubious counsel. The results are littered with articles entitled “How Not to Give a F*ck” and images of triumphantly raised middle fingers. It sends the message that standing up for yourself means anger and confrontation.

If you’re like me, this isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s too callous, too off-putting. Telling people to go eff themselves isn’t my style. It’s not in my DNA to be abrasive to others (well, okay, maybe when I’m really, really hungry). But I’ll bet it’s the same for you. Indeed, what kind of a world would it be if no one cared about others? If giving up being a doormat means being mean and nasty, no wonder doormats stay put.

Here’s what no one tells you: you can give up your doormat status without giving up your common decency. You can be polite. Gracious. Respectful. Harmonious. You can come away from interactions with respect for others and respect for yourself fully intact.

Thanks so much for thinking of me! How nice of you. Regrettably, I’m just not the woman to run the preschool auction this year.

Hey, how’s it going? Say, would you mind using headphones with that portable DVD player? Thanks man.

You’ve done really great work and contributed a lot to the staff this year. One area to work on is punctuality. I need you to be at your station, ready to go, when your shift starts.

And so forth. Make your grandma proud by saying please and thank you. Be casual. Smile. You never have to stop being a nice person. Not giving a f*ck is hard to reconcile with being classy or respectful. Instead, aim for self-assurance, and most of all, self-respect.

This may sound suspiciously like assertiveness (okay, you caught me), which is the ability to stand up for yourself and express your ideas in a calm, honest, and respectful way. As luck would have it, assertiveness isn’t a personality trait, like introversion or extroversion. Instead, assertiveness is something you do, not something you are. Assertiveness is learned, practiced, sometimes failed, and tried again, like riding a bike. You’ve never heard someone say “Oh, I can’t ride a bike. It’s not in my personality to ride a bike.” So it is with assertiveness.

All in all, challenge the notion that taking whatever others dish out means you’re nice. You can be kind, inclusive, and respectful while treating everyone–including yourself–with the same basic decency we all deserve just for being human.

Belief #3: Bad stuff will happen if I dare to stand up for myself.

When you first start standing up for yourself, this belief might actually hold true. People don’t like change. When you start experimenting with being less doormat-y, you might feel like the mole in a certain arcade game. Even if others didn’t like your formerly meek ways (“Pleeeease just tell me where you’d like to go for dinner!”) they’ll like change even less…at first.  

So consider telling people you love and trust what you’re trying to do.

I’m trying to speak up more.

I know I tend to make everyone guess what I’m thinking, so I’m experimenting with actually saying what I’m thinking.

I’m trying to be better about balancing my time.

Then, follow through. With consistency, people will get used to it. Expect some pushback at first. After all, others got comfortable assuming you’d take care of everything. But as long as you’re not in an abusive situation, people don’t push back for long. They adjust. And oddly, they’ll respect you for it. They’ll feel more secure knowing where your boundaries are. They’ll feel less irritated with you. Plus, when you stop doing everything for them, they’ll do some of those things and feel more capable as a result.

To sum it all up, in a world where common decency is quickly becoming an endangered species, it’s vitally important to stand up for ourselves and others, and to do so with kindness. So go forth and be a people-respecter, not a people-pleaser. And of all the people you respect, be sure to include yourself.

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  • Cari Z

    I believe this characteristic is called “co-dependent”. I am very much this way and by learning about my tendencies I have learned ways to deal with myself. It’s really a relationship you have with yourself. I finally made a deal with ME: if someone asks something of me and I honestly don’t want to do it, don’t need to do it then I don’t – otherwise, if I cave in and do it anyway, I am not allowed to be upset at myself later. Because that’s what happens – we become upset that WE didn’t speak up, didn’t say no, etc. I found that I didn’t have the words, either, to say “no”, so I watch others who are good at saying no and see how they react or respond in similar situations. That’s helped so much!

    • marionspeaks

      Great tip, to model behaviour we admire. Be aware that someone may be watching your behaviour to model after you too!

