Why We Try (Over & Over Again) To Make Bad People Treat Us Well

Once we understand why we do it, we can follow these five steps to stop.

woman begging for friend to treat her well Ekaterina79, Pheelings Media, Dean Drobot | Canva

It's common to see people seek validation from harmful individuals, even when they know better.

Psychological and physical factors related to self-worth and emotional well-being are at play when people engage in this self-destructive behavior. However, there are tools for breaking out of this unhealthy pattern.

Here's why so many of us try to make bad people treat us well.

1. We get caught in the approval cycle

Humans are social creatures by nature, and we crave connection with others. We want to feel accepted and valued by those around us, so we compromise our well-being to feel accepted. By seeking validation from harmful individuals, you give them more control and power over your emotions and well-being. This dynamic becomes addictive as you depend on the other person for your sense of worth and validation. 


While this article focuses on romantic relationships, you can also find yourself trying to please a harsh or overly-critical boss, a frenemy, or anyone you see as an authority figure.

RELATED: How To Start Saying 'No' More Often When The World Expects A 'Yes'

Common reasons you get caught up in an approval cycle:

Desire for acceptance: People with a high need for outside acceptance allow behavior that may not be in their best interests. In this situation, you may derive meaning or joy from being “chosen” by a harmful person.

Codependency: This is a dysfunctional pattern of behavior where you become overly reliant on others for your sense of self-worth and validation. In these situations, you can only feel okay if the harmful person is okay.


Low self-esteem and insecurity: People with low self-esteem often doubt their worth and value, and they seek external validation to fill this void. In this situation, you only feel worthwhile if you are worthwhile to someone else, even if that person is not someone who has healthy friendships or relationships.

2. Comfort and familiarity

Why do you develop this intense need? Why do you apply it to some people in your life and not others? Believe it or not, you may seek validation from people who can't provide it because it feels familiar and comfortable. This may be due to your past experiences or upbringing where unhealthy behavior was normalized. People tend to gravitate toward what they know, even if it is detrimental.

The familiar patterns provide a harmful sense of security and predictability. The people you seek approval from may offer conditional acceptance, but the goalposts often move, so the rush of validation is short-lived.


RELATED: Why I Finally Stopped Seeking Your Approval

3. Attachment style and childhood influences

Often, you can trace your tendencies back to childhood and attachment styles.

You might find yourself associating the approval of your parents with other adults or authority figures. This could be true if you had a parent who withheld validation to ensure you acted the way they wanted or a parent who admired certain traits in others. If you grew up in a volatile or abusive home, this fear may have magnified into a fear of abandonment or complete rejection.

You could even grow up in a stable, happy home but seek the approval of your parents and other adults because it makes you feel safe and loved.


Why is our background so important? Because when you were young, you needed the adults in your life for survival and safety, and if they didn’t like something or you thought they preferred someone else—that was scary! Just because you are an adult doesn’t automatically mean these childhood feelings leave. It can make you feel as off-balance as when you were a child.

This cycle can keep you trapped in seeking validation from someone incapable of providing it in a healthy and supportive manner. Many of you may recognize this in romantic relationship patterns. You keep going back to the same person and hope they will change or think you will be enough for them to stop their behavior. Instead of seeing it for what their behavior is, you make your being OK dependent on them being okay.

4. The effect of dopamine on the brain 

So, what happens physiologically when you seek the approval of a harmful person?

A functioning brain promotes activities that are beneficial to our well-being, such as exercise, consumption of food, and spending time with family. This is done by activating neural pathways that create a positive feeling, motivating us to repeat the behavior.


However, when you seek approval or acceptance, the usual beneficial neural processes may work against you. The need for validation can take control of the reward pathways in the brain and cause an urge for higher intake. This can cause your emotional alert systems to be on constant high alert and make you feel anxious and tense when you aren’t receiving feedback from the harmful person.

According to a 2016 NIH study, the feelings of euphoria, cravings, dependency, and withdrawal experienced by people in love are like those of an addiction. This is because the same dopamine reward system in the brain is triggered by romantic love, which is also activated by substances and other addictive activities.

A 2010 study from the Journal of Neurophysiology found that the addictive power of love can be experienced during a breakup. The research looked at 15 people who had recently gone through relationship rejection and discovered the same parts of the brain triggered by cocaine addiction were also activated after being spurned.

The euphoria that comes with dopamine and other "happy" hormones during the initial stages of love is associated by specialists with addictive behavior in relationships. Thus, it makes sense you would seek to recreate the experience. This physiological response, coupled with the psychological needs listed above, can create a powerful cycle of behavior.


RELATED: How To Trick Your Brain Into Releasing Chemicals That Make You Happy

How do you stop trying to make people treat you better? 

Here are a couple of suggestions to help you stop seeking the attention of a harmful person.

1. Stop cold turkey

Your dopamine levels rise when you participate in the ongoing rush of getting someone’s attention. This means you’ll need more and more dopamine to achieve the same feelings, which can lead to increasing your activities to get someone to like you—many times to your detriment. When you stop cold turkey, you help your brain reregulate your dopamine and bring it down to a lower baseline.

It’s hard, but unless you wean yourself from the dopamine rush, you will continue to seek attention as a reward. So, instead of sending that text or commenting on social, try to change your brain state. A great way to do this is by practicing self-soothing techniques like Havening.


2. Note the red flags

imagine you were listening to your best friend talk about how they were feeling when this person withheld communication or made your friend feel less worthy. Note all the red flags you would mention to your friends to help them realize they don’t need this person. Then, take a break and return to this list to look at it from your perspective.

This can help you separate yourself from the situation and create the space to analyze what’s happening without feeling personally invested.

3. Set some boundaries

When you seek validation from others, you undersell your value and worth. Make a list of everyone in your life who is affirming, supportive, and loves you for you. Imagine you are on a stage, and these people make up the front row of your supporters.


Slowly fill in the audience with other people who make you feel good or with whom you’ve had positive experiences. Soon, you’ll find no room for someone who doesn't value you…they are outside without a ticket to the show!

4. Practice self-care

When you release a harmful person from your life, don’t forget the physiological aspects of caring for yourself. Make sure you are getting sleep, participating in activities you enjoy, and reminding yourself of all your great qualities. The story you tell yourself about yourself is powerful. Make sure you feed your mind and body with positivity as much as possible.

5. Seek counseling

When trying to make someone like you become detrimental to other friendships, your health, or your usual social patterns, you may benefit from working with a trained professional. Find someone that you trust or seek a referral from someone you trust.

In conclusion, seeking validation from harmful individuals is complex and rooted in deep psychological and physiological factors. By understanding the why behind what you feel, you can take steps to break the cycle of desiring attention from someone harmful to you. While this is not easy, it is critical for your well-being and the safety and security of your relationships. The most important person who should like you is you—and you deserve much more than a harmful person can provide.


RELATED: 4 Reasons You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think Of You

Amy Bracht is a coach and consultant with a knack for transforming high-level concepts into practical solutions. She crafts innovative strategies designed to guide individuals toward their full potential.