Relationships and self-esteem
ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ
Having lived here in Turkey for more than 10 years, I have witnessed many, many relationship dynamics: lovers, spouses, friendships and parent-child.
In almost all of them, the power dynamics within the relationship have been unbalanced, where one of the individuals seems to be the “boss” or “wear the pants in the family,” and the other goes along with what is asked of him or her passively or with resentment. Conflict usually arises when one or the other feels challenged.
Of all the areas in which self-esteem shows up in our lives, the relationship dynamic is the one where it really struts its stuff. You will meet your strengths and weaknesses as you travel the relationship-road. By developing awareness of the choices you make, while in the relationship, you have an opportunity to become conscious of the areas in your life that need a self-esteem boost, which hopefully will give you the tools to become a fully empowered person.
Note your private agendas
In order to develop an awareness of your self-esteem in relationships, you need to pay attention to -- actually monitor -- your private agenda in relationships. Ask yourself: “Why did I say that? Why am I acting this way? Why am I manipulating this person?” At this point, there can be no more blaming or excuses, it is important to take responsibility for the choices that you are making in your relationships.
At this stage, I need to point out that working on your self-esteem within the relationship dynamic requires that you take the other person out of the equation. Understand that any person with similar personality traits could play that role. Sure, it takes two to tango, but becoming strong requires you take a microscope to your thoughts, actions and reactions and not let yourself off the hook with excuses and blame.
Society teaches us from childhood that we require a partner to fulfill a missing other half and that life requires a search for that person who will make us whole. This idea is reinforced via TV shows, the songs we listen to, the movies we watch, and the relationships we see around us. We are taught that our relationship dynamics should be, by definition, needy.
Society frowns on a solo being. Women who choose to be alone are called spinsters or worse and men are considered hermits or playboys. Because of this upbringing, one of the greatest fears abound is being alone or being abandoned.
Unfortunately, very few people are able to overcome that fear. If we were completely honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that many of us keep our self-esteem really low because we believe that the consequence of developing self-esteem is abandonment. It is implied in society -- perhaps archetypically -- that if you become an empowered being with high, healthy self-esteem, you will be alone. After all, if you are not needy -- that is, if you do not need a relationship -- then you don’t deserve a relationship. In fact, many people subconsciously choose to stay in low self-esteem because being disempowered allows them to utter such phrases as, “I can’t do this alone” or “I need somebody to take care of me.”
The idea that you can become strong or empowered in a relationship seems to be the polar opposite of the vulnerability you need to keep a relationship going; and to stay vulnerable, you have to stay in low self-esteem. If you don’t, the fear is that he or she will leave you. The irony, of course, is that if you stay in low self-esteem, the person will probably leave you anyway; or at least they will lose respect for you. It’s very hard to respect somebody who doesn’t respect themselves, and if you really strive to smother someone because of your insecurities, you’re signing the death warrant for that relationship.
The paradox of developing self-esteem
There is a paradox to developing your self-esteem within the relationship dynamic. You want to enter into a relationship with enough regard for yourself that allows you to say, “I can afford to get really close to you and at the same time not manipulate you.” Because at the end of the day if you are meant to be together, you will, and if you are not, you won’t. It takes a lot of self respect not to compromise your self-esteem to keep the relationship going.
If you don’t have a sense of self, your love relationships will include such negative forms as: insecure love, manipulative love, self-agenda love, hysterical love and you’ll never be able to say, “I am generous in my love enough to help you become all that you can be.” Instead, you’ll only be thinking about how they will love you -- not how you can love them. You’ll be self-focused on questions such as, “Will my partner leave me if s/he develops him or herself?”
The first step in developing self-esteem in a relationship is to become hyper-aware of your private agendas, continually ask yourself why you are saying or doing this or that. And don’t let yourself off the hook! Hold yourself accountable for what you are saying and doing. Every time you deny what you are feeling, consciously note that. Leave no room for blame anymore. If you hear intuition telling you to take a specific action in your relationship and you don’t, consciously note that you have chosen not to listen to guidance directing you to empower yourself.
I have to say that vigilantly working on our self-esteem can be a daunting task. It requires you to be hyper-aware of how you are acting and the things you are saying, but it’s very important that you develop an awareness of how you behave and that you address your private agenda.
Often we come to material like this in a very self-serving way. We want to understand ourselves so that we can become empowered in our relationships. Often therein is a tinge of resentment or vengeance: I want to develop my self-esteem so that s/he can never talk to me like that again!
Healthy relationships: a two-way street
However, developing healthy self-esteem in a relationship is a two-way street. While having high, healthy self-esteem will surely make you an empowered person whose boundaries cannot be pushed, it also gives you the power to allow your partner to become strong and empowered.
Imagine if your love came to you and said, “I really feel like I need to go away for a few months to explore these feelings that are emerging.” Do you have what it takes -- the stamina -- to allow that person to go? Or will you hear that phrase as: “your love is not enough and so I need to leave you”? If you speak to that person through your insecurities and come up with the reasons and excuses that keep them there, from this point on note that you are deliberately sabotaging an opportunity for growth in the relationship.
At this point, you might be thinking, so, is there any such thing as a successful relationship? And I would have to say yes with a caveat: healthy relationships require that you live in the paradox of giving the partnership a high-level of intimacy required to keep the relationship going while not needing that person. I find the couples who form the most peaceful and loving relationships are fiercely independent, it’s clear that they aren’t driven together by a fear of being alone and would be just fine without that relationship.
That’s living in the heart of the paradox; it’s the goal you want. You want to be able to look at a person with tranquility and be able to say, “You have to love yourself more than you love me because that’s what serves everybody.” If you feel like you have the right to follow your own potential, then you need to be able to love another to the point where you can give that person the same privilege. You need to love somebody enough to be incredibly intimate and yet incredibly impersonal, so you can look at that person and recognize that you are also here to help that person’s growth in this life.
When you find yourself answering from a needy place, strive to keep yourself conscious of what you are doing and saying. You will get very needy because relationships, by societal design, make you needy and that is when you start to get frightened. Fear brings out the worse in us; it brings out the fraud in us and makes us sabotage ourselves and the world around us.
It can be very terrifying to know that if you are meant to be with somebody or meant to do something that your life will change to accommodate that situation. Many of us are so frightened of change and the unknown that we fight it tooth and nail, and yet in the end, we end up exactly with whom we were meant to be with.
We are growing and changing as a species. I mean, can you imagine your ancestors sitting across from each other at a kitchen table trying to explain that they need some space to process some new feelings that are emerging? It would be preposterous. And yet, that is what is happening to billions of us everyday; we are starting to get in touch with our interior world, the world behind our eyes. We are actually starting to listen to and respond to our intuition. Hopefully, along the way are able to develop strong, healthy, loving relationships.