The research summarized below describes women with “low self-esteem” who work extra hard to maintain their marriages because they don’t feel worthy.
Why don’t hard working people who contribute so much feel better about themselves? Merely calling it low self-esteem fails to provide a way out. The second half of this article highlights the peculiar psychological tendency that prevents even your best efforts from allowing you to feel good.
A 2013 study at the University of Huddersfield involved 192 women between the ages of 18 and 60, and asked them to complete an online survey. The survey gathered information on self-esteem and relationship behaviors using a series of rating scales.
Results suggested that women who felt less desirable than their husbands would work harder at keeping their spouse happy than women with high self-esteem, who did not feel threatened by the potential to lose the relationship.
Women with lower self-esteem reported that they put more effort into their relationship in order to prevent their partner from leaving for someone else. These women are attempting to make up for their perceived imbalance in worth by investing more effort, time, and even economic resources in their relationship.
Interestingly, you’d think that making such an investment in your relationship would automatically raise your sense of worth. Knowing what you bring to the table should help you realize your value as a partner, right? It doesn’t typically happen that way, though. In fact, working harder often perpetuates the cycle of low self-esteem. Why?
In my experience over 25 years of counseling and coaching, someone with low self-esteem often has negative psychological attachments to rejection. No matter what she does, good or bad, it inevitably leads to feeling rejected.
Here is how the vicious cycle works. It begins with a tendency to subconsciously seek rejection by interpreting any and all feedback – both positive, neutral and negative – as a rejection. You anticipate rejection, find rejection and ruminate on rejection, only to set yourself up for rejection all over again. So, regardless of what you do, you end up feeling less than.
Let’s say you have this autopilot tendency to interpret all feedback as rejection. You are feeling pretty low, so you decide to make a magnificent, romantic dinner for your partner. You carefully plan and provide a wonderful, candlelit dinner, consciously hoping for approval and connection, yet subconsciously scanning for (expecting) rejection. In other words, you are ready for it!
You’re at dinner with your partner. Let’s say he offers one of three very different reactions. Notice how all of them feel like rejection in the end.
Reaction #1: He hates the dinner and criticizes you.
You know I hate stuff like this. Besides, you made all the fancy food you like without even considering what I like to eat!
In this case, his criticism is a confirmation of your attachment to rejection. It stings. It’s a huge disappointment, but somehow not a surprise. Worse, with an attachment to rejection in play, you will have a hard time separating the fact that he is acting like a jerk from your own good behavior. In other words, deep down, you may blame yourself when, in fact, he is the one being rude and unappreciative. Blaming yourself fails to deal effectively with the real problem (him) and only perpetuates the cycle of rejection in your life.
You could respond to his criticisms with anger and bite his head off. This also perpetuates the cycle of rejection because it gives him a real reason to reject you.
Reaction #2: Neutral – neither positive or negative
You sit down to dinner and he thanks you, eats and makes small talk. He isn’t overly pleased or displeased. He isn’t critical and he isn’t overtly appreciative either.
In this case, you could easily interpret his neutrality as a rejection. Why isn’t he showing appreciation? Aren’t I worth more than that? I guess not. It hurts to be given the cold shoulder after so much effort. Why can’t he just love me? I guess I’m not worth it.
Again, the tendency to take neutrality as a rejection gets in the way of pinpointing this issue, which may be his discomfort with expressing himself or his general lack of awareness or narcissism.
Reaction 3: Lots of appreciation
You sit down to dinner and this man is obviously impressed and mentions how wonderful you are. He really appreciates you. He compliments your cooking and is thoroughly pleased.
No issues on his part this time, but if you have an attachment to rejection in play, you’ll find a way to get there. You might tell yourself the following:
Wow, he’s over-the-top here. He must be so complimentary to hide the fact that he hates me. If he really loved me, he wouldn’t need to work so hard at convincing me otherwise. After all, who could really love me?
Again, it hurts. The fact that your partner’s compliments may not even be genuine is painful. It makes you uncomfortable because you don’t believe him. It’s awkward now and you feel bad about yourself. You may even criticize yourself further for not being able to take a compliment graciously.
This is how a tendency to feel rejected manifests, regardless of what is going around you. The rejection issue is within you, ready to pounce on any opportunity.
An attachment to rejection is a form of self-sabotage in which you never let yourself off the hook, give yourself a break or allow yourself to enjoy what a good person you are. You are instead too busy setting yourself up to feel bad.
There is good news here. If it really is self-sabotage (albeit subconscious) then you can STOP. The first step is becoming aware of how it is working in your psyche.
If you’d like help resolving the issues presented in this post, consider personal coaching with Mike Bundrant.
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