Often we think that relationships, especially, love relationships, intimate and romantic one’s, would nurture and nourish us and in turn boost our self-confidence. However, sometimes, this is not the case, if we have inadvertently spiralled off into a destructive or passionless or simply dead and boring relationship quagmire. What drives one to persist in (and with) a painful and unsatisfying set of circumstances, in what was once a romantic relationship that was supposed to give you pleasure and joy? As when we get into a relationship, we are generally not signing up for prolonged physical, emotional and sexual neglect or abuse.
What then could be the motivation to subject oneself to the agony of continuing to be wilfully involved with a violent alcoholic or a sex addict or an emotionally unavailable workaholic who just does not have time for you? In other words, what is that kernel within ourselves that enables us to remain, consciously and unconsciously, in self-damaging situations with a dysfunctional partner while staying frozen in a maladaptive relational pattern?
How We Embody Low Self-Esteem
On some level, the reason why we choose to persist, and I would reiterate the choice in the matter, is perhaps, on some deep level we believe that we deserve no better, having a low opinion of ourselves and our capacities to be an independent and likable individual. This kind of negative assumption is tantamount to a subliminal form of self-hatred. Latently or even manifestly, the voice of one’s inner critic ensures that we remain embroiled in emotional anguish ad-nauseum, while we continue to live our lives as gluttons for punishment as we feel that we deserve to be slapped, cheated on or mistreated because we might be ugly, fat, old, stupid, unattractive, unintelligent etc.
We make excuses about why we cannot leave a painful and harmful dynamic which is anything but romantic because we have a fear of being alone, we are financially dependent, we have children with the person who abuses us or because we nurse a fantasy that our partner will change. However, over a period of time, these assumptions show themselves as examples of self-defeating delusions and fears that undermine our self confidence. Bluntly put, the foundational core for these emotionally unintelligent assumptions is low or very low self esteem that sabotages us from living a better life and fashions a self-fulfilling prophesy of victimhood. Low self esteem is a requirement to tolerate unpleasant relationships because in some sense one is habituated to being treated badly and may at other times, actually be a license for one’s partner to treat one shabbily.
Reasons Why We Develop Low Self Esteem
Perhaps we grew up with an absent or an emotionally unavailable parent or experienced damaging developmental trauma that destabilized our sense of self or we were simply bullied at school. Admittedly, there might have been pain in our lives but to blame ourselves for bad things that happened to us or to wallow in them indefinitely and play the victim is self-destructive. Often the roots of low self- esteem lie deep in a wounded child within us who feels “not good enough.” As children we feel accepted only to the extent we feel unconditionally loved and supported by our parents. If we felt conditionally accepted or constantly criticized by our caregivers we started believing that we were not adequate and begin to develop an inadequate sense of self.
The persecuted child grows up into a battered adult who stays paralyzed in the face of abuse, retarding her sense of agency or self-efficacy, which is the ability to take control and transform one’s life. The crux of the low self esteem issue is that when we let ourselves remain in a situation that harms and destroys our last remaining shreds of our self, health and well being, it reflects a great deal about how we feel about ourselves and about how we let ourselves be received in the world by others.
Psychophysiological Consequences of Low Self Esteem
Over a period of time, continued low self esteem and sense of victimhood will grind us down both psychologically and physiologically pre-disposing one to suffer from major depression, high anxiety, and stress. Chronic low self-esteem may lead onto more severe depressive disorders ensuring that one has very low life satisfaction.
Since the mind and body are intimately connected from a psychobiological perspective, prolonged relational stress will wear down our immune system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, neuroendocrinological system and set us up for potentially harbouring carcinogenic cells or auto-immune reactions. Apart from taking serious tolls on our mental and physical health, low self-esteem prevents us from living the life we would want which is a happy well-adjusted life with a partner who loves and cherishes us.
How to Work with Low Self-Esteem
If you identify yourself as having low self-esteem, which in turn keeps you, locked in an unhappy romantic situation start doing something about it immediately! It is good to begin to create scenarios and experiences that give you a sense of self worth. Below is a list of activities that help bring up one’s self esteem
- Cultivate an attitude of self acceptance and self care
- Take some space and time away from your partner
- Create independent activities with your friends or start socializing sometimes separately from your partner
- Make new concrete life style shifts in your life – – e.g. Start exercising, lose weight; become healthy; get a job
- Create a new self image by changing your hairstyle and fashion sense
- Develop your hobbies
- Practice yoga and meditation
- Travel alone or take a holiday with friends
- Create new social outlets such as joining a book club or a NGO or even a dance class
All the above suggestions allow you to curate a sense of self- confidence and enjoyment where you feel good about yourself and feel validated and appreciated by other people. However, despite trying all the above suggestions, if you do not feel better because of overpowering feelings of helplessness, it is beneficial to speak with a qualified therapist or mental health professional about how you can either emancipate yourself from the relationship or shift your emotional reactions in or to the relationship.
Since low self-esteem is in fact a psychological problem to deconstruct low self esteem one needs to pursue psychotherapeutic interventions that create cognitive and behavioural shifts. By doing psychological work one can trace and ultimately dissociate with the wounded inner child and discipline the inner critic within one’s thought processes. Where one learns to replace negative thoughts with more self-affirming ones, and where one learns to create boundaries against abuse as a form of self-care.
I, personally, feel a combination of psychotherapeutic work with self-awareness practices works best with my clients with low self-esteem. By supporting them in their mindfulness practice and psychodynamically engaging and challenging their unconscious core beliefs and assumptions about themselves, clients are able to eventually dissociate with their negative assessments of themselves. Conversely, they generate more self-acceptance and self-compassion for themselves and in turn translate this into wholesome actions in their lives and relationships.