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Putting the Self Back in Self-Esteem

Stop letting others control your self-esteem.

Source: varintorn/Pixabay

Amy couldn't believe that her live-in boyfriend Allen was having an affair with another woman. She had learned about the affair only that morning from an anonymous woman caller. She thought at the time that the caller was just someone acting in spite, perhaps someone jealous of her relationship with Allen. She was sure that was all there was to it, so she decided to ask Allen about it when he returned home—certainly not in an accusatory manner, but in an attempt to discover the identity of this mysterious caller who was spreading such malicious gossip. "It was funny," she said, as she related the story to me, "I was so sure of his innocence that I laughed about it when I told him about the call. But he didn't laugh back. I knew instantly from his expression that it was true. He explained that he'd wanted to tell me about this other relationship for a long time, but couldn't find the words or something like that. I didn't hear much of what he said after that. I was in a state of shock, I guess. I looked at him with this stunned expression on my face. I knew that everything I'd planned for with him—our life together, our children—would never happen. The next thing I remember is running into the bedroom, locking the door and lying on the bed crying. He didn't even come to comfort me. When I heard the front door slam shut, I knew it was over between us. I never saw him again. He came the next day when I was out to clean out his clothes and he was gone. Not even a note."

The months following the breakup, Amy became depressed, but through it all, she was able to function effectively enough to continue working and taking care of herself. Yet emotionally she felt devastated and filled with a sense of emptiness and despair. For a long time before the breakup, she had tried to put any nagging doubts out of her mind. Allen had been verbally abusive, often putting her down, embarrassing her in front of her friends and even strangers. But at other times he could be so warm and supportive. As Amy put it, "He'd say to me things like, "You're the best. . . I'm so lucky to have you. . . I think you're terrific."

Amy's love for Allen was borne of a need to have someone buttress her lagging sense of self-worth by reflecting back a positive image of herself. Allen was the mirror in which she could see this positive reflection. But the mirror was cracked. The picture of herself she saw reflected back by him wavered between positive and negative extremes. She constantly needed his reassurance, even more so when he was critical. But he could never be reassuring enough to overcome the deficits she perceived—however wrongly—in herself.

Amy had always relied upon others to spoon feed her self-esteem to her. Without someone there to bolster her self-image, she felt empty and desolate inside herself. When she broke off her relationship with Allen, she was convinced she just couldn't make it on her own. Without someone there to make her feel good about herself, she didn't feel capable of managing her self-esteem on her own. She felt incapable of seeing in her own reflection anything of value and worth.

Amy became increasingly depressed in the months that followed to the point that she no longer socialized with her friends or sought new relationships. She persuaded herself that the reason the relationship with Allen dissolved was due to deep-seated inadequacies in herself. Allen must have recognized these faults, she reasoned irrationally with herself, and so he abandoned her. Any other man would be likely to do the same. With this negative frame of mind, it was difficult to summon any motivation to begin a new relationship. During the course of therapy, she began to see things from a fresh perspective. Her rational self eventually recognized that the break-up of their relationship was "for the best," that it was not about her inadequacies but rather his failure to forge an intimate commitment. She was able to get on with her life.

Perhaps like Amy, your self-worth hinges on the responses of other people. When someone makes you feel good about yourself, you feel on top of the world. But when those supplies of ego support are withdrawn, you find that any love you had for yourself is destroyed. You feel abandoned and desolate. It's a precarious way to live, hinging your feelings of self-esteem on the actions of others. It's like putting your life savings in a bank that makes no guarantees of safeguarding it. One day the bank decides to close its door, wiping out your life's savings. So you start all over again, finding another bank you think you can trust better. But you never know when it may happen again.

Putting the Self Back in Self-Esteem

People who are prone to depression tend to base their self-worth on the opinions of others. Consider these comments from several patients who struggled with depression and low self-esteem.

  • A 19-year-old male student: "I can only feel good about myself if my girlfriend smiles at me."
  • A 26-year-old male electrician: "I like myself when my boss tells me I did a good job."
  • A 32-year-old female teacher: "I feel good about myself when my students don't act up in class."
  • A 22-year-old female graduate student: "Only when I get an A in school do I feel okay. Even then it's short-lived."
  • A 21-year-old female hair stylist: "When do I feel good about myself? I guess when my boyfriend says I'm pretty."
  • A 23-year-old male carpenter's apprentice: "When my girlfriend turns away, or doesn't reach for my hand, the world seems cold. I feel lost and empty inside, as if no one will ever want me or love me. I have this wrenching need to be approved of by everyone. Everyone's opinion counts, except, of course, mine."
  • A 48-year-old male factory worker: "I was always letting others abuse me. At work, my boss knew that I would take every abuse without complaint. I didn't feel I deserved anything better. I guess that's just the way it is."
  • A 21-year-old woman and mother of a five-month-old boy: "I recently got married and moved back to New York. It's been a tough adjustment. I take less pleasure in things. I feel insecure, worried that I'm not going to be a good mother. That my child won't want me. But it's been like that from childhood. Even as a child I felt l like I was different, that I wasn't accepted. I never got any sense that I was worthwhile. Now, when I have these crying spells, I'm beginning to see that certain thoughts and certain feelings bring them about."

By relying on others to support our self-worth, we treat our self-esteem like a volleyball that is batted from one side of the net to the other depending on the whims of others. We need to own our self-esteem in order to develop a sense of inner worth that is not dependent on other people’s appraisals of us. Placing your self-esteem squarely in your own hands involves learning to accept yourself regardless of whether or not you meet other people's expectations. It means valuing yourself by setting your own goals and standards and treating yourself fairly if you sometimes fall short.

