I don’t believe, as we are sometimes told, that you have to love yourself first before someone else can. I think that’s just another unhelpful cliché, which puts the focus on finding someone to love you, rather than being a good friend or partner or family member, or on working to understand yourself better. What I have learnt though, is that judging yourself harshly can make all areas of your life more difficult, whether you are in a relationship or not.
Of course, self-compassion is a tricky task. It’s also hard to write about. Not only because many of us are tired of the way it has been watered down into patronising slogans on Instagram, but also because the way we relate to ourselves is individual. How can we talk generally about the most intimate relationship of all?
I decided the best way to explore this complicated topic was with psychodynamic psychotherapist Dr Roberta Babb. She describes therapy as “a conversation with someone that helps you understand yourself differently.” And that’s exactly what the interview below felt like…
NL: Many people have a strong sense of self with friends and family, or at work, but when they get into a relationship it can dissolve. Why do you think that is?
RB: Self-esteem is about your confidence in yourself, your self-worth, your abilities and your self-respect. With our families and friends there is often reassurance; friends accept you and your family loves you even if things are difficult. But when you’re getting into a romantic relationship there can be an anxiety that you might be left. People can fear they might not be good enough, or loveable enough, or their partner might leave them. I think that’s why people start to lose themselves and essentially try to be everything that their partner needs and wants.
Another part of it is boundaries: where do I start and where do you begin? Part of low self-esteem is that you don't feel confident in asserting your needs. You're trying to please other people because you're terrified of them saying ‘no’ or walking away or not inviting you to something.
NL: And in that process it’s easy to lose perspective on what you actually need and want too?
RB: If you have needs or wants it signifies that you're different, and difference can feel dangerous for people. You might think that if you squash down your own needs and focus on the other person then there will be no tension. No discord. Technically no reason for them to leave. However, that can build up a sense of resentment and unhappiness that can't be voiced, because it’s too scary.
NL: Why does low self-esteem make it difficult for us to receive love?
RB: Because then everything in your psyche tells you that you're not worth it. You have selective attention bias; you focus on the negatives. You find all the evidence that supports the thought ‘this is why I'm awful’ or ‘this is why I'm not lovable’. If you feel that way when someone’s kind to you, you don’t trust it. You think they’re just saying it. You ask, ‘Why would you be kind to a person like me?’
In some cases people may test their partner, and someone can only be put up with being tested for so long. Because if you keep testing a partner, it makes it hard for them to feel connected to or valued by you. If they’ve said, ‘I’ve told you that I love you’ and you still don’t believe them, then there’s nothing they can do. But if you have self-worth, then you don't need to test them. You start to believe that, yes, they do love you, because you are someone who is a good person and who has value.
That's why self-esteem is important, not only in understanding how you look after yourself, but also how much care and love you can receive from others. A lot of people are good at giving, but not necessarily receiving. If someone gives us a compliment, for example, we tend go ‘oh no’ or ‘but…’ and try to dismiss it, as opposed to saying, ‘thank you’, because in that moment we feel exposed, anxious and quite embarrassed.
NL: Why do you think it’s sometimes hard for us to be ourselves with other people?
RB: It starts with our experience of our parents; that's how we learn about relationships and ourselves. People who come from dysfunctional families may learn that if something bad happens then it's somehow their fault. So to actually to show their whole self is quite dangerous, because they think it can result in something bad happening again. For example, parents splitting up. As an adult you can see that the child is not responsible, but as a child you can think, ‘Oh my gosh, I've got this this destructive power in me. I’m bad. It’s best I hide this because if anybody really knew me, they wouldn't love me or value me.’
Also, we’re incredibly critical of others. If we see someone successful, sometimes we try to find a flaw or a way to bring them down, because it makes ourselves feel better.
There’s a pattern in society which is more about competition than collaboration. And we find it difficult to forgive if we can’t be compassionate towards ourselves. If you don’t have compassion for yourself, it’s hard to demonstrate it to others. You feel robbed if your own pain hasn’t been recognised, and then it’s hard to recognise someone else’s.
NL: I’ve realised that even people who haven't had a particularly traumatic childhood can think, ‘If people knew the real me they wouldn’t love me’. Is there a way to break out of that feeling?
RB: Obviously I’m going to say this, but the first thing is therapy. What you're talking about is becoming emotionally intelligent, which is based on four things: self-awareness, awareness of others, managing difficult emotions, and then taking meaningful action. It's about understanding, where do these negative thoughts come from? What's the evidence that I'm a bad person? You may have had a difficult past, you may not have. But these are things that you can change your relationship to.