  • Karen Ingraham

    My husband tells me I should stand up for myself, especially against him, if I think he’s being wrong or pushy. But when I do, he gets angry and says I’m not participating, being logical, that I’m being selfish and only think about myself. So when I’m quiet, I get yelled at. When I speak, I get yelled at. It’s tiresome

    • Emily Grice

      Karen, we’re in the same boat. It’s tricky to navigate and I’m rudderless (also tired) much of the time. Have you had any postitive standing up for yourself encounters with him?

    • marionspeaks

      Oh boy, that’s a tough one for sure. The trick is this — do something to change the dance. If you change how you react, it will spur a different reaction from him. You could try observing someone who disagrees with your husband and does so successfully. How is what they’re doing different than you? Or maybe it’s the relationship itself that needs a new perspective.

      • Karen Ingraham

        We don’t have any friends, so there is no social interaction. Alcohol is a problem, my husband acknowledges that, talks a lot about how he needs help yet does nothing about it. I get the feeling he wants me to help him but I’m not a counselor, even though I have told him we have the insurance to check for help. I drink too, so I’m no Polly Purebread. Years ago, I did go to a counselor, when I didn’t have insurance, but because the counselor was a man, my husband thought I was speaking ill of him or flirting with the counselor. I quit because I got tired of the harassment.

  • In these situations, you have a choice. You can agree to do something you don’t want to or not speak up if something is bothering you, or you can politely refuse and stand up for yourself. It takes practice, but I’ve found I feel better if I can be true to myself and do what seems best for me.

    • marionspeaks

      I love that you are “true to yourself” … and that means speaking up. Bravo.

  • jennabd

    great article

    • marionspeaks

      Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Sun

    Thank you very much for this. But I don’t think it would be that easy to change my mindset. I feel like doing my best for others and seeing them become happy is the only way I can please myself. But I’ve been noticing changes about myself recently. I’ve become more irritable, and sometimes have anger outbursts every now and then. And the worst part is it’s usually directed at my parents. I hated myself for it but began to meditate on what seems to be wrong with me. I realized that perhaps it was because I was carrying too much burden.

    • Ellen

      I think you’re onto something, Sun. I’m glad meditating was helpful–I still have a hard time with that.

    • marionspeaks

      Giving excessively can eventually turn into resentment. Consider that an acid test to stop giving quite so much.

  • psychic

    Yes! I belief individuals should stand up for themselves, while sitting down (Rosa Parks). This can be achieved by reciting the Human Rights Pledge, which states, I have the right to…they can add whatever their belief is as a human being to exist freely within a society. They ought to learn that there is a positive “no” that does not seek to offend, but affirm an individual’s right to refuse or decline. They should be more assertive and self aware and make decisions from that perspective to avoid the “doormat syndrome”

    • Ellen

      “Positive no”–I love that!!

  • Boyd Lundrigan

    Great article. i can relate to the hamster-wheel doormat mentality.Articles like this remind me how important it is to create some boundaries and learn to be more comfy with the word ‘no.’ Thanks for sharing.

  • Clark

    You must be spying on me because you described me perfectly: “it’s more likely that you’re super busy. You never say no, never make requests of your own, and take on everyone else’s responsibilities, often at great personal cost.” Your description of the solution is just as perfect. Thank you. Now to apply it …

    • Ellen

      Well, awareness gets you halfway there, at least!

  • Anket Hirulkar

    Thanks Ellen for such a wonderful insight into the topic.

    • Ellen

      Thank you Anket! (I have to admit I can still stand to learn from my own article).

  • Mikili

    ” Assertiveness is learned, practiced, sometimes failed, and tried again, like riding a bike. You’ve never heard someone say “Oh, I can’t ride a bike. It’s not in my personality to ride a bike.” So it is with assertiveness.”
    I don’t know how to ride a bicycle so the problem is even more concerning :((((

  • Jennifer

    I needed this article. Well written! Thanks!

    • Ellen

      Thanks Jennifer! =)

  • Kitacheri

    Thank you

    • marionspeaks

      My pleasure to share