Performing Mini-Experiments in Self-Affirmation

Rita saw herself as the family dishrag. She was the one who would make any sacrifice and strike any compromise to maintain stability in the family. Her husband openly cheated on her, seeing prostitutes with the extra family income she earned from her part-time job as a teacher's aide. Her 21-year-old daughter, the "spoiled brat" as she called her, had learned that she could control her mother by threatening to leave home or by becoming "depressed" for weeks at a time, refusing to leave home except to date, usually with young men of something less than sterling character. Even with this, Rita found herself to blame: "If she (her daughter) can't fulfill herself, I feel guilty. It's a mother’s role to take care of her children."

Everything with her husband was "his way." They would have sex his way. Family dinner had to be his way. Socializing was always his way—his friends and family, his bowling night out.

Rita's thinking was dominated by a basic assumption that the only way she could receive emotional support from others was by buying their love through constantly sacrificing her own needs and wants and even her pride. She saw herself as Rita the Giver, never Rita the Taker. Feeling undeserving, she was plagued by the constant fear of being rejected. Buying off her loved ones was the only way she felt she could fend off the threat of personal annihilation that she associated with the risk of being abandoned by her family. Rita was convinced that she would shortly die if she were ever left on her own.

These clutching dependencies exacted a terrible price. She always felt that she must "give, give, and give some more.” But no matter how much she gave, it was never enough to guarantee that her security needs would be met. The more she sacrificed her own needs and interests, the more often she was taken advantage of by her husband and daughter, leaving her feeling angry and frustrated, and blaming herself for her perceived weaknesses. But she could never express her anger and lingering resentments for fear of being rejected.

In therapy, Rita examined the "have-to’s" and the "can't do's" in her thinking and how they limited her willingness to make changes in her life. Some of the "have-top’s" and the "can't do's" regarding her husband included:

  • I have to be perfect. . . . or he'll leave.
  • I have to keep quiet. . . . or he'll leave.
  • I have to walk on eggshells. . . or he'll leave.
  • I can't be angry with him. . . or he'll leave.
  • I have to do things his way. . . or he'll leave.
  • I can't survive without him. . . so I better not make waves.
  • I can't cope on my own. . . so I'd better just accept the way things are.

Writing down these statements gave Rita an opportunity to examine her thinking more clearly. I asked her to consider what evidence she had that her husband would leave her at the slightest sign of assertiveness on her part. Rita began to probe her thinking by asking herself challenging thought questions, such as, "Is he so perfect that I have to perfect in kind? Why should I be the one to squelch my feelings all the time? Am I not a person too?"

She began to challenge other untested assumptions as well: "What evidence is there that I couldn't cope on my own? Haven't I made a way for myself in the world? Don't I have skills I can use to take care of myself?" She was asked to weigh the value of maintaining a marriage so out of balance with her needs against the risks incurred in starting over again: “What costs must I bear to maintain the status quo in the relationship? How fragile is the relationship that it could not sustain any changes?”

Rita agreed to perform a mini-experiment to put her assumptions to the test. One involved making changes in how weekend plans were made in her marriage. Typically, Rita responded to imperial edicts from her husband: "Contact such and such for dinner. . . get tickets for a show. . . pick up something special to eat . . ."

During the week of the mini-experiment, Rita decided not to cooperate in any plans in which she did not actively participate in the decision-making process. Anticipating this might provoke an argument, she decided to tell her husband that he was free to do whatever he liked and that she would do likewise if he objected. Rita was surprised at the outcome of the experiment. Not only didn't her husband object, but her unexpected assertiveness appeared to put him on the defensive. He apologized for his demandingness and agreed to discuss their weekend plans together. I asked Rita whether she was fearful the experiment might backfire. "I realized," she said, If he were to leave me over something like this, there’d be no point in going on with the relationship."

Mini-experiments generally take only a few minutes, but the dividends they pay can be lasting. Most importantly, they provide opportunities to test out new ways of thinking and relating to others. If you are interested in designing mini-experiments in your own life, the following guidelines may be helpful:

  1. Identify a particular nagging thought or undesirable behavior you'd like to change. Be specific. Instead of saying to yourself, "I want to be a better person," or, "I want to be a stronger person," set specific goals for yourself: "I will talk to a college advisor during the next week concerning my career plans. . . I will go to my friend's party and plan to approach three new people."
  2. Dispute negative or irrational beliefs that put the brakes on making any changes in your life. Write down any negative beliefs and challenge them by constructing rational countering statements. For example, you might think, "What's the sense of trying? You're only going to fail in the end." Challenge this belief by saying to yourself something like, “No one has a crystal ball that can accurately forecast the future. You may not succeed in every attempt, or every second or third attempt. But your goals will surely exceed your reach if you live your life on the sidelines and never make the effort to pursue them.”
  3. Apply the "so-what" test to your beliefs. Ask yourself, "So what's the worst that can happen if I do such and such?" Reject the tendency to exaggerate potential negative consequences. Keep things in perspective. Follow up with the "roof will cave in test." Look up at the ceiling. If the roof is still there, congratulate yourself. If not, seek more secure housing.
  4. Experiment with making small changes in behavior. Evaluate the results. As you gain confidence in making changes, increase the scope of your experiments to incorporate more significant changes.

© 2017 Jeffrey S. Nevid