|Dr. David Lieberman, Ph.D.|
Relationships and Self Esteem
How to love and be loved
by Dr. David Lieberman, Ph.D.
Emotionally healthy people generally have positive relationships. Conversely, those who don't seem to get along with anyone are often emotionally unstable. Our self-esteem has a direct impact on the quality of our relationships.
To the degree that we lack self-esteem, we cannot love ourselves fully. To fill this emotional void, we turn to the world for approval. This behavior illuminates the source of all negative emotions and interpersonal conflicts. The acceptance and recognition that we crave comes in the form of respect. We erroneously believe that if only others would respect us, we would be able to respect ourselves by converting the adoration and praise of others into self-love. Our self-worth is therefore dependent on others' opinions.
When we depend on others for validation, we become tense and vulnerable, as we over-analyze every fleeting glance and passing comment. It does not matter how much respect and adoration we receive; we are like a cup without a bottom: the moment we stop receiving this undivided attention, we are as empty and as thirsty as we were before. Yes, there are moments of fleeting satisfaction, but ultimately we remain empty inside.
No-Win or Win-Win
A healthy sense of self-esteem endows us with the ability to give. To the degree that we do not like ourselves, we cannot receive, we can only take. The more self-esteem we have, the more we are whole, as receiving is a natural consequence of giving. This cycle of giving and receiving creates the perfect union. When we take, however, we do so in an attempt to fill a void -- leaving us still empty, and forced, once again, to take in a vain attempt to feel complete. Such behavior only reinforces our dependency, and continues to exhaust us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Man is the sum total of what he gives; and he loses a piece of himself every time he takes.
Only someone who has higher self-esteem is able to give -- love, respect, time, and attention -- to both himself and to others.
Without enough self-esteem, every relationship is rigged for a no-win scenario. For example, someone asks us for a favor, but we do not want to do it, for good reason. Giving out of fear or guilt does nothing to enhance self-esteem. To the contrary, it diminishes it. Such a situation is not really giving; it is the other person taking. If we acquiesce, then we are angry at ourselves or the other person, and if we do not do it, we feel guilty. Whatever we do leads to further justification; we cannot win. The ego swells in both scenarios and neither situation boosts self-esteem.
Through this paradigm we learn how to tell if someone has high or low self-esteem. It is reflected in how he treats himself and others. A person who lacks self-esteem may indulge in things to satisfy only his own desires, and he will not treat others particularly well (a product of an arrogant mentality). Alternatively, this person may cater to others because he so craves their approval and respect, but he does not take care of his own needs (a product of the doormat mentality). Only someone who has higher self-esteem is able to give -- love, respect, time, and attention -- to both himself and to others.
Giving Vs. Taking
When a person gives, he loves the object of his giving more -- and so love is planted and grows. A child receives and a parent gives; who loves who more? The child cannot wait to get out of the house, while the parent is forever concerned with the child's wellbeing.
Every positive emotion stems from giving and flows outward from us to others, whereas every negative emotion revolves around taking. Indeed, the root of the Hebrew word, ahavah, love, is hav, to give.
Lust is the opposite of love. When we lust after someone or something, our interest is purely selfish in our desire to feel complete. When we love, however, our focus is on how we can express our love, and give to the other person. It makes us feel good to give, and we do so happily. When someone we love is in pain, we feel pain. When someone after whom we lust is in pain, however, we think only about how this person's situation will affect us, in terms of our own inconvenience or discomfort.
Love is limitless. A parent does not love her second child less because she already has one child. She loves each child, gives to each child, and does not run out of love. Compare this to someone who acquires a work of art that he "loves." Over time, his fascination with the piece wanes, and when he acquires a new work, all of his attention, affection, and joy is redirected from the old art to the new art because, in truth, he does not love his art. He loves himself, and his art makes him happy. He is not giving to his art; his art gives to him, and so he takes.
