How many of us haven't felt the dull ache of insecurity at important times in our lives? Sometimes we're going along just fine and then bam, something shakes our foundation... a new job, a new relationship, a breakup, a birthday, a crisis... and we spiral back to teenage-era levels of self-doubt. For other people, the self-doubting questions never really stop. Do I have anything valuable to offer? Can I really pull this off? Could this person possibly love me? Am I enough?
In my office, I see the manifestations of this in intimate relationships. I worked with a woman who, despite being polished and fun and attractive, believed on a deep level that she was not really lovable. She would look at dating partners' behavior through that lens of no man really being able to love her, and pick out evidence supporting that storyline. In the meantime, she would miss cues of her dates' interest and affection.
I also worked with a man who cared a great deal for his partner but was convinced she was better than him. Deep down, he felt he wasn't worth her care and affection, and that she would certainly find someone "better." He came to me experiencing sexual problems with this woman in particular, even though he hadn't had these issues before.
Feeling insecure or unworthy can feel like a punch in the stomach. It is a feeling that is particularly hard to manage in relationships. Many of us either: retreat to protect ourselves, get angry at partners for not caring about us, or seek reassurance over and over again.
The tricky thing about "worth" or "value" or "esteem" is that it's subjective. Everyone is born with basic worth as a human being, and beyond that, it's up to us and our environment to shape how we feel about ourselves. It is rarely actually true that we are "worthless" or "not good enough." (Just like it's usually not actually true that we're "better than everyone else" or "the greatest thing ever.")
We have to participate in creating our own self-esteem, even if (or especially if) we've grown up in an environment that did not lead us to feel good about ourselves. Next time you're having a nasty bout of self-doubt, consider asking yourself these questions:
- What is really so bad about me?
- If another person had these disliked qualities, would I be as hard on them as I am on myself?
- What would I say to a friend or a child who was feeling like I am now?
- What do I gain from feeling badly about myself?
- What would I have to give up or risk if I felt better about myself?
- What are some qualities of mine that I actually like? (Don't skip this one!)
- What are some qualities that I like in other people?
- Can I cultivate some of these qualities that I like in my own life?
- Can I do something right now that requires one of these qualities that I admire? (For example, if you like that you are caring, can you reach out to a friend to say hi and check in on them? If you admire people who are curious, can you go out and learn about something new?)
A final note about self-esteem and relationships. We all make conclusions about our self-worth in the context of relationships -- first in our families, then in relationships with peers, friends, lovers, partners... It is easy to conclude that we aren't worth much if we've been in relationships with people who don't treat us well, or who are neglectful or indifferent. Our job is to learn that how people treat us doesn't actually have to do with our worth or value. We get to decide who we are, what we're "worth," and to allow into our lives only the people who treat us in the ways that we want.