Person A tells Person B: "You're beautiful."
"I am not," Person B retorts.
"I love you," Person A sighs.
"Why?" wails Person B.
Loving people who have low self-esteem means constantly wrestling out of their hands the virtual baseball bats with which they're beating themselves over the head. Loving such people means engaging in endless debates, striving to make them agree with you ... about them.
Loving such people is draining, frustrating and infuriating. It's also an act of major forebearance and faith. Here are some tips to make your mission easier.
- Offer small, credible compliments. People with low self-esteem rebuff praise not because we're modest but because we blatantly disbelieve it. The grander a compliment, the more we'll assume you're trying to trick, mock or manipulate us. Praise small, plausible things we'd be hard-pressed to dispute or dismiss. "You're kind to animals" or "You're fun to watch movies with" are far easier for us to accept than "You're gorgeous" or "You're brilliant." Once we accept these morsels, we'll treasure them like a horde of little jewels.
- Be a reality-check dispenser. The basic truth about low self-esteem is that it's based on lies. Somewhere back there, people we considered powerful said bad, untrue things about us which, driven by terror, loyalty and/or love, we chose to believe. Guide us back to our pre-self-loathing selves by consistently speaking the truth. Occasional reality checks detailing both the good and not-so-good about us, including manifestations of our self-loathing, reveal gently but firmly what about us, if anything, we might want to change.
- Be patient. Recognize that people with low self-esteem often take ages to make choices, initiate anything or speak our minds. That's because we're so sure we'll be scolded, teased or punished for whatever we do or say that it seems safer and wiser to do and say nothing at all. Recognize this, but don't encourage it. Demonstrate through your own behavior that even "bad" decisions can prove good or useful (even if only in a we'll-look-back-on-this-and-laugh-someday way) and that harsh repercussions aren't perpetually impending.
- Accept the fact that you're not a therapist. (Unless, of course, you are. But even then, you're not our therapist. Or at least probably shouldn't be.) When it comes to seeking reassurance, people with low self-esteem are manipulative bottomless pits. We'll force you you into giving us constant compliments, which we'll promptly reject, and into dull, fruitless navel-gazing sessions in which the only navel involved is ours. We'll virtually forbid you from criticizing us because, hey, we're fragile. Self-loathing is a form of narcissism. Playing on your eagerness to be our knights and knightettes in shining armor, we'll drain you bone-dry, making you so visibly frustrated and furious that we can then shout: "I told you I was terrible!" Win this game by refusing to play it. Set limits. Show your love and support by telling us that we need—and deserve—more qualified help from trained professionals and/or support groups. In my book, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, I suggest SLAG (Self-Loathing All Gone) forums in which we can share our stories with fellow sufferers and take some of that pressure off our partners.
- Tell us that we have a problem. And tell us that our problem isn't what we think it is—that we're ugly, stupid, incompetent or whatever. Our problem is that we believe these lies. Our problem is not knowing what our real problem is. Tell us this.