Let's face it -- we're a codependent society. Most, if not all, of us depend on others to generate our good feelings about ourselves. When we make our spouse or ex-spouse responsible for our self-esteem, we end up with "other-esteem" instead. Without realizing it, many of us allow a relationship to erode our good feelings about ourselves. We give up on interests we personally enjoy or ignore important "growth urgings" to keep peace in our relationships.
All of this is detrimental to your self-esteem. Add to the mix your negative (false) core beliefs from childhood -- which could be triggered by a bad marriage (emotional and/or physical abuse, infidelity, alcoholism, etc.), or religious or community morality -- and you can really believe you're worthless. Even if your divorce was amicable, you might feel like a failure because you couldn't make the marriage work.
Why be concerned with self-esteem? For one, your children learn by observation. When you treat yourself disrespectfully or allow others to do so, you're sending a clear message to your kids: "I don't deserve to be treated well. Feel free to disrespect me as much as I disrespect myself." People with healthy self-esteem don't allow others to abuse them. If your self-esteem is low, it will affect how you are treated on the job, by future love interests, and even by friends and family who profess to love you.
Dumper or dumpee?
When we think of post-divorce low self-esteem, we usually think of the person who was left: the "dumpee." The stories of two such people -- Mike and Karin -- illustrate the road many dumpees must travel on the path to wholeness and renewed self-confidence.
By all accounts, Karin is a beautiful, accomplished, bright, well-educated, 32-year-old elementary school teacher. She is the mother of two, and she has a lovely face and figure. When she came to see me a year ago, she felt ugly, stupid, and inept. Her ten-year marriage to Nick was over, and just a few months after moving out, he was living with a 23-year-old bookstore clerk. Although Karin and Nick's marriage wasn't great, most of the time Karin felt appreciated for her good looks, bright mind, and take-charge personality. Now I heard phrases from her such as, "I just can't get anything right," "every time I turn around I'm doing something stupid," or "I'm just a mess all the time, my clothes don't fit right, and I'm getting fat."
Then there's the case of Mike and Jenny. According to Mike, his value in their long-term marriage was his ability to care for Jenny. He told her she would never have to work, that he would take care of all her needs, that he would protect her from the world. At the time of their breakup, Mike was a successful bond trader on Wall Street; he had an MBA from a prestigious business school. Before he married Jenny, he was a near-professional weekend golfer who enjoyed writing short stories and poetry. In order to dote on Jenny, he gave up what he loved, "to make her happy," he said. Six months after their breakup, Mike told me how stupid he was. Sure that he would never get a relationship right, he was going to throw himself into work. "I'm the kind of guy nobody would ever want," he told me.
I encouraged both Mike and Karin by telling them that there were steps they could take to improve how they felt about themselves. That although Dr. Bruce Fisher -- co-author of Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends -- calls people who were left the "dumpees," they didn't belong in a pile at the dump, that they weren't valueless old trash rotting atop broken washers and dirty diapers.
According to Dr. Fisher, the one who does the leaving -- the "dumper" or "leaver" -- can suffer an esteem hit every bit as painful as the one who is left. How do we define the term "leaver"? Leavers typically have planned their "escape" for a long time, and when they finally accomplish the act of leaving, they are temporarily relieved. However, it's not long before they too begin to exhibit signs of low self-worth.
Mary knew she had to get out of her destructive marriage. Her husband Bob was emotionally unavailable, drank a bit too much, and treated her like a maid. Nothing she did or said was good enough. Although her self-confidence was at a low ebb, she mustered enough courage to leave Bob. Even though she was now a single mother of a four-year old boy, Mary thrived during her first few months of "freedom." She felt in charge of her life again, and she wasn't taking the daily hits to her self esteem.
However, the years of psychological abuse had taken a toll, and Mary's feelings of low self-esteem were preventing her from finding and keeping a job. In therapy, we discovered that it was her fear of making mistakes, of "screwing up" the way Bob had told her she would. Mary remembered him saying, "No one will ever love you, ever. You have nothing to give!"
