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How People-Pleasing Damages Self-Worth

... and why they're more vulnerable to manipulation.

Key points

  • Adults with a history of people-pleasing behavior are more vulnerable to being manipulated in narcissistic relationships.
  • Constant people-pleasing behavior negatively affects many areas of a person’s life.
  • Many who identify as being stuck in a pattern of seeking external validation also struggle with depression and fears of abandonment.
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A need for external validation (people-pleasing) tends to be learned early in our lives, often when unrealistic expectations and a need to be “perfect” outweighed any authenticity or emotional connection.

Growing up in this type of environment conditions a child to become hyper-observant in learning micro-behaviors—in assessing for the slightest differences in expression or nuances in their parents’ approval or disapproval. These micro-behaviors become the gauge for how people-pleasing is learned.

Behind the scenes, what is being taught is a toxic combination of intermittent positive and negative reinforcement; the child learns that they receive praise for making others happy, so the bar is raised in continuing to please others. On the flip-side, if they are seen as imperfect and scolded or shown indifference, the child tries harder to please, which can negatively reinforce this type of traumatic bond of people-pleasing.

As children, we turn to our caregivers to validate our sense of direction and self-advocacy. This is how children learn to navigate the world and eventually build a solid self-identity. Yet when a child’s reality is denied or dismissed, it can result in that child growing up feeling unsure of who they are, unable to advocate for themselves, and completely dependent on others for a sense of validation.

Invalidating or abusive environments in our childhood can be internalized as negative self-beliefs that wind up limiting our ability to trust in ourselves. The result is that we develop a mindset that to be “perfect” we need to turn to others for approval and validation.

What Happens When People-Pleasing Children Grow Up?

Adults with a history of people-pleasing behavior tend to be more vulnerable to being manipulated in abusive or narcissistic relationships. Many have wrongly learned that to feel valid and worthy, they must be seen as perfect and must put everyone else before their own needs—and in the end, they wind up victimizing themselves. Instead of showing anger for feeling manipulated or taken advantage of, many people-pleasers turn their anger and resentment inward at themselves.

Many who identify as being stuck in a pattern of seeking external validation also struggle with depression, fears of abandonment, and a “fawning” response (Walker, 2014) which may include the use of flattery, being overly helpful or accommodating, and having a lack of personal boundaries.

How People-Pleasing Behavior Can Affect a Person

Over time, constant people-pleasing behavior negatively affects many areas of a person’s life including:

  • A deep sense of guilt and shame
  • Negative impact on self-worth and self-esteem
  • Questioning who they “are” outside of seeking approval from others
  • Difficulty to manage relationships, tasks, or duties because of over-obligation
  • Inability to make decisions on their own (developing a “freeze” trauma response)
  • Having their boundaries constantly overstepped, or an inability to create healthy boundaries

Stopping the Pattern of People-Pleasing

Stopping a pattern of seeking external validation can be challenging, often because it’s deeply ingrained and because those who have histories of people-pleasing struggle with seeing their value and worth outside of others' opinions.

Suggestions include: increasing your sense of self-discovery and learning who you are outside of others. Recognize when you are turning to others for advice, approval, or out of habit. Become more in tune with the motivations behind people-pleasing behavior and whether it’s based on a low sense of self-worth, a fear of rejection, or an inability to trust yourself in making healthy choices. Seek out a therapist who can support you in unpacking your needs and who can facilitate your empowerment through self-discovery.

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Deng, Y., Wang, S., Leng, L., Chen, H., Yang, T., & Liu, X. (2019). Pleasing or withdrawing: Differences between dependent and self-critical depression in psychosocial functioning following rejection. Personality and Individual Differences, 140, 4–9.

Walker, P. (2014). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Lafayette: Azure Coyote.

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