Escaping the Approval Trap After Divorce

by Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

For most of my life, I’ve been stuck in the “Approval Trap” because I’ve been fearful of losing the approval of others. Fear of rejection often lies at the root of my tendency to bend over backwards to please others – sometimes at the expense of my own happiness. While it’s admirable to be a caring person, learning to love and respect myself has helped me to set healthy boundaries and to say “no” without feeling guilty.

It's not selfish to please yourselfAfter my divorce in 1995, I became acutely aware of how I often gave too much in my marriage and was left feeling depleted. Although I’ve mostly recovered from this tendency, remnants of my former people pleasing self linger, so I’m on the alert for situations where I’m likely to revert back to a pattern of approval seeking.

What exactly is the “Approval Trap?” In his book, Making Peace With Your Parents, Dr. Harold Bloomfield, coined this term to describe people who go out of their way to make sure someone else is happy to the detriment of their own happiness. They seek approval from others due to unresolved issues with their parents. Becoming a people pleaser is another way in which many individuals neglect to set boundaries and convey to others that they’re not good enough.

Penny’s story illustrates how she allowed Steven to dominate and control her due low self-esteem and her tendency to be a people pleaser. With strong emotion in her voice, she describes her struggle to hold her marriage together and to retain her sense of self-worth:

“I had a fragile sense of myself, a lower sense of myself as a child and teenager. I never had the guts to choose a boyfriend – so he chose me. I was never good enough for Steven. He was handsome, charming, the life of the party. He treated everyone great but me. From the beginning, I questioned why a nice looking guy like him would want to be with me. It was a rocky five year marriage. After I had Jennifer, things got worse and he was gone for long periods of time.”

Studies show that women are socialized to be obedient and responsible – which sets the stage for  people pleasing. It’s natural for girls to grow up feeling that it’s desirable to be flexible and to subordinate their needs to others. Unfortunately, this tendency can set the stage for unhealthy boundaries in relationships. While some men may experience the “Approval Trap,” it appears more often in women. Over time, a lack of setting boundaries in relationships can damage a woman’s sense of self-worth. Fortunately, this damage is reversible with self-awareness and support from others.

In my experience, it is possible for you to find your own voice and act from a place of personal power. Many of the women I interviewed for my book Love We Can Be Sure Of felt that they had boundary issues and low self-esteem which caused them to become people pleasers. Experiencing the breakup of your childhood home or being raised in a high conflict family may have triggered this tendency. Keep in mind, that when you speak up for what you want and need, others may try to lay a guilt trip on you. However, you can learn to set healthy boundaries in relationships, and this will cause your sense of self to soar as you build self-respect.

Often the breakup of a relationship or a divorce can cause women to pause and examine their own behavior. Even in the case of a “good divorce” it’s beneficial to come to terms with how your behavior, such as not setting healthy limits, could have contributed to the demise of your marriage.  If that’s the case, it’s time for you to begin to assert your needs in a way that’s respectful to others.

Are you overwhelmed with the frenzied pace that you’ve been keeping – trying hard to please everyone? You may have taken on a caregiver role in your family. Some women, who were leaned on too much by their parents, developed a sense of helplessness because they can’t solve the problems in their family. This kind of helplessness can lead to low self-esteem if it goes on for a while.

The first step to writing a new story for your life is to examine your self-esteem and beliefs about relationships. Often women get stuck in the “Approval Trap” because they lack self-awareness.  The following steps to gaining self-worth and shedding toxic self-defeating messages will enable you to exercise personal power and gain control of your life.

  • Examine your divorce experience and how you may have ignored your own needs to seek approval from others. Therapy, reading, and keeping a journal can aid you in this process.
  • Recognize and accept that the way you feel about yourself inside reflects the way you relate to people outside. If you are too agreeable, make a list of things that are important to you and begin pursuing some of them. Share the list with a friend and/or therapist.
  • Remember to be honest about your own needs. You are not obligated to meet the needs of others. That is their responsibility and only you know what’s best for you.
  • Make choices that impact the way you want to live your life. This involves moving out of a place of viewing yourself as a victim. Set goals and make new choices to change your life – such as taking time to do the things that you enjoy rather than deferring to the needs of others.
  • Believe in yourself and work on self-acceptance. You are worthy of love and all life has to offer.

As you begin to create a new story for your life, your partner or friends may react in a negative way. They may need time to adapt to the “new” you. But with faith and hard work, you can learn to separate yourself from others’ pain and the expectations of others. You are worth the effort and deserve a freer, happier life.
There’s so much I could say about this post! This was a key lesson I learned from my divorce – I was a people-pleaser. I think that’s one of the reasons why it took so long for me to accept that it wasn’t wrong or selfish of me to simply want to be happy and why it took so long for me to end my marriage. I look back at the process of ending my marriage and liken it to me breaking out of my cocoon. Carrying that metaphor further, I do feel that I have blossomed since then, I’m more content now than ever before and better yet, I like me.

Are you a people-pleaser? Is your need for approval keeping you from happiness? Do you feel trapped in a marriage that isn’t working?

If you’re looking for guidance, support, or information about divorce, please visit Moving Past Divorce. Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW has been a licensed clinical social worker and college instructor for over two decades. The topic of moving past divorce is a personal one for her – divorce goes back five generations in her family. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

Photo Credit: 2012© Jupiter Images Corporation

  • Single Dads Column

    I could see this helpful information for young adults before the marriage.

    • Mandy Walker

      Absolutely …

  • LadyGee

    I so appreciate this blog because just about every post resonates with me in some way. After being in a marriage for 24 years, I felt like a used up sponge. I was so busy worrying about others and helping alleviate their struggles that I forgot about myself and what I needed. About 10 years ago, I started to say no to his family and now recently to him.. it’s quite liberating and scary at the same time. Folks are not used to the “new me”, acting as if someone has taken over my body (I have to laugh because it’s so ridiculous). Day by day I’m getting through and learning to put myself first. Otherwise, I will be no good to my children and they above all need a Mother.

    Thanks so much for this post and your support.

    • Mandy Walker

      Dear LadyGee.

      Reading this brought a smile to face not just for the recognition and appreciation (although hearing positive comments does always makes me feel good) but more about your comments about the ‘new me’. I can so empathize with you. It feels so good to stand your ground in a situation in which you would have backed away a few years ago. And it feels even better when you can you do it in a calm, courteous manner.

      I’m sure you will continue to blossom in 2013.