Intimacy and Self-Esteem
Chris Bitten, Registered Clinical Counsellor
This article invites reflection and offers ideas on the relationship between self-esteem and achieving closeness, intimacy, with others. It also presents some ways of maintaining self-esteem as a stable core that is independent of our accomplishments or life circumstances.
How is self-esteem important to the development of intimacy? In receiving the caring attention of others, it helps if we feel worthy of that attention. If we believe we are not good enough, not attractive enough, or "not enough" in some other way, we may push aside the loving intentions of others: "Why is he/she being so friendly to me?" Similarly, when we come to support other people, low self-esteem may cause us to undervalue what we have to offer. Both situations can create blocks to intimacy and a holding-back.
Conversely, if we value ourselves, treating ourselves respectfully and gently in our internal “self-talk”, we are more likely, I believe, to treat others similarly. Intimacy thrives in an atmosphere of acceptance, honesty, gentleness and respect.
Self-esteem is not a fixed thing: it changes over time with our experiences and our changing attitudes toward ourselves. True self-esteem is an inside job: we believe in ourselves, our innate worth whether we are doing great things or not. If we have firm core of self-esteem we value ourselves whether or not we have a job, whether or not our loved ones seem to be loving us back, whether or not we look our best.
Self-esteem is not about what others think about us, it’s about what we think about ourselves. But we’re social creatures, and in our society we are often encouraged to evaluate ourselves in terms of our accomplishments and what others think of our accomplishments. For example, we feel great when we get a promotion, we feel lovable if someone agrees to date us, we like ourselves better when we have lost weight. But this can be a trap; we are bound to go through times in our lives when the world does not reward us. Low self-esteem can result if it is based wholly on how other people treat us, on the good things that happen to us, or on the opinions of us that others offer. Other common traps are imagining that other people see us negatively without actually seeking their feedback, or harbouring their negative comments and tuning out their compliments. A depressing cycle of low self-esteem can be set in motion by such habits of thinking.
The road to self-esteem may have may twists and turns. Think for a moment of the two-year-olds you know. They seem to come equipped with firm sense of their importance and value, and they are often quite forthright about both. They are proud of their accomplishments, but don't hate themselves if they fail or just don't feel like performing. They may get angry and frustrated at the world's complexity and difficulty, but they don't see themselves as worthless as a result. That innate self-esteem is vulnerable, though. Probably you have witnessed the sad spectacle of a child's good feelings about self being eroded by critical or shaming parents or an overly-competitive school system. Such children get the idea that they are only acceptable or lovable if they do everything right, performing to the expectations of others: a phenomenon that may lead in adulthood to perfectionism and the constant seeking of approval. This in turn can produce an adult whose self-esteem is wholly hooked onto his accomplishments rather than growing out of an appreciation of who he is (and simply that he is). This valuing doing over being can produce an adult who exhausts herself trying to fulfill perfectly the multiple roles of spouse, mother, employee and housekeeper.
Shattering experiences in adulthood such as a messy divorce, an emotional illness, an addiction or the loss of employment can also impair self-esteem. Such traumas can result in unproductive self-doubt and self-questioning which is difficult to endure.
What helps when self-esteem is low? Here are ten ideas:
- Affirm yourself for the direction you are facing, not for the distance you have traveled. For example, if you are trying to become a kinder person, or trying to learn about a new subject, or struggling to be patient with the clerk in the store when you know the problem is not really of his making, this is about who you are: your values and beliefs about what's right. And that's good in itself. Esteem yourself for motivation and effort instead of insisting that you do it perfectly.
- Evaluate yourself instead of beating yourself up. For example, when something doesn't work out as you expected, use it as an opportunity to learn what went wrong instead of concentrating on it as a failure. Be tolerant of your mistakes. Not all criticism is fair (let alone kind or necessary), so don't take to heart all critical remarks. Dwelling on rejection or failure can lead to avoidance of risks and new opportunities. Take some time when you have calmed down to examine whether or not the criticism has some validity and whether or not you want to make changes in yourself as a result. If you can't be objective because you are too upset, talk it over with a trusted friend or counsellor.
- Don't compare your insides with other people's outsides. By this I mean that we are aware of our own insides, our inconsistencies and imperfections, our fears, anxieties, sadness, anger and joys. Unless we know another person intimately, we often only see the image that he or she has constructed to deal with the world. If we compare our complex insides to someone else's carefully prepared image, it is easy to imagine ourselves lacking in some ways. A good cure for this is to really get to know that other person at an emotional level, and experience his or her complexity. We all have vulnerabilities, hopes, dreams, pain and disappointments. We all have weaknesses and strengths.
- If low self-esteem has been a life long problem, seek professional help. This is an area where psychotherapy is really effective, although treatment may take time, especially if self-esteem was severely damaged in childhood.
- Be open to changing yourself: not just to please others, but changing yourself for yourself. And remember that change takes experiment, success, failure, time and patience.
- Set a little time aside each day just to be with yourself. Whether you follow a formal meditation discipline, or just spend "quiet time" with yourself, the simple act of doing this may well allow you to connect with and affirm your innate worth, and permit deeper emotions and realizations to surface.
- Avoid people who are overly judgmental and categorize other people as good or bad. Cultivate people who can distinguish between being and behaviour. Friends, family and work-mates who have affirming, generous tolerant and empathetic attitudes to others can encourage us to treat ourselves in similar ways.
- Be aware of how you talk to yourself inside your own head. If you are sounding like a crazed dictator delivering orders and scorching self-criticism, it's time to stop and think about how you learned to treat yourself that way, and time to take some steps to find new ways of talking to yourself.
- Think about your own needs as well as the needs of others. There's no law that says you can't be gentle and nurturing toward yourself. And letting other people support you sometimes is just as important as supporting others.
- Consider keeping a journal in which you write down the positive feedback you receive from others, and the positive thing you can affirm about yourself. This can be a powerful tool to allow a deeper appreciation of self and offset negative internal self-talk. Taking the time to write makes it less likely we will ignore or discount the compliment.
In a broader view, I believe that nurturing our self-esteem is a form of healing, not just of ourselves but of others. A tolerant and loving attitude to self seems to attract others; perhaps they sense that we will have the same attitude towards them. An offering of esteem toward ourselves and others will have a profound effect: the things that divide us—fear, competition, stereotypes, the poverty model of life, the illusion of separateness—cannot long be barriers.
To contact Chris call 604 687 8513. For more information follow this link:
- 608-402 W. Pender St, (Homer/Pender)
- Suite 223, 1628 West 1st Avenue (near Fir)