04/10/2013 12:03 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Breaking Free of "The Approval Trap" After Divorce

Approval seeking behavior comes so natural to me, that most of the time, I'm not even aware of it. When a family member referred to me as easy going at an annual gathering recently, I took it as a compliment at first. But later on that evening, I realized that while going with the flow can be quite adaptive, seeking the approval of others is at the root of many of my problems.

For most of my life, I've been stuck in the "Approval Trap" because I've been fearful of losing the recognition 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 accept and respect myself has helped me to set healthy boundaries and to say "no" without feeling guilty.

After my divorce over a decade ago, I became painfully 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 -- sabotaging my own goals and interests.

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 a way in which many individuals neglect to set boundaries and convey to others that they're not good enough.

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 limits in relationships can damage a person's sense of self-worth. Fortunately, this damage is reversible with self-awareness and support from others.

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 someone 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 own patterns of relating, such as not setting effective 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 hectic pace that you've been keeping, trying hard to please others? You may have taken on a caregiver role in your family. Some people, who were leaned on too much by their parents, develop a sense of helplessness because they can't solve the problems in their family. This kind of family dynamic can lead to low self-esteem and approval seeking if it goes on for a while.

The first step to reducing approval seeking is to examine your self-defeating beliefs and behavior. Often, people get stuck in the "Approval Trap" because they lack self-awareness. The following steps will enable you to exercise personal power and gain control of your life.

  • Realize you simply can't be liked by everyone. There will always be those who don't agree or approve of your words or actions.
  • Accept that you can't control what others think of you. Everyone has unique perceptions based on their personality and upbringing.
  • Examine your divorce experience and how you may have ignored your own needs due to seeking your ex's approval. 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 that you are not obligated to meet the needs of others. That's their responsibility and only you know what's best for you.
  • Make choices that impact the way you want to live your life. Stop viewing yourself as a victim. Set goals and make new decisions to change your life, such as taking time to do the things that you enjoy rather than deferring to the needs of others.
  • Practice self-approval by learning to set personal boundaries and saying "no" to unreasonable requests from others. As you begin to care less about seeking the approval of others, you'll find you have more energy; people pleasing can drain you of time and energy.

In my experience, it is possible for you to become more assertive and act from a place of personal power. As you become less concerned about pleasing others, don't be surprised if your partner or friends react in a negative way. They may need time to adapt to the "new" you. By learning to be more assertive, you will no longer feel like a victim. Making yourself a priority isn't the same as being selfish. You are worth the effort and deserve a freer, happier life.

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