As I explain in my blog article “What is a dysfunctional relationship?”, relationships are considered dysfunctional when they do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth. In practice, this is observed when needs, opinions, feelings and wants are not validated in a democratic manner. Controlling parents or spouses who lack self-awareness and emotional maturity and, therefore, focus almost exclusively on their own needs and feelings create relationship dynamics that are unhealthy for everyone involved. As a result of their (often unconscious) self-centred attitude, they neglect the wellbeing of their children and partners, which has a negative effect on their self-esteem, ability to honour their boundaries and feel confident in relational contexts.
For those who find themselves as the neglected ones, feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, powerlessness and abandonment are commonplace. As adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen, they might dedicate great time and effort in communicating their needs in order to make their voices heard in the hope that their assertive behaviour will lead to behavioural change. While some manage to achieve positive outcomes and affect their relationships favourably, others’ attempts tend to fall on deaf ears. For the latter, questioning the point of being assertive in such discouraging scenarios becomes worthy of consideration.
If cutting contact with difficult people or ending dysfunctional relationships that compromise your emotional wellbeing are not options you are willing to contemplate, I suggest sticking with assertiveness, but as your own personal “thing”. If your father, mother or partner refuses to hear, see or feel you, that does not mean you cannot do all those things yourself and for yourself. As assertiveness is a gift you give to your true self, when you feel unimportant, invisible, incompetent and/or unlovable in their presence, continue to connect with your body and express how they make you feel, regardless of how you think they might respond. You can do that by saying the following, silently or out loud:
“When you _____ (behaviour), I feel _____ (feeling) and think _____ (thought)”.
Example: “When you ignore my opinion, I feel sad/angry and think I do not matter”.
Every time you repeat the above – even when it goes unnoticed by others – you validate your own feelings. By keeping the connection with your own body and reminding yourself of the impact others have on you, you become your own source of validation and empowerment, which also helps you break the cycle of dependency and dysfunction.
Dysfunctional beliefs are at the heart of vulnerabilities. For those who struggle with low self-esteem and find it challenging or even scary to assert themselves, exploring the negative beliefs which give these values their strength is a productive exercise. To help you find some of the cognitive foundation to your feelings of insecurity, here are 4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion:
“I shouldn’t make people unhappy”
This rule implies that it is every individual’s responsibility to care for others’ emotional wellbeing. It also assumes that their supposed need for constant happiness comes first. Finally, it suggests that negative emotions are of a dangerous nature – something to be avoided – as if we were unable to recover from them, once “unfairly” submitted to their experience.
“I cannot make mistakes”
Perfectionism makes us behave like insecure children when we make mistakes and/or receive criticism. Even though most people fail to associate their intolerant attitude with perfectionism, mistake and criticism phobia is one of its most common features. Moreover, this inhuman and idealistic belief implies that the consequences of our mistakes are always terrible, too terrible, in fact, to be able to be handled or corrected. For those who hold such rigid belief learning tends to be an unpleasant or even traumatic experience.
“Prioritising my own needs is selfish”
A popular belief amongst the emotionally dependent and codependent that robs them of their right to individuality and self-expression. It suggests that the self only has value in relation to others, or that its right to exist, as well as its worth, relies on one’s ability to negotiate and accommodate it to the needs of others. Quite inaccurately, it also promotes the idea that a compromise is always better than following one’s own disposition.
“When I do not feel like doing what others want me to, I should give them a good reason why”
This belief presupposes that our own feelings, needs and wants only have merit when reasonable. In other words, we have no right to them solely on the basis of their existence, but their significance is dependent upon the judgement of others. According to this principle, feelings are the same as thoughts, since they “should” be connected to rational thought. The authentic and, therefore, highly subjective self, has no means of flourishing under such a rigid rule.
What do the above beliefs have in common? They all come from a stance of weakness and rigidity which annihilates the true and creative self. Their perfectionist and all or nothing approach to emotions, behaviour, relationships and life itself is too stiff to reflect the complexity of our experience and allow personal fulfilment. To stop letting them rule you and your life, bring them to your full awareness and challenge them openly. Make a conscious and brave effort to establish congruence between what you believe in and how you act and feel, so that being you and inhabiting your own body becomes something pleasant and rewarding.