Our feelings of self-worth betray us when we consider whether God really cares about little old me, with all the billions of people in the world. There are no limitations to God's love. He created the world expressly for us as if we were His only child. Just as a loving parent is concerned and consumed by each and every aspect of the child's wellbeing, so, too, is God's interest in our lives.
Difficult People: The Solution, not the Problem
The image on the right demonstrates negative space. Focus on the white image and we see a vase; focus on the black space and we see two profiles facing each other. Each space, positive and negative, defines the other. The vase cannot maintain the integrity of its shape unless the white space does the same.
No matter how much we work on ourselves, we will never be successful at transforming any aspect of our character, if our new self cannot exist in our world. Reshaping ourselves into the desired vessel can only be accomplished by redefining current relationships, and better understanding the role that difficult people play in our lives.
We are no good to anyone if we are no good to ourselves.
Flight attendants begin each trip by informing passengers that in the event of the oxygen masks dropping down during the flight, those traveling with children should secure their own masks first, and then secure the masks on their children. We are no good to anyone if we are no good to ourselves. Whenever we redraw lines in relationships, one person gets less territory; but without boundaries, there is no definition of self. While some relationships benefit from having no boundaries, allowing those who are toxic make the rules and shape us is not healthy. It certain instances, then, we are obligated to say, "Enough is enough."
We are mistaken to believe that the larger solution is cutting out of our lives those people who are difficult; rarely is this required. It is only when we respond to another's' cruelty with like, that we move to a mode of dependence, and so pain. There is no way to get around this. Guilt will seep in, our ego engages to fortify our actions and our beliefs, and all the while, our self-esteem and emotional wellbeing slowly melt.
Sometimes the closer we are to someone, the worse we treat them. Too often, a person shows more gratitude to the toll collector than to his own spouse; indeed, sometimes we deliver kindness to a stranger but ignore the needs of our own family.
One reason we do not give is because we do not get. A person holds back from another because he does not feel that his own emotional needs are being met. On the other side of the coin, strangers are quick to offer their appreciation and to give us the respect we crave when we come to their aid. Will a family member even acknowledge our efforts? It does not matter. Our actions must be independent of the response or of our own feelings of whether or not the other party in the relationship deserves our kindness and love.
The temptation to do otherwise is strong, particularly if we suffer from low self-esteem. By definition, low self-esteem means that a person does not feel in control -- remember, self-respect comes from self-control. So the less control we exert over ourselves, the more we attempt to control or manipulate the world and the people in it.
Now we understand why it is that we hurt -- either overtly or passive aggressively -- the ones closest to us. The closer we are to someone, the more power we have over them, and the more we can attack their weaknesses with pinpoint accuracy. When we lack self-control, hurting those who love us gives us the most traction to cause something to happen. It is the last vestige of power for the person who has so little of it.
When a person has very low self-esteem, it does not matter how accomplished he appears; such a person is dependent upon everyone and everything to feed his ego.
We do not feel complete when we are feuding or estranged from a member of our immediate family. But God does not leave our wellbeing at the doorstep of other people, let alone those who are not well. If we do everything that we can, when we can, for as long as we can, to have the healthiest relationship possible, and we still don't get anywhere, then we find that while we have compassion for the other, and perhaps some sadness over the loss of the relationship, we do not feel less good about ourselves.
Our strife with another need not cause discord within ourselves. Our willingness to do what is necessary to bring peace, is what will give us peace, regardless of the outcome. There is one major caveat. When we say that we need to do everything possible to make peace, we do not mean that we try our very best to make our point, and present a clear and rational argument as to why we are right. Only an attempt at peace that comes by way of complete humility, will keep our trust in God intact and our conscience absolved of guilt.
It is our responsibility to perceive the wider reality, which is that God is speaking to us through every person and situation. Relationships are a very common area in which people often miss the message and focus on the messenger.
The prerequisite for growing in any area is not to blame, but to ask oneself practically, "What does God want from me now?"
Difficult people are not in our lives to add to our woes, but to help us; and we need to realize this, or they will keep coming around again and again -- and so may we keep coming around, again and again.
