A basic need of all people is that of believing that they are lovable and knowing that they are loved. When people have low self-esteem, however, they are anxiously unsure of themselves and likely even question if they are lovable. One of the main ways people try to find an answer to this question is to look to others, hypervigilantly watching the others’ behaviors, listening to their words and tone of voice, mentally recording the ways that person acts toward them, even keeping score of what they think works and doesn’t work. Of course, all too often what they conclude is not accurate.
Desperately seeking reassurance that they are lovable, those with low self-esteem look outside themselves and at the behavior of those closest to them, to find answers to the question of being lovable. Then, if the person who professes to love them, does not act in ways that they think would indicate this love, LSE sufferers either: 1) try harder to please in order to win the love and attention of the significant other 2) become angry when they feel the significant other is withholding giving them what they need, or 3) feel they must be deserving of this treatment and conclude that they are indeed, unlovable. Finding this explanation unbearable to fully conclude, however, they continue to vacillate between depression and anger toward the person from whom they want affirmation.
Unfortunately, much of the disappointment LSE sufferers have toward the significant other is the result of their own insecurity, their neediness that demands constant reinforcement, their unreasonable expectations, their irrational storytelling, and an inability to look at their own issues. On the other hand, all too often those with LSE choose partners who are similar to the people who created their low self-esteem—their parents—who maybe withheld love and affection, had low self-esteem themselves, or in other ways did not meet their needs as children. Such partners are unable to give of themselves in ways that are warm, nurturing, and loving as they also feel depleted or feel such nurturing is unnecessary. Overtime as people go through the recovery process, they come to believe in their own assessment of themselves rather than “needing” to seek the appraisal of others.
It stands to reason that those with low self esteem might have chaotic relationships. Self-focused, hypersensitive, feeling unlovable, defensive and with other consequences of low self esteem, it would obviously be difficult to build and maintain a close, honest, mature relationship. Instead there is usually a predominance of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, defensiveness and blaming, unreasonable expectations, poor communication, holding in feelings, and all in all, chaos.
Those with low self-esteem can become defensive when merely being asked for an opinion, for an idea, or merely for their input on a decision. Expecting that they might be criticized or their suggestion might receive disapproval, they do not like to expose themselves in this way. When actually criticized, even by someone who loves them, they will often deny the obvious, unable to admit a mistake, poor judgment, or an offense.
Virtually all experts agree that LSE is typical of people with eating disorders. My position is that LSE is the cause.
Constantly anxious and fearful of making a mistake, those with low self esteem are overly watchful of the behavior of others. Ever vigilant of what others do and say, they search for clues on how to act, what to wear, what to say and what to do. They also scrutinize the reaction of others, frequently misinterpreting what they see or hear for there are many reasons why people act and react as they do. Unless they ask for clarification, however (which isn’t always possible) often what they conclude is inaccurate. Uncertain if their observations are correct, they tend to vacillate between blaming themselves or blaming the other person when situations don’t go as anticipated.
Lack of assertiveness or passive, aggressive,or passive-aggressive behavior
Assertiveness requires boldness, which most low self esteem sufferers do not have. They are often too fearful of upsetting others (and then being rejected) to tell the truth, ask for what they want, or share their feelings. Instead, they tend to become passive until their anger builds at which point they can become aggressive-defensive, sarcastic, brusque, or rude, even violent such as is the case with domestic, gang, and teen violence. People with LSE may also behave passive-aggressively when they are angry. Examples are any form of manipulation, planned tardiness, throwing out cues for the other to pick up on, making insinuations to get the other person to do what you want, gossiping, etc.
Feeling so imperfect, so inadequate, those with low self esteem anxiously exert tremendous energy into looking and acting in ways that are acceptable. Their perfectionist tendencies may focus on always being the best dressed, with never a hair out of place; needing to have perfect grades; getting perfect reviews or else feeling devastated and a failure. There is no in between for those with LSE; they think in terms of two extremes, black and white, all or nothing, successful or a failure; thus anything less than perfection is failure. They can’t imagine a range of outcomes such as partial successes, or mistakes that provide learning opportunities. Perfectionism is also evident in people who try to be seen as sophisticated, learned, or the top dog, and only leads to more feelings of failure when they can’t maintain this behavior.
In recovery, the person will come to recognize and understand their patterns of behavior and the consequences of them and with practice will gradually become more assertive which is the preferred mode of communicating in order to maintain healthy relationships.
