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:
- I am now ready and willing to look at my present situation with gratitude for an opportunity to learn something new about myself.
- I am willing to own all of who I am. I see a world in which I am totally loved for exactly who I am.
- I have always been a unique, powerful, and creative human being — no one can take that from me.
- I am not 100% responsible for the end of my marriage — only 50% at most. I am ready to forgive myself for this.
- I am a capable parent with a lot to offer my children.
- I am not a failure. Divorce is the failure of a marriage to survive.
- I will allow my divorce to transform me into someone bolder and stronger.
- I will see my situation today as an incomparable opportunity for growth.
- I have much to offer in my next relationship because I have taken the time to learn who I am.
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.”
- Notice the small acts of love and kindness from those we least expect in our communities and families. Tell yourself you deserve this attention.
- Taking a small risk can help you build your self-esteem. Mary was feeling dysfunctional during the early stages of her divorce and barely had the energy to cook meals for her son. So she and her son went to a fast-food restaurant. As they were eating hamburgers and French fries, she noticed a woman who wasn’t wearing a wedding ring sitting at a table with a small child. Mary was new in the community and most of her friends had abandoned her because they were “couple friends”. She was feeling quite lonely. She took her son by the hand and approached the woman, introduced herself, told her she was going through a divorce, and asked her if she knew of any support groups. In a few minutes of conversation, the woman told Mary she was also divorced and invited her to sit at her table. This total stranger became one of Mary’s best friends. Because she was willing to take a risk, Mary found friendship and support.
- Find a nurturing support group. We can accelerate our growth at the difficult time of separation and loss if we are in an atmosphere where honesty and loving acceptance is encouraged and where our burdens are shared. With this in mind, I encourage you to seek out or develop a support group where you can share and process your thoughts and feelings.
- Carry a small notebook entitled, “Good Things about Me.” Each day we get positive messages from those around us that we tend to discount because we don’t believe them about ourselves. Write down every positive message you hear for a week, such as: “You did a good job on that report,” “Your comments were helpful,” or “I like your new hairstyle.” And don’t wait for others to give you positive feedback: find some great things to write about yourself every day. How about “I stood up to the dry cleaner, and he respects me now,” “I look great in these jeans,” or “I helped my daughter get an ‘A’ on her science report.” Read them back when you’re having a bad day.
- Change your internal dialogue by becoming aware of it. Listen to your inner voices and to how you may be giving yourself negative messages on a daily basis. Change the negative to a positive: “I’m a doormat” becomes “I’m a generous person; “I’m too chubby” becomes “I worked out three times this week because I’m committed to my health and well-being.”
- Before going to bed each night, think of at least three things you did today of which you are proud. This could range from getting to work on time, keeping your temper when your ex tried to push your buttons, or finding the courage to say hello to that gorgeous person in Sales.
- Write about at least one thing you did this week you’d thought you couldn’t do. Mike wrote, “I went out to dinner alone, and I organized the kitchen cabinets!” Jim wrote, “I helped my daughter with her homework and baked cookies for her!” Karin, who thought she couldn’t do anything right, wrote, “I changed the oil in my car and mowed the lawn!” Hang a note on your bathroom mirror or your refrigerator that says, “I am proud of myself because I ___________________________ (you fill in the blank).”
- Do something good for someone else in need. Doing a good deed is great for your self-esteem — and for the person you’ve helped.
- It’s time you began to appreciate yourself! Write the following affirmations in your journal or on sticky notes you put around the house (pick ones that fit you best). Reading them to yourself when times are tough will help you develop a sense of pride and gratitude for yourself.
- I APPRECIATE myself for seeing the positive lessons in what appeared to be a negative situation. We sometimes learn lessons the hard way and can feel guilty for needing to learn this way. Consider the possibility that we are here to transmute every negative situation into positive love for ourselves and service to others — and thank yourself for being willing to learn.
- I APPRECIATE myself for doing what was fearful. You got out of a bad situation by making some difficult decisions.
- I APPRECIATE myself for making positive changes in my life. “Change” is your willingness to remove the barriers you felt were necessary to protect yourself. You built up walls over time that began to look like your true self — your true self was under a protective cover and you have begun to “come out”.
- I APPRECIATE myself for letting go of the past to create positive experiences in the present that will insure a healthy and happy future. Letting go is not easy, and the more you can stay in the present reality, the more energy you will have to move into the future.
- I APPRECIATE myself for getting this far in the journey. Some things were difficult to realize and take action on. You could have stopped this process at any time. You could have held on to your initial pain instead of looking for ways to make your life work better.
- I APPRECIATE myself for risking new things. It takes courage to analyze yesterday and risk a new tomorrow.
- I APPRECIATE myself for engaging in a healing process. It takes courage to trust in the process of healing at a time when trust itself may have been broken or destroyed. The divorce experience can provide the basis for growing and expanding us as human beings in ways we never thought we were capable of surviving.
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:
- drinking to excess
- promiscuity (or dating inappropriate people)
- pill popping (over-the-counter or prescription meds)
- starving yourself to be thin — or overeating to comfort yourself
- staying in a toxic work situation
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.