Self-Worth & Partnerships
Often times my own personal journey intersects with my client’s journeys and leads me down a path of exploration and discovery. Recently, this path has led me to an exploration of intimate partnerships, self-worth, and what causes us to seek out specific types of individuals to share our lives with.
Much like the cheesy chick-flicks, I believe that we are all inclined to want to share our lives with another person. However, unlike romantic comedies, the hard part begins when the credits roll; once you find your prince (or princess) charming and the fog of infatuation lifts, how do you know that the person that swept you off your feet is the “right one” for you? How do you continue to develop and maintain a lasting love and deep friendship? At our core, we all desire to find and experience love, safety, vulnerability, and to have a connection that fulfills our most inner desires, but sometimes, along the way, things happen that hinder our ability to find a mate that fulfills us in a healthy way. Sometimes, the things that alter our ability to be in healthy relationships occur before our intimate relationships ever do. Sometimes, these experiences occur in the most vulnerable of all relationships we will ever have: those with our caregivers.
So let’s take this exploration back to the beginning: infanthood and childhood. Each of us is born with the knowledge that, if our caretakers don’t think we are worthy, we will die.* As children, we depend solely on our caregivers to provide us with our most basic needs: food, shelter, and safety. On a more obvious note, if our caregivers don’t find us worthy, we lack the basic necessities to live. Without being fed or provided with adequate shelter, children are unable to survive. Along with these basic tenants is the necessity to have our emotional needs met: receiving comfort when we are hurt, knowing that we can express our emotions without being told to “dry our tears”, or being able to be vulnerable when we are sad or experience loss. Our emotional needs are just as important as our physical need and not getting those needs met leads to the same assumption: we will die. Although this may seem extreme, not getting our emotional needs met as children often leads to feelings and internalized beliefs of worthlessness as adults. These beliefs can permeate all aspects of our lives on a conscious or unconscious level, including our search for a mate.
Our search for finding someone to share our lives with is often propelled by a drive to be relieved from the terror that we will die -- a desire to be relieved from the feeling that we are worthless. Most of the time, we search for relief by finding someone who makes us feel worthy in the way that we lacked as children. Now, keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that we go out on a first date and lead with the question, “Will you convince me that I am worthy of love?” That may be the quickest way to watch your date turn into the Flash. Most of the time, partners seek worthiness in the small, unspoken things: does my partner think I am worth staying home and comforting after I had a hard day at work, does my partner think I am worth participating in my hobbies, does my partner think I am worth the extra effort of doing the chores around the house so I don’t have to when I am finished with my 12 hour shift? Worthiness is often a series of mini tests. Tests that are unannounced to the other partner, tests that are often impossible for our partners to pass.
The problem with seeking worth in a partner is that it is inevitable that our partners won’t always know what you need to feel worthy and will, at some point in the relationship, let you down. Being let down happens in almost all relationships and can lead to one or both partners feeling worthless. These small tests, tests that may seem like nothing to your partner, are often the arguments that result in the biggest conflict. This conflict may seem superficial on the outside, but the truth is, there is something lying deep beneath the surface that is fueling the argument and, often, what lies beneath is related to feelings of worthlessness. A wise man, Dr. Dick Schwartz, describes what lies beneath as “invisible bone bruises”. These are bruises that your past or your family has left and, when poked, triggers extreme emotion. Your partner may think that he is just doing what he thought was right and unknowingly hit an invisible bone bruise.
When bone bruises are poked, people often resort to one of four strategies*:
- Making efforts to change your partner into the person you think they should be.
- Focusing change on yourself in an effort to make your partner like you or be more inclined to fulfill your needs.
- Giving up on your current partner and begin to seek another person who will fulfill you needs.
- Turning to substance use, long work hours, excessive working out, etc. to fill the void.
If, like many of us, you find that you are someone who has felt this way before or struggles with feelings of worthlessness, there is hope. Instead of seeking self-worth from an external source, you can find it inside of yourself. The reality is that no one or no thing will fulfill your needs the way that you can. You know yourself better than anyone, you can innately heal your wounds better than anyone, and you can foster your own self-worth better than anyone else. When you are able to heal those bone bruises and develop self-worth for yourself, you gain the ability to have, not only a healthy relationship on the outside with your partner, but also on the inside.
* Adapted from You Are The One You've Been Waiting For, Bringing Courageous Love To Intimate Relationships, by Dr. Richard Schwartz.