Susan Warren, LMSW
When we are in a relationship with someone, we see all aspects of them. We see the stuff we fell in love with, the stuff that makes them unique, and we even know the stuff they don’t show to the rest of the world. What a privilege! Of course this comes with challenges. Everyone has good days and off days. We all have stuff we bring to a relationship.
Throughout our relationships we support our partners (your person, significant other, lover, spouse, better half) through their struggle(s). When we envision supporting our partner, it may be supporting them through external events (such as unemployment, worldwide pandemic, external family conflict), however, often we support our partner through events that are difficult to “see” or “fix”. Disease, chronic pain, grief, and mental illness are just the tip of this iceberg. We want our partners to have a life of happiness. But realistically, we will watch success, failure, joy, despair, a multitude of emotions happen to this person we care for so deeply. What happens when their struggle is internal?
For the purpose of this post, I focus on self-esteem. I recommend referring to Cardinal’s blog page which has posts focusing on other mental wellness topics! For us to understand the impact of self-esteem, we have to understand what self esteem is.
Dictionary.com defines self-esteem as “a realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself; self-respect”. Essentially, self-esteem is a question – how do we see ourselves? Do you feel like you can complete a task? Will you be pleased with your work? How do you feel about you? Yikes! Self-esteem, at times, reflects our inner world.
Example Situations & Self-esteem Outcomes (Thoughts)
We’ve just finished a hard work out. Positive: “I guess I am strong! I can do this”
We ended a hard work out earlier than we planned. Negative: “I am too weak, I am not strong enough”.
Our partner noticed our hair cut. Positive: “They like me! They noticed me”
Our partner did not notice our hair cut. Negative: “They didn’t notice me, I guess my haircut isn’t that great”.
Oftentimes our self-esteem is a combination of positive and negative things that happened in our past and how we relate to them today shape our self-esteem. Long story short: self-esteem can be challenging to think about.
So what do we do when we feel like the statements below?
“I know my partner is great at what they do, everyone knows this, they don’t even know they are great at what they do.”
“My wife is the best athletic coach around, a magazine even gave her an award! Yet my wife feels like her school will fire her every spring.”
“My boyfriend does not feel like he is attractive and I can’t take my eyes off of him.”
“My lover says I’m lying when I say she is the best cook I know.”
Often, our partners feel unworthy despite our encouragement. Our partners feel uncertain despite our reassurance of past success. We see such a capable, beautiful shining star in front of us and think: Of course they can do it!
Take a moment right now, and imagine what it is like to be your partner lacking positive self-esteem. For one of you it is very personal and clouds judgement and thought; for the other one of you it is distant, unbelievable. At this moment, we have to do two things: 1) meet our partner where they are and 2) be patient with them.
For the first task, meeting your partner where they are, I have a simple acronym: THINK
T: Think of others perspective, think of your perspective
H: Have empathy
I: Identify – can you identify alternative explanations for the behavior/concern?
N: Notice how they’ve tried to work on the situation, notice how they are struggling, notice if you’re adding to the situation, notice how much courage it takes for them to talk about this.
K: Kindness – have a kind approach!
So even if we have seen this person complete a task 100 times over, if they tell us they feel uncertain – we believe them. Even if this person works hard on their body, if they tell us at times that they feel unsightly – we believe them. If our musically talented partner tells us they feel like they are the worst singer in the world – we believe them. Remember, self-esteem is one of those distant and aloof things for an outsider. We believe in our loved one, but they don’t believe in themselves. We have to meet our partner where they are: feeling incapable, unwanted, unattractive (even if that is uncomfortable for us!). Believing them can look like this:
“I’m sorry you feel like you aren’t good at your job.”
“It must be hard for you to keep practicing even when you feel like a failure.”
“Thanks for opening up and telling me, I know it’s hard.”
When we struggle with our self-esteem, we feel poorly about ourselves: We can’t do it, we aren’t good enough. As Shayna Fendley put it beautifully: this mental gremlin can be small and fleeting, maybe only when starting a task, or large and overpowering, maybe encompassing our entire life. Lagging self esteem occurs for a myriad of ways. It is not easy to say “Oh this is why I feel this way”.
The next key to supporting someone with low self-esteem is seemingly easier: be patient.
Your partner is struggling internally and everyone copes with it in a different amount of time. It may take your partner a few days to feel motivated, to take on a daunting task, or to allow intense feelings to subside. This is okay. Do you know what makes your partner feel loved? Small acts of love can be helpful here too: compliments, flowers, small notes, cooking their favorite meal, finishing a list of chores, a spontaneous dance party, physical intimacy (this list is small, but we show love and feel love in so many different ways – remember to stay focused on your partner here. This is an internal battle for one of you. We can’t fix if our partner has low self esteem or not, but we support our partner regardless. You may feel frustrated or impatient — “why can’t you just get over this already?”— when supporting a partner with low self esteem and that is okay too. Take a break for yourself. When supporting a partner with low self esteem, think of it as you and your partner against their low self-esteem, instead of you against their low self esteem.
As always, Cardinal Counseling is here for you! We offer HIPPA compliant telehealth options and some of our clinicians have immediate availability. You can call us at (501) 408- 3431 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.