Post divorce, I lived the "nice girl" persona for a few years. I was a rock star at the "please, placate, pretend, perform and turn myself into a pretzel" ideals of what I thought was valuable in society. I also took on more than my fair share of responsibility as a way to "be nice," but what I really wanted was to be liked, approved of, appreciated, noticed, and supported. Fortunately/unfortunately, that never happened. Rather, I was taken advantage of, while, at the same time, giving away the most valuable pieces of me.
Avoiding Hard Things
I realize now, the root of my nice girl behavior was avoiding hard things. There was no intrinsic goodness in "being nice". It was a strategy to protect myself. I didn't want to have hard conversations, hold others accountable, say no, be yelled at, hear no, get honest with myself about where I was and who I'd rather be. Luckily it was unsustainable. The more I avoided the hard, uncomfortable things, the worse the consequences I suffered until the pain of avoiding was greater than the pain of facing it head on.
There is a circular relationship between self-respect and facing hard things. You could say I lacked self-respect so I was complicit in allowing others to take advantage of me. While not un-true, I would argue my willingness to be uncomfortable was so low, that the cost was my self-respect.
What's the difference? One is the cause and the other is the effect. I can choose to face hard things. I'm not so sure I can choose more self-respect.
A willingness to be uncomfortable and face hard, ugly things is a prerequisite for boundaries and self-respect. You don't have to know what to do, you just have to be willing to do it. Without the willingness, which boundaries to have and the consequences people will face when they cross your boundaries seems arbitrary - because it is since you are not willing to do the hard thing to enforce them.
It's like we each have this compass of truth. We know deep down if we will take care of ourselves - if we will do the right, hard thing when put in the situation. If we've shown ourselves we won't - our confidence, self-worth and self-respect suffers.
For me personally, I remember thinking how impossible boundaries seemed until the moment I was willing to call out the ugliness in my life - to see it for what it was - and to not hide from it. I was dealing with a vengeful, selfish person. When I said enough of the games, enough of the disrespect, enough of the pretending that you are a decent person... When I was willing to use my unapologetic words and witness this person flip out in a spectacular display of hateful childishness, I was free.
No one likes hard things, ugly people, hurt, pain, or disappointment, but hard things are a part of life. The more we hide from them, the more they have power over us. Our confidence and self-respect is really a function of how well we are dealing with reality as it is, (not as we wished or hoped it was) and putting forth the effort to take care of ourselves no matter what comes.
If you find yourself taking on too much responsibility, being nice, struggling with boundaries, feeling like a pretzel - ask yourself what hard thing are you avoiding, and what would it take for you to face it? Maybe you have to be willing to let go of a false hope? Maybe you need to allow yourself to face change? Maybe you have to be willing to endure disappointment? Or maybe you have to say no to bad behavior and deal with someone that scares you.
Looking objectively at what scares us for what it is, as it is, and doing what you know is the hard, right thing is where lasting self-respect is built. Over time, these things stop being scary. They start being second nature because you know you can handle the challenge. You don't take the person yelling at you personally. You don't let them guilt, manipulate, shame or control you because you're willing to deal with bad behavior head on. You're in charge, not your fear.
If you're still not sure what hard thing you need to face, turn toward your fear, your avoidance, your tolerance. Once you want to see it, you will.