The tone of your inner dialogue says a lot about you. If you worry excessively or is anxiety prone, your thinking may be biased to the negative and reflect your insecurities. If you have low self-esteem, you may be giving too much power to your inner critic and allowing it to have the last word. Whatever mental health problems you are facing, there is a high probability that they are being fuelled by dysfunctional thoughts. A natural and effective way to revert this scenario is through the conscious use of affirmations. Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered. When formulated immediately after an uncomfortable thought or image, they can accelerate change by directing your mind’s focus to the here and now, and the person you want to be. Below you will find a list of affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts to help you regain control over your thinking and wellbeing:
I am now in control of my thoughts
I am now ready to let go of fear inducing thoughts
My focus now is on thoughts that favour me
My focus is on the here and now
I choose to focus on the good
I am good to myself and my thoughts are good to me
I am clearing up my brain of all the cognitive rubbish
I am now ready to let go of negative thinking patterns
My brain is now in harmony with what I want for myself
I am now ready to move on with my life
I now favour positive beliefs about life, myself and others
My healthy self always has the last word
I am calm and centred and can trust my own judgement
I now favour an objective outlook
My thinking is now aligned with my calm and centred self
I always decide what I want to focus on
I am the master of my attention
I am in charge of directing the focus of my attention
As you can notice from the above suggestions, affirmation do not contain the word “not”, be it by itself or attached to another, as in “don’t”, “can’t”, etc. This is because affirmations are about mentally confirming and validating what you want for yourself and your life, or in the words of Gawain (2002), “The practice of engaging affirmations allow us to begin replacing some of our stale, worn-out, or negative mind chatter with more positive ideas and concepts”. To get the most out of affirmations, increase self-awareness and start actively monitoring your thinking and using them whenever your notice you mood being influenced by a negative thought.
Gawain, S (2002). Creative Visualisations, Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life. Novato, CA: New World Library.
If like most of us, you were raised in an environment of emotional neglect, you may believe – even without awareness – that you are not good enough, unlovable and/or incompetent. That is because growing up not having our emotions validated by our primary caregivers leaves us feeling empty and unworthy. Systematically ignoring a child’s need to have his or her feelings acknowledged – be it consciously or not – has an impact not only on his or her emotional health, but also psychological one. As children learn how to regulate with the help of caring, empathic parents who are attuned to their individual needs, when their caregivers do not respond as often and as consistently as it is required for them to build an inner sense of wholeness and safety, they grow up without being able to secure their own emotional wellbeing.
Not knowing what to do with one’s own fear, anger, sadness, guilt and/or shame after having witnessed them being dismissed or – what is worse – having been judged for expressing or even having such feelings is disconcerting to the developing child. In fact, the message anyone registers when their feelings are discarded is “If my emotions do not matter, I do not matter”. This cognitive process, even if not conscious in nature, affects us deeply, regardless of age. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to truly believe in our value, as well as naturally and autonomously feed our own need for love and acceptance, when what we feel is not worth the attention of those who are responsible for our care and influence us the most.
What’s wrong with me?
So, you grew up in an environment of emotional neglect and now your self-esteem is volatile. As a result (and because you do not have solid emotion regulation skills), you are very sensitive to the changes that take place around you, especially when it involves people. If a colleague snaps at you for no apparent reason, you start wondering what you have done to upset him or her. As you worriedly go over the latest interactions you have had with this person, you analyse your actions repeatedly and meticulously so to identify what you could have said or done to have triggered his or her reaction. You ask yourself, feeling powerless and exposed: “What have I done (wrong)?”.
Taking things personally is a cognitive error frequently committed by those with low self-esteem, because it stems from the principle that if something unpleasant or “not right” happens to you, it should be your fault. Naturally, as a lover of cause and effect, it also makes sense for the human brain to think that what happens in our life is a consequence of who we are. Therefore, associating what goes wrong with your core self feels rational, particularly if you think not to be competent, good enough or worthy of love and respect. Knowledge, even if of a highly subjective, biased and inaccurate nature as illustrated above, helps us find a sense of direction and safety, particularly when we lack them, as the ability to separate from others’ feelings and regulate our own independently. On that account, taking things personally can easily become a habit for those who self-regulate poorly and hold strong negative beliefs about themselves.
How to stop taking everything personally: start asking the right question
To break this habit and save you from making yourself feel on edge every time there is unease around you, I suggest a simple technique. Whenever you feel inadequate as a result of the way others are behaving around you, instead of wondering what you have done wrong, ask yourself the following:
“What is going on here?”