The prerequisite for growing in any area is not to blame, or be enraged at the injustice of the situation, but to ask oneself practically, "What does God want from me now?"
While we are in blame-mode, we are also not solution-oriented, and therefore cannot see, let alone investigate, ways to improve the situation. What would happen if you would stop looking at yourself as a victim?
An adult's self-esteem is often damaged as a result of suffering from lack of love or experiencing intense turmoil at an early age. This is because children gain their self-esteem largely from their parents (or primary caregivers). Children do not possess the reasoning faculties to make choices as adults do, and thus they cannot gain self-respect through self-control. Our personal sense of right and wrong is not fully established until our early teens.
For egocentric beings (children), it is easy to ascribe a failure within ourselves as the "reason" behind a parent's behavior. A parent becomes angry with the child, and so the child naturally concludes that there is a flaw within herself. She translates her parent's anger into, "I am unworthy of his love," which soon becomes, "I am not worthy of being loved." Now, if a child can form these conclusions -- as many do -- with loving parents, imagine how easy it is for the child to draw the conclusion that she is unlovable or bad when she is being raised by abusive parents. The child will understandably feel, "If my parents' can do this to me, then what am I worth?"
If we did not receive love from our parents as children, or felt that our lives were out of control due to trauma or domestic volatility, we may needlessly spend the rest of our lives craving love and acceptance. Everything we do is intended to bring us to that end.
The love that parents give children is determined by their own limitations, not those of the children. It never occurs to us as children that maybe it has nothing to do with us.
As adults, it can still be difficult to internalize the fact that our self-worth isn't contingent upon our parents' approval of us, but we can recreate this imprint. Once we do, our lives can be forever changed, and the damage that has disfigured us for decades can be undone.
We will not find an emotionally healthy person with considerable unresolved anger towards a parent. It is highly probable that this person will have difficulty enjoying positive, let alone deep and meaningful, relationships while this anger exists. Anyone who feels anger towards a parent must make it a priority to move past the negative feelings.
Revisiting the Past
Experiments in the field of quantum mechanics reveal something most intriguing: the quantum eraser effect. Physicists have determined that something happening after the fact can change or "erase" the way particles have behaved at an earlier point in time. As strange as this seems, not only do we shape reality, but we can recreate what has already unfolded. This means that a shift in perspective now allows us to "undo" our past and permanently alter how we see ourselves and our world. In an address to physicists, Albert Einstein pronounced: "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
It is difficult to grasp the concept that reality is not linear, where a shift in perspective can create retroactive change. Since human beings are locked in time and space, we cannot easily see how the future can change the past.
Imagine an elderly woman, who, after believing that she was happily married for 60 years, is told on her deathbed that her recently departed husband never loved her - he was a paid actor hired by her parents. Can we say that she was happy her entire life and that only the last thirty seconds were difficult? Did the birthday celebrations, anniversaries, walks, conversations, laughter, and memories of beautiful vacations disappear? No. They are there in memory, but changed. Her past is now different.
If, after hearing this revelation, someone were to ask this woman, "How was your life?" what would she answer? Would she easily answer "Wonderful?" More likely, her response would be that it was awful, sad, and heartbreaking. The characters and events are still fixed in time, but we have a glimpse of how the now has an impact on the before.
That is not to say that we should attempt to convince ourselves that our past carries no meaning. Instead, we should simply allow for the possibility that the meaning we have assigned to events may not be true; that how we feel about ourselves, based on how our parents (or anyone else for that matter) treated us, may be an inaccurately formed conclusion.
We continuously re-energize painful experiences by rehearsing the fictitious causal correlation between an event and our feelings. Our memory of the experience is locked in a false impression, and we file that negative memory away in our minds as fact.
It is not the circumstance, but rather our thoughts about the situationthat gives rise to the emotions, that determine the impact and lasting influence. Taking responsibility for our lives now, wherever we are, converts the pain into fuel that ignites our emotional freedom.