Self-esteem can be a tricky thing.
We’re all born with self-esteem, but somewhere along the way, it gets systematically beaten out of us – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, sometimes both. Some people learn to deal with this at an early age, and adopt a façade of being well-adjusted, a fake air of confidence. Most of us, though, learn to deal with it in other ways – acting out, or adopting a self-deprecating sense of humor, or any of a dozen other ways of masking the pain.
Life can seem so difficult sometimes. Pride (or a lack thereof) convinces us that either we deserve more, or that we’re getting precisely what we deserve. It’s easy to look at the suffering of others and think to oneself, “Well, at least I don’t have it THAT badly!” But this is a false dichotomy – we all suffer individually, in our own little island of existence, and to varying degrees. Starving children in Africa, tortured citizens of Hong Kong or the Middle East, or victims of unspeakable crimes right here in the United States have no real bearing on the individual suffering we each experience.
Psychologists use the term “self-esteem” to describe an individual’s sense of value or self-worth. Abraham Maslow, in his Hierarchy of Needs, makes the case the we all need both esteem (or respect) from others as well as inner (self-) esteem. People who suffer from low self-esteem often find themselves in self-destructive situations or relationships. These situations become a self-fulfilling prophecy, validating one’s own low sense of self.
Although genetics play a role in it, most psychologists believe that self-esteem is shaped by one’s own environment. Allowing oneself to continue to exist in an abusive relationship – in fact, seeking out these relationships in the first place, whether consciously or unconsciously – is one of the hallmarks of low self-esteem. It is a hard habit to break, this vicious cycle of believing you get what you deserve, then being abused (either physically or emotionally) and believing you deserve to be treated in the manner.
How best to break this cycle, this merry-go-round of pain and suffering. There are many different strategies proposed by many different psychologists and therapists, but most all of them have one thing in common – it is best to rip the band-aid off rather than to continue to exist in the situation, hoping it will get better.
Sometimes, sadly, this is not always possible – at least not immediately. Certainly, if an individual is in imminent physical danger, getting out of the situation is (and should be) the main priority. But in cases of emotional abuse, the situation is not always cut-and-dried, not always so black-and-white. It may even be the case that no abuse is intended; it may be a matter of simple miscommunication. So many people are afraid of the unknown that they would rather live with the devil they know than take a chance with the devil they don’t know.
In the absence of the ability or opportunity to leave, the first step is to try to set definitive boundaries with the other party. Try to have an adult conversation with them concerning your wants and needs. Often, it is merely a matter of miscommunication between the two parties. However, if and when it becomes evident that there is (and can be) no common ground, it is time to start to think about moving on, to start preparing for the end of the relationship.
I don’t have the answer. I wish I did. Or maybe I do, and I am just too afraid of the devil I don’t know.