Asking yourself “What is going on here?” rather than “What have I done (wrong)?” will put you in a better place in which to evaluate a situation. By asking that simple question, you are already moving away from what is happening. As a spectator, you gain the necessary distance and detachment to see things more objectively. Please notice that becoming an observer does not mean avoiding or denying responsibility for the impact your actions have on others (should they have any), but it provides you with the space you require to become mentally composed and address your feelings in a more centred manner.
To keep self-esteem at a high level may come as a challenge for those who grew up in an emotionally neglectful environment. Nevertheless, you have the power to replace old thinking patterns with healthier ones. By changing the way you place yourself in the world and by creating an open-minded and impersonal perspective, you are in a more favoured position to manage your own inadequacy and act with confidence, even when there is evidence of fault in your behaviour.
Even though most of us agree that self-hatred is detrimental to emotional health and self-esteem, fighting that self-sabotaging tendency is not as straightforward. That is because very few of us were raised with enough love and respect in order to build a solid base for our self-esteem, or an organic sense of unconditional self-love. Western upbringing is often the opposite of that, but largely affected by transgenerational trauma and controlling, perfectionist and punitive beliefs. Such values do not foster a healthy relationship with the self, but make a child feel like a third class citizen already from an early age. That process is noticeable in the internalisation of our parents’ critical voices, which become our “inner critic” or “gremlin”. Naturally, undoing that negative programming takes time and conscious effort. To help you understand what keeps you stuck on that self-hate mode, here is how we perpetuate self-despise:
Name-calling oneself with words of negative connotation such as “stupid”, “fat”, etc., is more harmful to your self-esteem than you think. Words stick, hurt and can easily become your truth. Moreover, the habit of saying them to yourself – even in a playful tone – is usually a sign that you are failing in loving and accepting yourself unconditionally. Labelling is one of your critical voice’s most powerful resources to shame and put you down. It is virtually impossible to value yourself when your self-appraisal vocabulary is mostly belittling and denigratory.
Despite corresponding to a self-sabotaging way of thinking and behaving, perfectionism is very common and widely accepted. Contrary to popular belief, however, always striving for excellence is not a positive trait, but a tendency that, in the great majority of instances, promotes intolerance and self-hate. We are not made for getting everything absolutely right, 100% of the time. The complexity of human beings – or the great variety of our emotional and physical states – does not allow us to be constant and express a single and unchanging pattern of behaviour. Insisting on “always doing your best” (and self-criticizing every time you do not achieve that goal) is like cognitive punishment for being human.
3- Emotional intolerance
Do you blame yourself and others for feeling anger, shame, sadness and fear? Do you feel ashamed for having and expressing negative feelings, inadequate or even angry when others allow themselves to honour their feelings in a non-abusive manner? If yes, you are emotionally intolerant. Emotional intolerance leads to self-contempt and a judgemental attitude, be it exclusively towards your own emotional states or others’. The habit of rejecting your human qualities, such as the ability to connect with yourself, the world and others trough emotions, makes you feel empty and inauthentic in the long term. As time goes by, you start feeling increasingly more alone and disconnected. As your disappointment in yourself grows, you keep the vicious cycle of self-hate alive, even when conscious of its dangers.
4- Unresolved childhood trauma
Excessive self-criticism, intense feelings of shame, inadequateness and sadness, as well as built-up anger are amongst the most common effects of developmental trauma. If you have never taken the time to process, both psychologically and emotionally, the adverse events that marked your childhood years, it is much harder for you to feel competent and loveable. Due to the insidious, prolonged and complex nature of childhood trauma, it tends to remain untreated for a long while, affecting the victim’s sense of worth, self-protection and self-preservation. There is no better environment in which to learn how to hate and despise oneself than that of toxic families. Abuse and neglect are renowned for leaving a lasting impression in trauma victims, compromising – if not addressed and terminated – their ability to value, protect and like themselves.
