I love quotes. They’re a potent, concise way of speaking a simple, poignant truth about human life. Recently, I came across this one: “All relationships have one law. Never make the one you love feel alone, especially when you’re there.”
Sadly, scores of people feel like they’re alone even though they’re technically not. They deeply love someone who is emotionally unavailable. Emotional unavailability comes in various forms, including partners who are aloof, unresponsive, withdrawn, seemingly indifferent, or close-mouthed about their feelings and perspectives. In a relationship like this, it’s hard not to feel alone. And, when we consider that our happiness (or lack of it) in a romantic relationship forecasts how we feel about ourselves, it’s not a stretch to imagine that an emotionally unavailable relationship can whack our self-esteem and bruise it, at least a little.
If this sounds familiar, regardless of whether you’re thinking about leaving or are trying to build intimacy and connection, it’s essential to keep hold of your self-worth and your sense of who you are. But what are some ways to do that? Here are three ideas:
According to Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist and pioneer on the subject, self-compassion has three elements. The first is “self-kindness,” which means talking to ourselves in a gracious, considerate, humane way instead of giving ourselves a mental lashing when problems arise. The second is “common humanity.” This involves reminding ourselves that our struggles and issues don’t make us different, they make us human because many people, if not everyone, faces similar stumbling blocks. And the third element is “mindfulness,” a practice in which we notice our emotions and thoughts without judging them, evading them, or allowing them to take up too much mental and emotional space. Not only does self-compassion raise our sense of self-esteem, it forecasts self-esteem that’s more durable and steady. Even mindfulness, in and of itself, can boost how we feel about ourselves. For a variety of self-compassion exercises, check out Dr. Neff’s website.
Find Ways to Get Your Essential Needs Met
Many psychologists believe we have three psychological needs that are vital for us to live well and thrive. And there’s evidence that when we’re able to get these needs met, we’re more apt to be true to ourselves and shore up our self-esteem against the storms of life, including the ones that can happen in relationships. So what are these needs? For one, we need to feel like we’re able to chart our own course, to make decisions based on what we truly care about. Two ways to meet this need are:
1) focusing on being true to yourself and your own principles rather than focusing on how you can win the approval, admiration, and love of other people, and
2) spending time with people who accept you for who you are.
Secondly, we need to feel like we’re able to take on challenges and go after our goals. How can you do this? Try setting a new goal that pushes you without feeling too daunting, like running a 10K or a half-marathon, or volunteering for new project at work that you want to do. And finally, we need to feel connected to people. A wonderful way to do this is to build relationships with people who seem to be genuinely fond of you. Also, try spending more quality time with a pet. The bond we build with non-human friends helps us feel more connected too.
Take time to highlight other parts of who you are. It’s a crucial reminder that even though your romantic relationship may be a part of you, it doesn’t define you as an individual. When you tap into other parts of your identity, it shrinks the one that feels more vulnerable and under attack down to size, buffering your self-worth. To do that, consider thinking about your most prized values (e.g., helping people, having fun, being yourself), and then taking the top one and jotting your reasons for cherishing it. Or, you can reflect on aspects of your life where you feel competent (e.g., athletics) as well as people who help you feel safe, connected, and loved. Invest in yourself. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you are special too.”
Holly Parker, PhD is a lecturer at Harvard University, a practicing psychologist and an associate director of training at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital.
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