5 people-pleasing behaviors that can damage your self-esteem

No doubt all the Beyoncé fans out there have been lining up to watch her Renaissance documentary since it hit theaters last month. 

The film delves into the development and execution of the multi-Grammy award-winning artist’s 2023 Renaissance World Tour, and was also made to support her 2022 studio album of the same name. 

In the film, Beyoncé opens up a bit about her mental healthy journey:

“I spent so much of my life a serial people pleaser,” she says in the film. 

It isn’t the first time the pop singer has shared this truth about herself. Back in 2014, the pop singer admitted to being a people pleaser but said was able to better deal with it. 

“I’m no longer afraid of conflict,” she said at the time, “and I don’t think conflict is a bad thing.”

In the new film, Beyoncé went on to say that she’s past that part of her life now. 

“I am who I am and you take me as who I am…It’s not from a place of rebellion…I have nothing to prove to anyone at this point,” she says. “I allow myself to be free.”

When we put on people pleasing behaviors, it chips away at our self esteem over time. We end up losing more and more respect for ourselves every time we engage in it. 

But what are some specific people pleasing behaviors that can damage our self esteem? 

Here’s a list of behaviors to let go of so that you can have your own personal renaissance. 

1) When being “nice” has made you into a doormat 

The thing about people pleasing is that it often seem innocent in nature. 

Your sister says a different dress looks better on you than the one you tried on and love, so you go with her suggestion instead. 

Your boss always asks you to work late, because, well, they know you’re “devoted to the team.”

The server screws up your order completely and you’re hesitant to speak up and send it back. The server looks pretty stressed out anyway. 

“People pleasing is like setting yourself on fire to keep someone else warm,” says psychologist T.M. Robinson-Moseley

“It often means overextending yourself at your own expense by prioritizing the wants and needs of someone else over your own needs.”

Mosley says that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make other people good. 

“People often do nice things for a range of reasons, whether it’s to feel good, to help out, to return a favor, or you’re in a reciprocal relationship so it’s to return or to web a favor,” she says. 

She says that if any of those are the reasons, then that’s normal, sensible, and healthy. 

Helping other people feel good becomes problematic when you’re saying yes because you’re afraid of being rejected, disliked, or fear some kind of negative consequence, Mosley explains. 

I’m reminded of the story of actress Elizabeth Taylor whose first marriage to hotelier Nicky Hilton in 1950 was set up by MGM studio executives. Taylor was only 18 years old and must have felt like objecting could mean the end of her career if she didn’t comply. 

That might seem like an outlandish example and something that would never happen today, but “for people pleasers at large, everything from a disagreement to simply sharing an opinion can feel dangerous,” writes David Oliver from USA Today

2) You can’t seem to stop saying “Sorry”

Confession time: I have a tendency to say sorry sometimes in emails when I really don’t even need to.

I’ll often say something like “Sorry, one more thing…” But logically, why do I need to be sorry about adding one more thing in an email or a text? 

Lifestyle coach Tanya Geisler says that apologizing out of habit is part and parcel of the “feminine conditioning” many women have grown up with. 

If you find yourself apologizing all the time—saying “sorry” for taking up space, attracting attention, or rocking the boat—you might be saying sorry as a way of dealing with something Geisler calls Imposter Complex as opposed to Imposter Syndrome. 

Imposter Syndrome relates to a conscious feeling of incompetence. Geisler says that Imposter Complex, by contrast, is more akin to “self-doubt on steroids”.

We can lose ourselves when we go overboard trying to please people, Geisler says. “Our integrity can become eroded. And integrity is a cornerstone for unshakeable confidence.”

Some words of wisdom: No matter how hard you try, you can’t please everyone anyway.

“If you set out to please everyone, you will fail 100% of the time AND lose yourself in the process…So don’t.”

The people who truly love you will get it. 

As for the people who don’t, well, the way I see it, who cares what they think anyway. 

3) Betraying yourself by not setting—and sticking to—boundaries 

Experts say that the reason that people pleasers have a hard time setting boundaries is because doing so can feel threatening to them. 

“People pleasers may think, ‘Who am I if I’m not doing what other people want me to do?’” says clinical social worker Fara Tucker

Many people—women in particular—pride themselves on being there for their family, their extended family, their in-laws, and their community. 

“Saying no and setting boundaries can feel threatening to your very identity.”

