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Why People Sell Themselves Short in Relationships

How low self-esteem leads to bad relationship decisions—and what to do about it.

Srdjan Fot/Shutterstock
Source: Srdjan Fot/Shutterstock

In my other blog, I have been spending some time exploring decision-making principles in general—and where they often go wrong. For example, sometimes people make bad decisions impulsively based on their initial feelings alone. On other occasions, they may find themselves getting stuck in a certain decision-making perspective and not seeing things from all sides. I have also been linking those general articles to posts that show how they apply in relationship dynamics as well.

Beyond that, I got to thinking about why people sell themselves short in their relationship decisions in general. The first notion that came to me was from an older article I had written about the effect of insults on attraction. Contrary to what we might think, when something like an insult or criticism diminishes our self-worth, that depreciation of our perceived value can make other people seem more attractive by comparison. Given that, when people make bad relationship decisions, finding themselves attracted to partners who are ultimately not good for them, then a feeling of low self-worth might be the cause.

As usual, to explore that idea further, I did some additional reading...

Research on Self-Esteem and Relationships

In my search, I first identified an old article by Jacobs, Berscheid, and Walster (1971), exploring whether individuals were more receptive to love and affection when their self-esteem was high or low. The researchers increased or decreased the self-esteem of male college students by giving them false positive or negative feedback about themselves through a personality test. They then measured the male students' liking for a female student who was either rejecting, ambiguous, or accepting. Male students with lowered self-esteem found the accepting female more appealing than their higher self-esteem counterparts. Nevertheless, those with lowered self-esteem appeared less interested in women who were rejecting or ambiguous—leading to more questions about this effect.

To evaluate this idea further, research by Rudich and Vallacher (1999) explored whether self-esteem differences were related to individuals being motivated to enhance themselves, or to simply seek belonging and affiliation. Through a questionnaire pilot study, the pair found that trait self-esteem was related to a number of social acceptance behaviors and motivations. Specifically, those with lower self-esteem were often more shy, socially anxious, self-conscious, and showed a greater need for affiliation.

Through a series of experiments, Rudich and Vallacher (1999) explored these relationships further. In those experiments, individuals with high and low self-esteem were presented with either positive or negative feedback from an evaluator whom they had not yet met—and an indication of whether that evaluator looked forward to meeting and interacting with them in the future (accepting versus rejecting). Across the experiments, low self-esteem individuals tended to favor and show more interest in evaluators who were accepting and wanted to form a relationship with them. This desire held even when that evaluator had a rather poor opinion of the individual and their characteristics overall. Thus, even when the evaluator was going to say negative and demeaning things, as long as they were still willing to hang out with the participant, low self-esteem individuals were more interested in relating with them.

Finally, to help put these pieces together, I identified unpublished doctoral research by Kavanagh (2008), which looked at the relationship between rejection, self-esteem, and future mating aspirations. In an experiment with individuals who were single (2008), Kavanagh demonstrated that rejection from a possible mate lowered a person's self-esteem—which then reduced their ambition and standards for relationship partners in the future. Thus, when an individual's self-esteem was reduced, they sold themselves shorter and were more receptive to lower-value mates moving forward.

Factors Impacting Self-Worth

Given that our perception of self-esteem and worth seems to have an impact on our relationship decisions, I started hunting for explanations of how those perceptions are formed. In that search, I came across an interesting anecdotal and personal account of such factors by Pettibone (2018). Although the book is written for a more general audience and aimed primarily at young women (it's titled What Makes Us Girls), Pettibone did a thoughtful job outlining several dynamics that impact self-worth for females and males, too. Those factors and dynamics discussed are:

  • Focusing on areas where we negatively compare to others and missing out on our own positive and unique attributes.
  • Taking rejection as a sign of failure or lack of value, rather than as an opportunity for redirection toward more positive and better-fitting opportunities.
  • Isolation as a result of bullying, disconnecting us from social support.
  • Acting in an inauthentic manner to garner the approval of others, which diminishes our relationship with our own self.
  • Lacking a defined purpose and goal in life to create meaning and value.
  • Taking the betrayal of others personally and holding on to it without forgiveness.
  • Avoiding taking responsibility to make amends for our own mistakes and letting the associated guilt diminish us instead.

Improving Self-Worth and Relationship Choices

Given the psychological research on the topic of self-worth and self-esteem, it does appear that such self-evaluations can impact our relationship decisions. Put simply, when we perceive that we have low self-worth, we make decisions from that basis—often choosing less healthy and satisfying relationships than might be warranted. While such "settling" may be a necessary reality for individuals who genuinely do not put effort into being worthy individuals and satisfying partners, for the majority it is an error in judgment brought about by inaccurate comparisons, bullying, betrayal, and purposelessness. Put simply, dating and relationships are hard. Often, well-meaning and good people get hurt and misguided in them; they then unfairly take those things to heart and sell themselves short in the future.

Having said that, there are some things that you can do to feel better about yourself and make more satisfying relationship decisions:

1. Focus on your unique worth and style. Rather than getting overwhelmed in negative social comparisons and bullying, consider the unique, special, and positive aspects of yourself. In a relationship context, those unique and special characteristics are often more attractive and satisfying to others in the long run. Furthermore, there is more than one way to be attractive and appealing. Therefore, rather than getting stuck trying to compete with others in a narrowly defined way, like on looks alone, focus on growing and developing your own unique strengths. Besides, in contrast to the unnatural standards of photoshopped Instagram perfection, research tells us that the actual standards for physical attractiveness are more attainable—and personality counts in that physical attractiveness too.

2. Figure out what you want in a relationship. Making good relationship decisions requires some understanding of what will satisfy you. Without some idea and structure, it may be impossible to decide which partners might be a good or bad choice for you. So, take some time to consider what type of person you find attractive and compatible, what general characteristics you might want to prioritize in a partner, and what type of people might make better partners in general. Remember, though, a relationship is a two-way exchange. So, remember to balance what you want with what you are willing to give in return.

3, Be kind to yourself and others. As noted above, relating to others can sometimes be a challenge for everyone. So, to spare and uphold the self-esteem for everyone involved as best as possible, be kind to yourself and others in the process. Work on being curious about others to reduce your own dating anxiety. Learn strategies to not take rejection as personally and more kindly reject the requests of others. Finally, interact in a way that is genuine, empathetic, and warmgiving gratitude and looking for it in return. You'll be more likely to enjoy the experience of getting to know others and to eventually find a compatible and satisfying match.

© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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Jacobs, L., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1971). Self-esteem and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 84-91.

Kavanagh, P. S. (2008). Social exclusion, self-esteem, and mating relationships: Testing a domain-specific variant of sociometer theory (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from University of Canterbury Research Repository.

Pettibone, B. (2018). What makes us girls. Adelaide, Australia: Reason Books International.

Rudich, E. A., & Vallacher, R. R. (1999). To belong or self-enhance? Motivational bases for choosing interaction partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1387-1404.

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