LSE sufferers often tolerate the inappropriate behavior of others and then may respond with abusive, insensitive or demanding behavior themselves (since we all tend to do what we were taught or what was modeled for us). They may violate spatial boundaries, be intolerant of the differing interests or the individual needs of others, and can be controlling or smothering of their significant others. (go to “Feeling Needy” under Emotional Symptoms and Consequences)
With all the fear and anxiety that LSE sufferers experience, it is no wonder that communication is such a problem, for when a person feels inadequate, he will be fearful of stating his true feeling, won’t believe he has the right to ask for what he wants, may be reluctant to confront others, and may think that he has nothing to offer. He may also be so fearful of rejection that he is reluctant to state his opinions or ideas, especially with people he doesn’t know well or in groups of people.
This fear of communicating is difficult for friends, partners, and others who want to discuss issues but find the person with low self-esteem unwilling to listen, unwilling to take part in discussing or coming to a better understanding of the issue.
Poor Relationship and Social Skills
Adding to the fact that many low self esteem sufferers did not get the necessary support or guidance in developing social skills during their developmental years, some now find themselves paralyzed by not knowing what to say or do in social settings. When people do not learn age-appropriate skills they fall behind their peers. Other children may then ridicule and reject them for being different. These disadvantaged children develop shame as a result of these social failures, and tend to avoid social situations where they could be humiliated again. They are reluctant to reach out for help as this would mean facing their lack of skills and admitting it to someone else. Consequently, they remain behind throughout their lives, unable to initiate or maintain relationships, frustrated and miserable, but unable to change their behavior or their circumstances.
Others with poor social skills, are unwilling or unable to see that their behavior is inappropriate. Without this insight, they continue to treat others in ways that result in negative feedback or behavior that they do not understand and feel is unwarranted. They may feel that they are being singled out for some unknown reason or frequently picked on. Unable to discern how their words affect others they feel that people inappropriately react to them. They may dominate conversations causing others to feel ignored and unappreciated; they may make comments that others find insulting or hurtful but then blame those people when they react negatively. Feeling blameless, they experience the responses of others as abusive.
People who don’t value themselves often use sex as a way to get attention and approval from others. This is especially true of those who have low self esteem as a result of having been sexually abused. Seeing themselves as unlovable, they choose sexual behavior to prove themselves otherwise. The results are seldom very rewarding for much longer than the sexual act after which the feelings of being unloved and inadequate return, prompting the person to look for sex with yet another partner.
Anxiety is considered by physicians to be the primary cause of impotence in men and inability to reach orgasm in women. These problems are especially prevalent in those with low self esteem.
(To self-sabotage is to behave in ways that are not in one’s own best interest.)
Self-sabotaging falls into three categories:
The Floaters: Unable or unwilling to take charge of their lives or make changes, they float through life taking what comes their way, These people often become underachievers, Convinced it’s the best they can do and fearful of failure or rejection, they stay at jobs with inadequate pay, poor or nonexistent benefits, or in abusive and unfulfilling relationships. They avoid taking classes (for fear they would fail), don’t join groups (for fear they won’t fit in), refuse to seek therapy (because it would be an admission of inadequacy), and may even be ashamed to be seen purchasing a self-help book. Thus, they remain stuck, repeating their mistakes, unaware of their self-defeating behavior, and unable to do things differently from the past
The Needy: Plagued by anxiety and lacking self-respect or appropriate skills, these LSE sufferers rely on others for decision-making, defer to others’ ideas and values, try to please others to be liked, act helpless, and don’t respect themselves or feel they have worth.
The Workaholics: These low self-esteem sufferers know they have the ability and skills to be successful in their careers and devote the majority of their time and energy into making that happen. Success brings them a modicum of satisfaction and feelings of adequacy as long as they remain in the job or position from which they get praise and/or respect and reward. Tending to gravitate where they feel best about themselves, work becomes a form of self-sabotage, as they place work before family or social arenas in which they feel less adequate. Workaholics often don’t have time for a personal life or ignore and neglect those who are in their lives. Often they become overachievers.
Wearing a Mask
People who suffer from low self-esteem try to look calm when they are not; try to hide their embarrassment when they think they’ve made a mistake; attempt to look like they understand a discussion when in fact, they don’t; try to look confident when they feel inadequate; and exert a lot of energy trying to “look good.” They feel that others will think less of them if they show emotion or admit to “not knowing” something and try to maintain the appearance that all is well, when that is not at all how they feel. They feel too vulnerable to let others see that they have problems or that they have difficulties in their lives.