How a Person Can Make His or Her Partner Feel Worthless without Even Trying

Can you praise your partner too much?

Posted Jul 06, 2011

Donna Flagg's fantastically complex and intriguing blog post on break-ups and feelings of worthlessness inspired me to finish a blog post I'd recently started, which was in line with my other posts on self-loathing (the latest is here; others are linked below). Let me be clear: this post is drawn from my own thoughts and experiences, and is not meant to address the details of Donna's post, nor any of the great comments left by readers.

The question is, what makes a person feel worthless in his or her relationship? I can think of three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:

1. Most simply, a person may feel that his or her partner is so incredible—so beautiful, so smart, so confident, so successful, so virtuous, what have you—that there is no way to compare to him or her. This is more likely to happen to those predisposed to feeling inadequate, of course, but can also happen to the generally confident if they meet someone that (they feel) surpasses them in significant ways. Awe and admiration are a natural part of love, but if taken too far, they can lead to unfavorable comparisons and feelings of worthlessness.

2. A person may be more sensitive, or sensitive to different things, than his or her partner, and therefore may take things the wrong way or take jokes too hard. Again, this is more common among the generally self-loathing, who more often interpret things badly, but may also happen simply when partners don't communicate well (or often enough). 

3. Most surprisingly, perhaps, a person may praise his or her partner too much, leading to feelings of worthlessness, for two reasons. One, the person may not feel he or she deserves the praise, in a version of the imposter complex (common among the self-loathing), and may interpret the undeserved praise as patronizing. Two, even if the praise feels deserved, perhaps the person is worried that he or she cannot continue to live up to it, that it sets too high a bar for the future, and anticipates disappointing his or her partner. A person who is attracted to someone largely because of his of her success, for instance, may give the impression to the other person that continued success is necessary to maintain the attraction—and therefore the other person may feel worthless if his or her success begins to slip or fade, or even fears that this may happen.

Of course, another way in which a person can make his or her partner feel worthless is to insult or berate him or her. This is intentional and malicious, obviously, whereas the three explanations I offer above are unintended, at least in effect. For instance, it is easy to think you're being supportive of your partner by celebrating his or her success, but if your partner thinks it's too important to you, he or she could feel incredible pressure to maintain it (in addition to any other internal or external pressure he or she may feel). Make sure to let your partner know that while you're proud of his or her success, it's not what you love or care about the most, and that it doesn't matter as much as his or her happiness and fulfillment. And the same goes if it's your success that makes your partner feel worthless: don't deny your success, and don't suppress your justified pride in it, but also pay attention to how it makes your partner feel, and try to include him or her in it (but not in a patronizing or condescending way—yes, it can be quite a tightrope to walk).

It can be a shock to find out the person whom you adore and admire feels worthless, especially if he or she suggests it's your fault. Whether or not you had any role in causing it, recognizing the source of the feelings of inadequacy may help you lessen its destructive effect on your relationship.

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