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.