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Why Your Low Self-Esteem May Cause You to Be Treated Poorly

People with low self-esteem may unintentionally encourage mistreatment.

As a psychotherapist, I'm fascinated by how easy it is to get caught up in negative, self-perpetuating cycles. And once you start on that downward spiral, breaking free is difficult.

On a small scale, you might get trapped in a "bad mood" cycle. Let's say you have a hard day at the office, and you're in a bad mood. When you come home, you complain about your job to your partner and spend the evening stewing on the couch. Your actions keep you stuck in a bad mood.

On a larger scale, maybe you've always been convinced you're not good enough to be successful. So you never apply for promotions and don't take risks where you might fail. Consequently, you stay stuck, and your belief that you're not good enough is reinforced.

A recent research study revealed how people with low self-esteem get caught up in a negative cycle that inadvertently backfires. To protect what little self-worth they have, they behave in a way that actually encourages people to treat them poorly.

Research on Low Self-Esteem

A 2018 study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, revealed that individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to seek indirect support—like sulking, whining, or showing sadness in an effort to get support.

Ironically, those strategies tend to backfire and are more likely to prompt a negative reaction from others. When their bids to get support aren't effective, individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to believe that their partners are unresponsive to their needs.

Researchers concluded that the individuals with low self-esteem were trying to protect themselves from outright rejection, due to their fears that they couldn't handle being brushed off by their partners. Saying, "I really need your support right now," for example, might lead to a flat-out rejection.

But their attempts to show they wanted attention—without asking—led to greater negative interactions and further undermined the feelings of acceptance that they desperately craved.

How This Could Impact Personal Relationships

Imagine that someone with low self-esteem feels bad that his partner is going out with friends on a Saturday night. He wants her to spend time with him, but he's afraid to tell her. He worries she'll laugh at him for being too needy.

So rather than tell her that his feelings are hurt or that he's feeling a bit insecure, he spends the day moping around and sulking. His partner feels frustrated by his behavior, and she withdraws from him even more and says she can't wait to see her friends, because "at least they're nice to her."

That evening, she goes out with her friends, and he's left feeling even worse. He thinks, "She doesn't care about me," which reinforces his concerns that he's not good enough.

Consequently, the cycle is likely to continue, and the relationship will suffer.

How to Repair Low Self-Esteem

If you have low self-esteem, it's important to recognize the ways in which you might be inadvertently sabotaging yourself. Some of the short-term strategies that are meant to protect you from pain may actually cause you more distress in the long term.

Once you recognize the problem, you can take steps to create positive change and banish the belief that you're not good enough. Then, you can focus on getting your needs met in a healthy way without depending on others to make you feel good.

Work on building mental strength one step at a time. As you grow stronger, you'll gain confidence in yourself and your abilities, and you can improve your interactions with others.

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