The Approval Trap

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Dear Terry,

My friends all tell me that I’m a people pleaser and that I need to stand up for myself. I’ve always worried about what people think about me but things got worse after my dad left ten years ago. Since then, I’ve felt that I had to take care of both of my parents and put my needs on the back burner. I always want things to run smoothly between my parents, and feel like I have to take sides. My dad is a great guy but he tends to lay a guilt trip on me when I cancel a weekend with him because something comes up with a friend. My mom is remarried and busy with her own life but she still expects me to be the messenger between her and my dad. That’s getting old and it makes me feel like a child.

Now that I’m in college and have my own car, I don’t want to bounce back and forth between my parents’ two houses on the weekend. Why can’t they understand that I’m an adult now and want to make my own decisions? My life is very hectic with school and my part-time job and I don’t have time to do everything they ask me to do. I usually give in when one of my parents asks me to cancel a plan with my boyfriend or a friend because I don’t want to disappoint them or hurt their feelings. I’m starting to notice the same pattern with my boyfriend, Bryan. I’ll agree to do something with him even when I don’t have the time rather than disappoint him. Usually I’m left feeling stressed and annoyed with him but I’m afraid that if I say no, he’ll disappear. I’m tired of trying to please everyone!

— Emily, age 20

Emily, For most of my life, I’ve been stuck in the “Approval Trap” because I’ve been fearful of losing the approval of 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 study felt that being raised in a divided home impacted their self-esteem. Keep in mind, you will exercise personal power when you speak up for what you want and need. Don’t buy into the guilt trip others may try to lay on you.

You seem overwhelmed with the frenzied pace that you’ve been keeping trying to please everyone. As a daughter of divorce, you may have taken on a caregiver role. Some girls, who were leaned on too much by their parents during and after divorce, develop 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. In his book, Making Peace With Your Parents, Dr. Harold Bloomfield, coined the term the “Approval Trap” to describe people who bend over backwards seeking approval from others due to unresolved issues with their parents.

It sounds like you’ve also struggled with loyalty conflicts. Even in the case of a “good divorce” children witness their parents confronting each other about conflicting values and beliefs. They often become travelers between their parents’ two worlds and have trouble resolving these differences. As a daughter of divorce, it’s easy to see how you’ve become overly focused on what your parents want. But as a young adult, it’s time for you to work on asserting your needs in a way that’s respectful to others.

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 from an adult perspective. 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.
  • 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 okay just the way you are.

As you begin to create a new story for your life, your parents and significant others 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 your parents’ pain and the expectations of others. You are worth the effort and deserve a freer, more creative life.



Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Do you find yourself stuck in the approval trap? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”