Romance Redux

Using science to understand and improve relationships.

Self-Lock: Why It’s Hard to Improve Your Self-Esteem, And What You Can Do About It

What's the key to success in the quest for a better self-image?

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Karen, a 35-year-old human resources manager, had spent the last six months of therapy peeling  back the layers of her self-image as “damaged,” to finally start feeling good about herself. But when she met Alan, who spent their first few dates cheerleading her in her efforts to secure a promotion, she broke things off with him almost immediately.

“What happened?” I asked.

“He’s up to something,” she whispered, more to herself than to me. “No one could possibly think that highly of me after knowing me for a few dates.”

Does Karen’s choice seem strange to you? Maybe Alan did have ulterior motives for singing her praises. After all, there certainly are plenty of guys willing to flatter women just to get them in bed, so we can’t fault her for being a little suspicious of his “you go girl” approach to dating, can we? But what concerned me most wasn’t Karen’s bleak interpretation of Alan’s motives. It was the fact that, in the process of brushing him off, she’d completely retreated to her old view of herself as unworthy, damaged, and boring. Two weeks earlier, she’d strolled confidently into her boss’s office and asked about a raise, but soon after she dumped Alan, she fell back on her old habit of laying awake at night, sifting through the day’s events to find fresh of evidence of her personal failures; now she even wondered if her boss had made the wrong choice altogether when he said he’d promote her.  It was as if the “damaged” Karen was reaching out with its last, dying breath, pulling her back to a familiar dark place. All at once, her story about who she was and who she wanted to be were at war. Whenever this happens—when identity appears to be at odds with change—I call the problem self-lock.

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As puzzling as this might seem, researchers and clinicians have known about the phenomenon of self-lock for some time. As a matter of fact, about ten years ago, psychologists William Swann of University of Texas at Austin and Brett Pelham of SUNY-Buffalo, ran a study on roommate preference, with particular attention to what people with a low opinion of themselves were looking for in the way of a dorm-buddy. Most of us would predict that we’d love a cheery roommate who always has a kind word ready when things seem gloomy. But as you can probably guess, that isn’t what the glummest coeds said they wanted at all. They much preferred to trudge home at the end of each day to a roommate who disliked them. In fact, they made it very clear they’d rather avoid the ones who liked them altogether.

When it comes to marriage, Swann discovered, self-lock is an especially pernicious problem. People with a poor self-image may begin their relationships delighted by love notes, pep-talks and adoring fan mail from their partners, but after a time, the marriage shift  kicks in—at which point, they prefer being kicked to being kissed. In fact, if their spouses are unwise enough to insist on fawning over them instead of supporting their self-bashing—by, say, volunteering regular doses of criticism—people with low self-image gradually find more and more ways to avoid them. They write their partner’s accolades off as naïve, inauthentic, perhaps even misguided. Swann’s conclusion is that our need to maintain our identity (self-verification), even if it’s negative, often outweighs our need for affirmation (self-enhancement). In other words, when it comes to love, we feel most comfortable with a partner who shares our opinion of who we are, even if that opinion isn’t especially kind.

Research only offers tentative theories as to why this might be, but in the clinical realm, authors have grappled with the phenomenon of self-lock for more than half a century. A school of thought called relational psychoanalytic theory holds that one reason we cling to a negative identity is that our sense of self and intimacy are inextricably bound to one another. That is, we protect old versions of ourselves, even if they’re negative, because we expect that who we are keeps us connected to the people around us. It’s as if we’re all spinning webs of connection, reaching out to people, and at the center of it all is our self-image: I’m stupid, I tell myself, because so many of my relationships confirm the belief— and if I change that, then the way people relate to me (condescending, dismissive, authoritarian), won’t fit my identity anymore. Break the center—change our identity— and our fear is that the whole web of connection falls away. We’ll nurse the darkest thoughts about ourselves if they protect our need for connection.

So how can we loosen the grip of self-lock? The answer appears to be by falling in love with a good partner. Psychologist Arthur Aron of Stonybrook University, has spent years elaborating on what he calls self-expansion theory, which suggests, among other things, that in healthy, intimate relationships, we often experience tremendous growth, exploring new experiences and even lesser known aspects of who we are (you can find more recent research supporting this idea here). Find the right relationship, Aron says, and maybe you won’t just leave behind your negative self-image; maybe you’ll fashion a better one.

You may have noticed a problem here. If, like Karen, we’re pushing away people who help us change and embrace a better self-image, then how can we nurture friendships, let alone fall in love, with such generous people? How can we ever liberate ourselves from such a stubbornly negative identity if it also keeps us tied to people who confirm it?

What Aron’s research suggests is that relationships hold the key, simultaneously, to perpetuating an impoverished sense of self and expanding it beyond the familiar. At key moments of change we become anxious, like Karen, precisely because we’re not sure if our current web of relationships—or any new connections, for that matter—can remain in tact with a different identity at the center. People will leave or abandon us, our unconscious minds tells us, if we try to become someone new. So we unconsciously select relationships with friends and lovers who need us to remain just as we are and push away the ones that allow us to grow. As a result, the only way to fashion a new identity, ala Aron’s self-expansion theory, is to stay the course when someone disagrees with our low opinion of ourselves. This is just one of the many reasons I tell clients to read discomfort with more affirming relationships not as reason to exit, but as an invitation to change.

Say, for example, that the students and spouses in Swann’s research had tried to embrace their partners’ or roommates’ support by saying something like, “I feel lucky to have met someone who sees me the way you do—and I love that you help me see myself as a better person.” If they had, they might have rewarded someone for seeing the best in them (rather that the worst)—and encouraged that person to move even closer. And each time they repeated that same intimacy-enhancing exchange, their minds would link the new self-image with closeness instead of loss. More affirming interactions. More self-affirming identity. 

And that’s the key to breaking self-lock. The more times we frame our discomfort with affirming relationships as an invitation to change and move towards them, the more we embrace the notion that we’re as good (or loving, or worthy, or smart) as our partners and friends believe us to be. Each new connection offers a potentially new identity. But we can only reach the best versions of who we are by breathing through the anxiety and walking boldly towards the unfamiliar.

If you like my posts, let me know! Let's connect on facebook and twitter. I frequently respond to comments and questions there. And feel free to check out www.drcraigmalkin.com for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book in progress. 

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Note: The individuals depicted are a composite of many people and experiences. All names and identities have been disguised to preserve confidentiality. 

Craig Malkin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who taught and trained at Harvard Medical School.

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