Jim's story was that he was sure he didn't love Ann anymore. He thought he was living a lie that was hurting everyone, including his children. Jim stayed in his marriage much longer than he probably should have, and by the time we met, his esteem was in the gutter. He finally broke the news to his family that he was leaving. Although relieved, he felt like a complete failure. His wife's last words were: "You're a self-centered bum."
Reclaiming your true self
Start by reclaiming those elements of yourself that you were willing to sacrifice to make your marriage work. For example, you may have given up being or acting proficient around household maintenance, or you may have denied your intellectual capacity by not finishing school (women do this primarily because they don't want to outpace their husbands). In an effort to be available to your spouse, you may have given up your "free time" and creative pursuits. Thinking the relationship should be completely symbiotic, you abandoned personal friends of long standing or failed to develop friendships of your own outside the marriage. Whatever it was, it was detrimental to your personal growth and self-esteem.
I am not talking about compromise here. Compromise is an important and necessary part of living with another human being. This discussion is about the tendency to completely deny and let go of important elements of your true self, how this affects your self-esteem, and how to reclaim your essential self.
Karin asked, "How do I recover my self-esteem when I'm in the middle of an identity crisis? Who am I now if I'm not a wife?" Mary had completely forgotten about some of her other defining qualities and achievements, such as: college graduate, school teacher, painter, ice skater. She was always much more than "just a wife," but she had forgotten -- or suppressed -- these other parts during her marriage.
Some of the roles you identified with have changed -- "husband, wife, lover, breadwinner, breadmaker, homemaker, family man, housewife." Who are you now if you're not a wife or a husband? What parts of your identity did you bury to please your spouse?
When you disown or dishonor your true self, and do not take the time to reclaim your self-esteem, you limit the possibility of intimacy in future relationships. Perhaps you never recognized or celebrated yourself as being truly unique and distinct to begin with. In search of a "self," you may have surrendered to your partner and allowed yourself to become "part of" another person. Fearing there was nothing worth finding, you may never have tried to discover who you were outside of a relationship.
When you surrender so much of your authentic self, you allow subtle erosion of your self-worth and spirit, and gradually "who you really are" almost completely disappears. The person your spouse was initially attracted to no longer exists. They criticize you as a result. You abandon yourself -- and they abandon you.
Mike knew who he was when he married, but then he forgot. I suggested he make a list of at least five things he gave up or no longer pursued when they married. This list can include hobbies, people, creativity, feelings, possessions, religion, etc. Mike listed writing poetry, golfing with friends, hiking, and bird watching. Many of the people I have encountered in this process are aware that, for some reason, their relationships had produced a prolonged period of stagnation in the area of personal/spiritual growth -- which ultimately resulted in feelings of low self-esteem.
Mike began a process of reclaiming what he had surrendered by taking action. He even went so far as to self-publish a small book of poetry inspired by walks in the woods!
Read these to yourself each day:
After about six months of therapy, Jim told me: "My self-esteem began to get better when I was able to own my 50% of what caused the relationship to falter and then fail. I know now that I was only responsible for my half -- and I've begun to get 'real' about me. I know I can be a better person."
The self-esteem process
Divorce can only become a vehicle for creating a better life when we stop thinking of it as punishment and start seeing it as a process. This process begins with the death of a relationship, proceeds through a period of grief and mourning in which the death is recognized and accepted, is followed by a time of readjustment and rebuilding self-esteem, and ends with the rebirth of an independent single person. If you learn to love and accept yourself, you may begin to see your human fallibility as a threshold to personal growth.
Your real self has been waiting for you. When you shift from "other-esteem" to good self-esteem, your future will be filled with possibility!
The uncertainty and insecurity that divorce creates can leave you with an open wound subject to infection. This infection -- low self-esteem -- can then manifest itself in self-abusive behavior such as:
Make sure you get professional help if you feel an "infection" coming on.
Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, spiritual counselor, and personal coach practicing in Hawthorne, NY. She is the co-author of I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye: Coping and Healing after the Death of a Loved One. She has personally experienced divorce twice and is now happily married.