5- Rigid beliefs
Rigid beliefs are deeply connected to low self-esteem and other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Dysfunctional behaviours, such as the ones mentioned above, are created and kept by inflexible thinking filled with cognitive errors such as “all-or-nothing”. Firstly, you are much more complex than a single word is able to define. By the same token, making a mistake or not being able to hide your disappointment, for instance, does not make your whole self a failure. Rigid beliefs such as “I am boring” (labelling), “I can only feel proud of myself when I stand out” (perfectionism), “expressing negative emotions is a sign of weakness“ (emotional intolerance) and “If I trust others, I will get hurt by them” (unresolved childhood trauma) rob you from your right to develop a rewarding relationship with yourself and others. It is as if only a negative, global and unchanging perspective were accurate.
If negative and critical remarks against yourself and your performance come more naturally to you than tolerant and self-compassionate ones, it is time to turn your focus to nurturing self-esteem. To fight that dysfunctional tendency, try out the following:
No more labels: stop being mean to yourself. Have a zero tolerance with labels and start catching and correcting yourself when you use words of a global and negative meaning.
Value your efforts: become a “glass half-full” type of person. Quickly step up to defend your efforts, and literally shut up your inner critic.
Stop judging “negative” emotions. Experiment with observing how you feel with curiosity. Do not fight your feelings, but embrace them and learn from them.
Heal your trauma wounds: if you suspect to have suffered childhood trauma, seek the help of a professional to reorganise your narrative and manage the effects of trauma.
Restructure your beliefs: choose flexible beliefs that reflect the adult and confident you, who is open to love and a fulfilling life.
Negative and self-limiting beliefs have an impact on your ability to make positive changes in your life. They not only convince you that there is no actual problem, but also of your supposed inability to solve it. Self-limiting attitudes, rules and assumptions are often not the product of objective reasoning, but tend to work as denial’s “little soldiers”. To help you fight against the dysfunctional influence of denial and develop a more positive, honest and active approach to problem solving, here are 5 self-limiting beliefs that keep you stuck in denial:
1- “I will never be able to change this”
Just because change does take time, it does not mean you will never be able to make it happen. When considering making a significant change, be it in behaviour or lifestyle, having a compassionate and tolerant attitude towards yourself is key. Give yourself enough time to change and get used to it. Habits take at least two months to be created. Be persistent and prepared for setbacks. Monitor your critical voice and challenge negative thinking that is making you feel less competent. Keep motivation cards ready for when feeling insecure. Have a designated friend with whom you can get in touch when thinking of giving up. Create strategies of support that will help you stay focused when confidence is low.
2- “If I do not feel 100% confident about changing, it means I shouldn’t”
Emotional reasoning is a cognitive error. Thoughts and feelings are not facts and cannot predict an outcome. If they were, we would all be lottery winners by now. Negative thinking is also a habit we create over years of relying on a biased and perfectionist perspective. Be objective, just because you are feeling inadequate it does not mean you are not able to reach your goals. Separate your thoughts and feelings from your actions. Ask yourself what you are doing and not what you are thinking or feeling. Rumination leads to procrastination and inertia. Fight immobility with determination by reminding yourself that your thoughts are not always best friends with reason. Challenge your thinking in a rational and unbiased manner to boost self-esteem and make changes happen.
3- “Everybody has problems”
Even if that is the case, it does not make everyone’s problems the same and as equally important. You can only do what is best for you. Comparisons tend not to be productive because human beings are individuals who behave, think and feel in their unique ways. No one can ever truly know what it means to be you. Trust your honest judgement and honour your humanity. You are the expert in your own life. If things are no longer working out for you the way they used to, it is probably due to behaviours that have no place in your life anymore. Personal growth is all about noticing those moments and investing in change.
4- “It is not that bad, I am OK the way it is”
Denial is not self-acceptance. Denial is indolent, indifferent and negligent, while self-acceptance is active, beneficial and transforming. Be very suspicious of thoughts and ideas that try to persuade you of the contrary. If you believe that life is a journey of personal growth, passivity will get you nowhere you truly want to be. Becoming your own agent of change is committing to living a full and rewarding life. While change does require effort and dedication, it makes your existence relevant through progress and self-expression.
5- “Everyone else thinks I am OK”
Mind reading is another cognitive error. We have no means of knowing what other people are truly thinking. What is more, trying to guess or being worried about what other people think is often connected to feelings of low self-esteem and a need for approval. Even if you were right about others’ opinions of you, to what extent do they improve quality of life? How big and frequent would that approval supply have to be in order to bring long lasting happiness? You are your most reliable source of love and acceptance. