Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.
Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).
One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.
In my last post I talked about how the breakdown of self-love impacts day to day life. In this post, I want to focus on how it impacts relationships (like my last post, Gandalf’s thoughts and comments are in blue).
In relationships, we all start out with a selfish approach. There is always something (or multiple things) we are hoping to get out of the relationship, and when looking for a prospective partner we are interested in finding someone who will meet our needs.
Over time though, for the relationship to succeed and/or flourish, it has to stop being about our own needs and wants. Although our partners are separate and distinct from us, their needs and wants have to be just as important as our own. We need to shift from thinking in terms of “me”, to “we”.
When someone doesn’t love themself this mental shift becomes a challenge, and often love continues to be all about you.
It was early in my therapy and my psychologist had me list out what I thought was the perfect partner. After going through that list with him he said one word that I’ll never forget. It was “selfish”.
My mindset at the time was that I wanted and needed loving, but I didn’t think that I needed to give any love back. It never even occurred to me that I should even give any love back. To me, my thinking was that it was their duty to give me love and that I didn’t have to return anything back because just the act of loving me should be enough for them.
There was no empathy for anybody else. My mind only focused on me. It is known as the Narcissus Paradox, where it appears that I would be thinking of others, but really, my mindset was only focused on me and my needs. I was nice only to the point of where I could get other people to show me affection. My thinking was only on how to get other people to show me love, and not on how to love other people.
This leads to passive aggressive behavior and giving people the silent treatment because I didn’t understand how to deal with conflict or how to get what I wanted from other people.
This focus on “me” is described by Daniel Smith (Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety) as follows:
An anxiety sufferer can feel as if he too is imprisoned in his own mind, but with the demonic twist that his mind can think of nothing but itself. Anxious thoughts are radically personal thoughts. Their central concern is what affects you, what threatens you, what you need, you regret, you dread, you fear.
Anxiety is a condition of near-total self-absorption, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he is being self-absorbed and grieves over his sad inability to see past himself.
For my buddy Gandalf, anxiety and a lack of self-love prevented him from being in any romantic relationships for a long time. He’s now in a much better place now, and is in the first real serious relationship of his life. While talking about relationships I asked if he knew “why” he had never been able to be in a relationship. I think his response speaks volumes on how anxiety and a lack of self-love can damage relationships.
- Fantasies. I didn’t know what being normal was, and that goes for relationships too. My expectations and reality were very far apart. There was no way that reality could match my fantasy, so I would always be disappointed
- Avoidance. I avoided anything that was scary, so I’d avoid talking to people. I couldn’t talk to others, unless it was about my interests, in which you just couldn’t shut me up. This all or nothing type of talking really turns people off of talking to you. I would never ask how the other person is doing. Basically I had no empathy for another person
- Expectations. I expected that I had to do nothing in a relationship, so I’d do no work in the relationship. Even if there was a woman that I was interested in, I expected her to do all the work, like introducing herself to me and, well, everything else in the relationship. I expected that she do all the work and that I had to do nothing. This came from the avoidance and learned helplessness behaviors, plus my sense of entitlement
- Negativity. Not much to say about this except that a negative perspective is not conducive to building a long term and lasting relationship. Also, the constant doubt and insecurity from the negativity didn’t help either
- Empathy. When trying to engage a woman in conversation, there was no emotional connection, or empathy, between myself and the woman. It would be just a complete and total physical attraction and the arousal response would take over.
- I was also always scanning the other person for emotional displays, but I would only focus on the ones that affected me and I’d usually place negative meanings to it (e.g. “She just yawned, therefore I must be boring her.”)
The end result is the lady would need to do all the work to start the relationship and keep it going. This is not only unrealistic, but the real question is why (would she)? Why would any lady put the time and effort into a guy who didn’t show affection back? This is where I was and why I never had success in relationships.
Even for friends and family relationships, some of the above played into those relationships too. Except I didn’t have the sexual fantasy, and without that, the other items became bearable enough to suppress my anxiety and actually form a friendship. Even then, it was hard.
I would never show who I really was because I hated, or loathed, myself. So I always changed and became what my friends wanted. It was not so much as showing facets of a diamond but burying the diamond in the ground and showing an amethyst instead.
I so desperately wanted to be accepted, receive affection, and be with others that I would suppress who I truly was. The real fear that I had was that if they saw the real me, they would reject me and I’d lose them. So, yeah, it was mostly fear of rejection and loss, and I felt this all the time.
I recently read that people who suffer from anxiety disorders cannot engage the pre-frontal cortex part of their brain, which is where the higher processing functions are (empathy, emotional regulation, etc.) This makes complete sense to me as this is what I felt.
Being with a friend or lover must feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcoming, and relaxed. When I was suffering from anxiety, I felt threatened, insecure, rejected, and stressed when I was with another person. This was all in my mind, as I was the one who made being with another person like this.
Once I changed my perception of being with people to be non-threatening and reduce my anxiety, then I was able to relax, feel comfortable around people and enjoy their presence.
I’m now thinking that anxiety and the related disorders are the number one killer of relationships. I have no proof, but anxiety is completely counter to the personality qualities needed for a long term stable relationship.
Reduction of Intimacy
One of the ways anxiety damages relationships is through the erosion of intimacy.
I found a great article describing how anxiety damages a person’s sex drive. The article states:
when you have anxiety, it’s not uncommon to also have a low libido. Your sex drive is directly affected by the way you feel, and anxiety is the type of condition that can make it hard to find your partner or the idea of lovemaking to be arousing.
Intimacy is one of the things that defines a relationship, so when sexual issues arise they tend to cause tension in other areas of the relationship. When you combine this with avoidance, you have an issue that can quickly grow out of hand, resulting in a growing dissatisfaction with the relationship.
If the anxious person doesn’t recognize that the sexual issues are a direct result of the anxiety, the anxious mind can read meaning into this that can lead to doubts about the relationship itself.
“I don’t feel attractive or attracted to my partner, what does that mean? Does that mean I don’t love him/her? Does that mean there is something wrong with the relationship?”
The Four Step Dance
My buddy Gandalf didn’t have experience with relationships until after he learned to address his anxiety and love himself, so instead of him I will turn to Daniel Smith to describes this pattern of how anxious thought damages relationships.
He describes this as follows:
- Mounting Uncertainty. Anxiety leads someone to question the feelings they have for their partner. Maybe it’s not actually love. Maybe it was just infatuation, desperation or loneliness. Maybe this relationships is not what they really want
- Withdrawl. Due to doubts about the relationship, you withdraw from the relationship emotionally, and stop putting any effort in. Or worse, you may become outright neglectful or hostile in a passive aggressive way of expressing unhappiness in the relationship.
- Blowback. The behavior displayed while withdrawing causes the relationship to start to break down. Arguments start, and the environment starts to become toxic for both partners
- Retreat. Realizing the damage that is being done, the anxious partner starts trying to repair the damage.
This process repeats, as the anxiety leads the relationship to continually go through cycles that do more and more damage to the relationships each time.
My buddy Gandalf had it right when he said:
Being with a friend or lover must feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcoming, and relaxed.
Your relationship should be a safe haven. Sure, you will have your squabbles and your issues – nothing is ever perfect. But if you are in a committed relationship you should know that you will always be there for each other. You should know that your needs and wants in life are important to your partner (as theirs are to you), and that you will always work to get through things together. There is a level of peace and comfort that comes with knowing those things.
Anxiety and a lack of self-love breaks that down. Life becomes living with stress and doubting yourself constantly. Even the strongest of relationships will be challenged by anxiety and a lack of self-love. After all, how can you ever truly let go and love someone else when you don’t even love yourself?
Next up, how my buddy turned his life around and was able to move forward with a healthy sense of self (and in turn be able to build a healthy relationship).