While being a people pleaser has given me a sense of satisfaction at times, the outcome is fairly predictable. When I reflect back on choices I’ve made, neglecting my own needs has often left me feeling resentful and disempowered. However, my divorce was a catalyst to move out from the shadow of people pleasing. The world as I came to know it was turned upside down, forcing me to examine myself and relationships from a fresh perspective.
Often a divorce or the breakup of a relationship can cause you to pause and reflect upon your 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.
During and after my divorce, it became apparent to me that I had lost the essence of myself in my marriage. I wanted to be accepted at any cost. In the process, I compromised too much and was left feeling like I had morphed into someone else. It’s taken me several years to reclaim the joyous aspects of my life and to become my authentic self – reclaiming my personal power and realizing that I can’t be liked or accepted by everyone.
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.
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 nurturing 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 person’s sense of self-worth. Fortunately, this damage is reversible with self-awareness and support from others.
The vast majority of the more than 300 women I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce 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 trigger this tendency. The one thing I realized through these interviews is that the quality that separated the women who were optimistic about their future from those who were not, was a deep sense of worthiness.
Before you can begin to build successful relationships, you must have healthy self-esteem – which means believing in yourself. The breakup of a marriage can cause you to take stock and realize that divorce can be an opportunity for growth. One of the first things to consider is: how do you treat yourself? No one is going to treat you with respect if you beat yourself up. Get rid of all those self-defeating thoughts in your head – such as calling yourself “stupid” that won’t help you get back on your feet.
The first step to reducing approval seeking behavior is to examine your self-sabotaging 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. We all have unique perceptions based on our personalities and upbringing.
- Examine whether you give too much in relationships. Do you ignore your own needs due to seeking other’s approval? Therapy, reading, and keeping a journal can aid you in this process.
- Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about your self-worth. You don’t need to prove anything to another person about your self-worth.
- 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.
- Visualize yourself in a loving relationship that meets your needs if you choose to pursue one. If your current relationship is unhealthy, look at ways that approval seeking can cause you to self-sabotage – leaving you feeling resentful or unfulfilled.
- 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 us of time and energy.
Take a moment to consider that becoming more assertive can help you to act from a place of personal power and help you to build confidence. As you become better able to express your thoughts, wishes, and desires don’t be surprised if your partner or friends react in a negative way. They may need time to adapt to the “new” 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. 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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