NL: It’s interesting you use the word evidence because, in a harmless way, my dad would sometimes tell me I was lazy when I was younger, mainly because I was just watching hours of TV and not tidying my room. I’ve always felt I was a lazy person as an adult too, until someone told me to write down all the things I do every month. Then I looked at that list and thought, actually, I don’t think I am lazy, I do a lot of things. Is that perhaps what we should do more: find evidence that challenges the stories we’ve absorbed and believed?
RB: Exactly, it’s about taking stock. Our parents can say things that were harmless in the moment. ‘You're lazy,’ is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a way of saying, ‘come on, do something’. But as a child you might internalise it, and then lazy equals bad or not good enough or ‘I'm not trying hard enough’. A lot of therapy is the therapist helping the client to start challenging their negative automatic thoughts. They come from childhood. We can't help it. But what we can do is change what we do with them and whether we believe them.
And you have to understand why you get there. Because if you don't understand where it comes from, you can do all the techniques in the world but ultimately, you wouldn't believe it. You’d say, ‘Yes I've done 20 things this month, but I didn't do this one.’ Therefore, you’re just confirming the self-fulfilling prophecy that you are lazy, for example, or not good enough.
NL: Going back to that anxiety of being alone or rejected or left, where do you think that comes from?
RB: The idea that you need to get married in order to improve your station in life is still a subtle but significant narrative in today's discourse. Think about what you see on social media and TV; people's lives are complete when they have a partner, as opposed to thinking that, actually, you need to work on yourself and [if you want one] a partner then enhances you. Because we all have a need for individuality and togetherness. But a lot of people look for the partner to feel the togetherness, but don’t work on themselves and their individuality. It is a fear of being alone, of being different, of being left.
We all have a basic need to be loved and wanted and desired. And sometimes that can become overwhelming, especially if there are other things in your life that aren't going well. But it’s important to realise that you bring something to the table and that you have power and control.
NL: Is that fatalistic way of thinking something you can train yourself out of?
RB: Definitely, but it's not so much training, it’s about understanding. A big part my message would be: when you understand yourself, you can understand why you think a certain way. For example, part of why people think, ‘If this person leaves I will never find anyone else,’ is because they fear being by themselves, or they fear dying alone, or they fear they won't have children. It’s all a defence against anxiety. And if you can understand that, and you can begin to learn to be by yourself, then if you meet someone it’s a bonus. But you still have a meaningful, satisfactory life. Or you can accept the fact that you may not have children, but there are other ways you can be involved in children's lives. You can take the pressure off yourself.
NL: How do we build self-esteem other than in therapy?
RB: Creating meaning and purpose in your life is important. And recognising that the time we have in our life is finite. When you understand that, it pushes you to embrace life and figure out how to live creatively rather than only consuming. Because when you go out and meet people and engage and create experiences, you start to get to know yourself and other people can get to know you too. You find commonalities and it feels a much safer way of taking a positive risk in self disclosure. That's how you build intimacy. I think we struggle with that because we don't necessarily know how to relax as a society, because the focus is on consumerism, and on doing and producing, as opposed to really engaging.
Also, a lot of people who struggle with self-esteem find their value within a specific domain. They might think, ‘my currency is only my beauty so when my beauty fades no one is going to love me.’ Or, ‘my value is the fact that I have sex with people. Once I no longer do this, I'm not going to have anyone.’ But if you find you have purpose and meaning in life then a) you come into contact with a variety of people who see different sides of you, and b) you know your self-worth is not limited to a specific thing, and that you have value.
NL: A lot of people get to a point in their life and feel completely lost. Say, for example, because they are unsatisfied at work and don’t know what to do next. How do you think, at times like those, we can find a way back to ourselves?
RB: As well as talking to someone, it’s about challenging the assumption that you have to stay in the same career forever. It’s coming to terms with the fact that you haven’t failed; you’re just making a change. A lot of it is about reframing and thinking differently about your situation. But it can be very painful, because you have to let go of some things, and that's always sad.
The things is, you can find value in different activities that meet the needs you might want to get through work. If you want to feel creative, do you get a hobby? If you want status, do you become part of a club and take on a position of authority? There are lots of ways you can meet your core needs and find out who you are. You can also mourn the fact that you've made some decisions in life, which mean that you've lost other opportunities. That's always painful, but not necessarily a bad thing. It's being realistic and accepting, actually, because I went down this path, I may never go down that path.
NL: This year I’ve also started to understand that everything is a loss and a gain. If something bad has happened, you might have lost something, but then the life you have instead wouldn't be there if it hadn’t.
RB: Exactly, and a big part of therapy is helping people to realise they are who they are in spite of everything that's happened. They're not defined by what's happened to them; it’s a part of them, but it isn’t them.
NL: What do you wish you’d known about love?
RB: That love is reciprocal. It goes two ways.