If asked to describe myself, I’d like to think that I’m easy going, handle pressure like a boss, and look pretty darn stylish most of the time. Sure I fall short of these ideals a little more than I care to admit, but this immediate response suggests I have a positive self-perception overall.
However there was a time in my life when my self-perception was pretty low and I struggled with self-esteem. Thankfully, I’m older and wiser now, but I still have to monitor myself to make sure I’m not invested in meeting unreasonable expectations or demands I perceive from others. In other words, as the psychologists like to say, I have to check my “boundary and attachment styles.” Those are just fancy terms to describe the way we relate to others. We may be connected or distant, internally or externally validated, and rigid or flexible. All of us fall somewhere between these extremes and can determine whether we are securely or anxiously attached to others.
If you generally perceive yourself and others positively, it is expected that you have healthy boundaries and secure attachments. On the flip side, if you have a hard time accepting yourself, you may be so anxious to please people that you become like whomever you’re around. Kind of like that friend who says yes to everything and is a little too overbearing.
And it can be just as problematic when you are disconnected, and refuse to get close to anyone for fear of losing yourself. That’s the friend who doesn’t quite give off the warm and fuzzies, rarely ever shares feelings, and is always so together. Yeah, it seems pretty confident, but could just as easily be a defense and an attempt to compensate for a less than stellar self-perception.
So how can we begin to avoid these traps and feel free to establish an identity grounded in who we really are rather than acting in ways we think we are expected to? These five tips may be a good place to start:
1. Be aware of your boundary style.
Do you tend to connect with others or keep them at bay? Can you adjust how much or little you connect, or are you more rigid and stuck in the way you relate? Do you look to others to tell you who you are or do you look to your own values? Answers to these questions are golden and can tell you a lot about your attitudes towards yourself and others. Let’s say you’ve been pushing yourself to the limit to please others, and you’re exhausted. It’s probable that you have relinquished your identity to avoid feelings of rejection, and while it may feel good to dodge those negative feelings for a moment, it comes at a cost. Relinquishing your identity means letting go of your boundaries, and you may become enmeshed with others as a means of getting the love you fear will be ripped away from you if you don’t say or do the “right” things. On the other hand, if you tend to keep people at bay, you may tell yourself you don’t need anyone and confuse self-reliance with independence. But that too comes at a cost. Repressing a need for connectedness may ward off fears of rejection or disappointment for a while, but eventually loneliness will rear its ugly head and you’ll have to work harder to push it away. A major step towards shedding perceived unreasonable expectations is to be aware of these dynamics so that you can begin to do something about it.
While it is difficult to change the way we feel, it is relatively easy to change our thoughts
2. Be clear on how you derive your self-worth.
Without thinking too hard about it, think of five traits that best describe you. Those traits likely reveal how valuable you feel you are. We get our self-worth from our primary relationships, and if we were loved and valued by our caretakers, we internalized it and learned to perceive ourselves just as valuable. Of course some people didn’t have the benefit of a comforting family environment, but learned they were valuable elsewhere. From where did you get your sense of value? If you find that you get your self-worth by doing or having things rather than being who you are, you probably don’t experience self-worth for long. But it may difficult for you to stop doing or getting things to prove your worth. It’s a vicious cycle only you can stop once you accept that self-worth cannot from things that are unstable and ever changing, but from a place of stability and security.
3. Know what you believe about yourself.
This is not to be confused with what you feel about yourself. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors work together, and while it is difficult to change the way we feel, it is relatively easy to change our thoughts, especially ones that are not true or inaccurate. For instance, if you feel poorly about yourself, you may succumb to unreasonable expectations because you believe you’ll be better liked or an all-around better person. But instead of doing what you normally do to combat those feelings, start declaring what you know about yourself. And put some pep into it. Other people’s thoughts or feelings about us cannot affect us directly; it has to go through us first. And it is up to us to filter out feedback we feel is demeaning and destructive. We cannot control other people’s happiness, but we can certainly control our own.
4. Know your relationship script.
We’ve all had experiences, good and bad, ecstatic and traumatic, that shape how we relate to others. “All men leave,” “Women can’t be trusted” or “people are basically good,” are a few of the scripts we may follow even if subconsciously. If you have a negative script that prevents you from enjoying yourself and relationships more fully, figure out where it came from and challenge it so that it no longer has a hold on you.
We cannot control other people’s happiness, but we can certainly control our own
5. Seek people who complement your attachment style.
If you tend to be sensitive about rejection it’s probably not a good idea to hook up with someone who associates intimacy with a loss of independence. Ideally, we want to be around people who are secure enough to tolerate, and even celebrate our unique brand of insecurities and strengths. We’ve all heard the phrase: You can’t love someone if you don’t love yourself. And that basically means if you don’t love who you are, then the person on the receiving end of your love is never getting the full impact of you or your love. In order to give love, you have to have the emotional resources to do it. And if you are with people who trigger your anxious attachment style, those relationships will only exacerbate insecurities making it more difficult for you to express healthy love. On the other hand, if you are around people who are secure, they are in a prime position to support you so the real you can feel free to step forward. Then they can enjoy all the love you have to give.