One of the consequences of failing to realistically nurture our self-esteem every day is that we become unnecessarily dependent upon other people.
Make no mistake, we need other people.
While we human beings exist on a spectrum from extremely introverted to extremely extroverted, most of us find that we don’t function particularly well in a total vacuum. The human beings in our evolutionary history who could form functional connections with other human beings were selected for; thus mot of us are wired, on a neuropsychological level, to want to connect on some level with other people.
The things we need from other people are diverse, but they’re not always inscrutable or complex. We want to be seen and acknowledged by other people. We want to be understood, at least to some extent. Sometimes we just want the company of other people. Our affinity for connecting with other people is so hardwired into us that one of the main symptoms of psychopathology therapists keep an eye out for is a diminished inclination or capacity to connect with others.
When we’re suffering a signifiant deficit in self-esteem, however, this hardwired need can get twisted.
Self-esteem is created when we establish a firm pattern in our lives of behaving toward ourselves with respect, dignity, and attention. We nurture our self-esteem when we treat ourselves like, well, someone we esteem.
It’s the phenomenon I frequently sum up by “getting on our own side.”
When we’ve created healthy self-esteem, we don’t need to reach outside of ourselves for basic human needs such as assurance that we are worthy. We know we are worthy, because we have made the decision that we are worthy and we treat ourselves as worthy.
When we’ve created healthy self-esteem, we don’t need to reach outside of ourselves for the assurance that we are competent. We trust our own judgment about whether we are up to life’s challenges, and we accept the reality of the feedback we get from the world about how we are handling life’s challenges.
As regular readers of my work know, one of the biggest mistakes most people make is looking outside of themselves for sources of “self-esteem.” As I’ve stressed over and over again, true self-esteem is not to be found outside of ourselves; it is created by the decisions we make, particularly the decisions we make about how we perceive and behave toward ourselves.
When our self-esteem is shaky, it’s usually because we’ve not been great at making decisions and behaving toward ourselves in ways that affirm our worth and equip us to deal realistically with the challenges of living.
So, when that inner core of self-esteem is missing…where do you suppose we turn for what we instinctively perceive is missing?
That’s right— other people.
The thing is, our connections with other people aren’t designed to withstand the stress placed on them when we try to make them our primary source of self-esteem.
Relationships with others are designed to provide us with company, support, feedback— but not to become our main avenue of assurance that we are worthy and competent as human beings.
When we try to make other people our primary sources of self-esteem, not only does it not work very well— because self-esteem is generated from inside, not outside— but it ends up frustrating, confusing, and burning out the people around us.
This, in turn, leads us to feeling unlovable, high-maintenance, and unworthy— because we don’t register that other people are backing off because we’ve asked things from them that they’re simply not equipped to provide. We simply register that they’re backing away from us. Our brains kind of panic, and we figure that we must not be worthy of esteem— or else why would they be backing up?
It becomes a vicious circle.
After awhile, many people come to believe that depending on other people is a setup for disappointment and pain. Which is a shame, because it is absolutely the case that we need other people…but we need to be realistic and grounded about what they can and cannot provide for us.
When we’re very young, we want other people (notably, our parents and caretakers) to fulfill all of our needs. Part of the painful process of growing up is learning that other people cannot be our be-all, end-all of need fulfillment— and we don’t need them to be.
We need other people for what we need other people for.
But that which we need to do for ourselves— generating real self-esteem from within, self-esteem that prepares us to relate to other people and cope with the world’s demands— we truly can only do ourselves.
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