Tucker isn’t exaggerating when she says that many people pleasers never learned that they are separate people with needs and preferences who exist independent of their value to others. 

“Therefore the idea of saying no to what someone else wants is almost unthinkable and often terrifying.”

Women’s mindset coach Silvia Turonova says that part of the reason why we fear setting boundaries is because if we enforce them, others will reject them. 

“Although that may be a natural consequence of doing so, we must recognize what we fear loading and what we want to tolerate further,” Turonova says. 

“When we negotiate our boundaries because of fear of abandonment or loss, we are betraying ourselves.”

4) Neglecting your own needs 

Kristy Loveman grew up in a home, school and church that placed great emphasis on good behavior, self-discipline, and corporal punishment. 

“I was a model child,” she says. “There could have been an American Girl doll dressed after me—the well-mannered church girl with a nineties hair brow edition.”

She was quiet and pleasant: complaining and “ugly” emotions were simply not allowed, she says. 

“Although I was rambunctious and ‘rebellious’ as a child, all that was cleansed from my personality by the time I was school-aged.”

Loveman says she felt unsafe in her body at the “slightest hint” that someone was upset with her. 

She says she’s learned that there’s one common denominator for people pleasers: feeling beholden to others. 

“You put your needs last and feel obligated to manage everyone else’s happiness,” she says.

“You’re hypersensitive to being judged, shamed, and rejected. You worry about what other people think of you. You overextend yourself to be helpful.”

Kendra Cherry, MSEd says that putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own “can make it feel as if you are not living your life authentically—it may even leave you feeling as if you don’t know yourself at all,” she says. 

When you aren’t living an authentic life, your self-esteem can suffer immensely. 

5) Always looking for approval

Here’s an interesting story from Jennifer A. Williams from Heartmanity Blog, who says that people pleasing used to be a way of life for her. 

One evening, Williams was brainstorming topics for a school paper with her daughter. 

Williams, who loves generating ideas, was dismayed when her daughter “torpedoed” her ideas for one reason or other. 

“After a while, I started feeling disheartened and said to her: ‘If all my suggestions get rejected what’s the point of me giving ideas?’”

Williams says that what her daughter said next  knocked her world over.

Her daughter replied: “Do you only give ideas to get approval?”

The words sucker-punched Williams’ ego. 

“However after my hurt feelings subsided, this little interchange impacted me deeply. My daughter’s poignant response pierced the facade of my people pleasing and approval seeming.”

Her daughter had lasers in on the “external locus” that had kept her from being her true self. 

Williams says this lifelong pattern had often caused her to censor her thoughts and keep her from voicing her opinions. 

“Seeking outside approval prevented me from pursuing what mattered to me: feeling at peace with my own self-approval.”

At the end of the day, your own approval is the only one you need. 

Your past has been about people pleasing, but that doesn’t mean your future has to be…

It’s vital to remember that pleasing isn’t who you are, it’s a character trait that you’ve adopted along the way, says therapist Stephen Davy.

“When you took on the character trait, you didn’t realize the downside. Now perhaps you are beginning to.”

Davy says there are some actions you can take to begin to distinctively move away from the desire to people please

For one thing, trying stating your opinion or saying how you feel, even if it feels wrong, says Davy. 

“This may mean letting other people feel upset, or annoyed, or disappointed…and maybe that’s okay. Maybe how they respond or react is their business. Experiment with this—it will probably feel very challenging.”

He says that even if you backtrack and end up apologizing, keep going. “Your opinions and feelings are just as valid as anyone else’s.”

I would add that if their opinions have anything to do with you and your life, well then your opinion is more valid and their opinion is null and void. 

Give yourself a small goal to aim for everyday, Davy says. 

“That might mean saying how you feel, just once. It might mean laying down one small boundary—like not answering a call after midnight.”

Davy points out that how you act and how you come across with others can be confusing and challenging. This is why support from a therapist you can trust can help walk you through this process that really is life-changing. 

As I was writing this, I came across this video from “Peaceful Barb,” a mother-daughter team who are something of a mental health advocacy sensation on Instagram

“I think when you’re transitioning from being a people pleaser into someone with boundaries, it can feel so weird,” they say. 

“It’s hard to tell if you are being mean, or if you are actually just respecting your own feelings because you’re so used to putting other people’s feelings first.”

We say trust the latter. 

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