Building Self-esteem and Improving Relationships

Source: photo by L. Grande

Positive self-esteem is critical to an individual’s mental health and ability to relate well to others. By strengthening one’s self-esteem, one will increase contentment in relationships and, as a result, emotional health of all family members. The paradox of healthy self-esteem is that we need someone else to validate ourselves as worthy. This is not to say that single people suffer low self-esteem, as long as they have at least one important loving relationship in their life, such as a friend, parent, or sibling.  “We need at least one significant other who verifies our sense of worth. Our identity is the difference about us that makes a difference. It must always be grounded in a social context—in a relationship.” (Bradshaw, 1996) Once one accepts the importance of self-esteem to relationships and vice-versa, it makes sense to put conscious effort into building or strengthening both our own self-esteem and that of our significant other. Following are a few suggestions for increasing relationship contentment and stability by building positive self-esteem.

1. Avoid criticizing, blaming, and shaming.

Most unhealthy relationships are characterized by excessive amounts of criticism and judgement. Persistent criticism, judgement, and blaming lead to chronic feelings of shame. While there are some aspects of shame that are adaptive, such as realizing that we are fallible and sometimes need help, too much shame results in low self-esteem.  It causes feelings of “being flawed”. It is important to distinguish shame from guilt. Both may result from making a mistake or having done something wrong.  John Bradshaw summed up the difference as: a guilty feeling means “I did something wrong” while shame feelings mean “There’s something wrong with me.” (Bradshaw, 1996). While guilt tied to a specific behavior might lead to corrective action, shame too often results in feelings of inadequacy, and therefore low self-esteem.

How is this relevant to couples’ relationships?

It is not at all unusual for couples who are arguing to fall into a habit of criticizing each other. “If you weren’t so selfish, you’d be helping more with the housework!” “You’re so irresponsible with money. That’s why we struggle to pay bills.” Even worse, “What is wrong with you?! Don’t you know better than to do that?!” These are all attacks on the other person’s character and their sense of self. They usually evoke feelings of shame or embarrassment, possibly stirring up childhood wounds caused by the criticisms of a parent. Even if you get the result you are seeking in the short-term from this type of comment (for example, a sudden effort to help clean up the home), you are causing serious harm to your relationship. Your partner’s childhood emotional wounds have been re-injured, creating any of a range of negative feelings, such as anger, rejection, or embarrassment.  John Gottman’s research confirmed that constant criticism is one of the four signs of a deteriorating relationship (Gottman, 1999).

2. Accept the other person as they are; don’t try to change him or her.

Accepting the other individual’s basic personality includes acceptance of the traits that you appreciate and those that you don’t. The basic “big five” personality traits are:  Openness to new experiences (vs. preference for the familiar/safe), conscientiousness (vs. carelessness), extroversion (vs. introversion), agreeableness (vs. argumentativeness), and neuroticism (vs. emotional stability). These traits aren’t likely to change much during a lifetime, although one can modify their behavior with some effort.  Criticizing or judging someone else’s behavior as it relates to these traits is pointless and does more harm than good. For example, one of my therapy couples had repeated arguments about the lack of neatness and organization in their home. Allison preferred an orderly home where everything was in its place and the space was uncluttered. Joe was the complete opposite; he was more content to leave things wherever he last used them and not concern himself with neat appearances. A constant argument was over Joe leaving his shoes in the “middle of the kitchen floor”, as well as papers and a laptop on the dining table. Allison was generally more conscientious about neatness than Joe, and this difference was very upsetting for both. She accused him of being “sloppy and inconsiderate”, to which he responded that he felt “controlled by her.” This interaction caused bad feelings for both.  Once both of them accepted that there is no need for judgement on the issue and neither was “right” or “wrong”, they were able to form behavioral compromises.

3. Offer genuine praise and appreciation for the traits that you value in each other.

Speaking genuine words of appreciation is one of the six major ways that we express love for others (see my Six Expressions of Love, October 2016). This act also has a very positive impact on self-esteem, particularly when the praise is about general attributes, rather than specific accomplishments. “I love your creativity and your imagination.”  “Your sense of responsibility lets me relax and not always be the conscientious one.” Comments such as these have the effect of reinforcing our sense of being whole and valued.

4. Avoid perfectionism in yourself and in others. Accept mistakes as part of humanity.

When children are raised in a culture of perfectionism, there is constant fear and avoidance of making a mistake. The family rule becomes: Always be right, and be better-than-others. If you were raised in a perfectionistic family, you may feel that you must always manage the impression that you make on others. “What will people think of me, or of us as a family?” This unrealistic goal leads to profound hopelessness. It sets you up for an impossible task because human beings are imperfect. To be truly human and genuine requires the recognition that no-one is perfect. In the words of Bradshaw, “Perfectionism is inhuman.” If you do not expect perfectionism in yourself, you will not expect it from others. Improved self-esteem will result from this shift in expectations of yourself and your loved ones.

If you are in a relationship with someone of special importance to you, there is an opportunity for personal growth. The ways in which you communicate with each other can have a positive or negative impact upon self-esteem for both of you. Following these guidelines can help you boost each other’s self-esteem and as a result, your relationship satisfaction.

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