Our culture does not teach us how to have healthy relationships with ourselves or with others. As my mentor, Terry Real states, “Traditional socialization teaches girls to filter their sense of self worth through connection to others, often at great cost to themselves, while it teaches boys to filter their sense of self-worth through their performance.”
And the fatal consequence is that neither sex learns about true intimacy, yet it is something we all long for.
The legend of Narcissus tells of a young boy who, upon seeing his reflection in a clear fountain with water like silver, fell hopelessly in love with himself. Unable to tear his gaze away from his reflection, he could not eat, could not sleep, until finally, he pined away and died.
Unfortunately, the myth of Narcissus is too often our concept of self-esteem. We believe that if we love ourselves, we are selfish and self-centered, and that falling in love with self means conceit and self-absorption.
However, the opposite is true and Narcissus is the ultimate emblem of disconnection.
Self esteem is an honoring of the self that requires a high degree of independence, maturity, vulnerability and courage.
And here is an essential element that most of us struggle with: the love and intimacy we desire to have with others requires that we have a healthy sense of self, and not simply our own perfect image. Narcissus became addicted to false love. It was not himself he was entranced by, but his image. Until you reconnect to healthy self esteem, you cannot have healthy relationships of any kind.
A lack of self-love is a sign of low self-esteem or self-worth and shows its face in many ways: a refusal to enjoy life, workaholism, perfectionism, procrastination, guilt, and shame. Those who lack self-love avoid commitments, stay in destructive relationships, and fail to experience true intimacy with anyone.
They practice negative self-talk, compare themselves with others, see themselves as better than others, judge others, compete with others, caretake others and fail to take care of themselves. Unlike Narcissus, when they look in a mirror, they turn away, when what is necessary is to look into the mirror and accept themselves for who they are, flaws and all.
What exactly is self esteem?
Self esteem comes from within. We are all born with it. It can’t be added to or taken from. It is the “existential, spiritual truth that we have value and worth intrinsically, because we are here and breathing, not because of anything we have or can do, nor how others regard us.” – Terry Real
The primary difference in those who have healthy self esteem and those who don’t is their belief in this existential truth and their ability to accept their flaws and imperfections. “Of all the judgments that we pass in life, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves, for that judgment touches the very center of our existence,” said Nathaniel Branden in his book on self-esteem, Honoring the Self.
Unable to love ourselves, we are our own harshest critics, fault finders, nay-sayers and naggers. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can do to me what I have not already done to myself.”
And just the opposite is true, too. We can be our own heroes, nurturers, lovers and champions. Acting from authentic self-love, people are gentle, attentive and kind to themselves. And in turn, are able to be compassionate, accepting of others faults and imperfections. They develop their gifts and talents and live according to the values and standards they have set for themselves. Theirs is a beauty that shines from within; they laugh readily and are at ease in the world.
Theirs is not a conceit, but a sureness of self. “To honor the self,” Branden said, “is to be in love with our own life, in love with our possibilities for growth and for experiencing joy, in love with the process of discovery and exploring our distinctively human potentialities.”
Cultivating healthy self esteem is the essential ingredient for developing relationship intelligence and true intimacy.
So to answer the question, What does self esteem have to do with relationships?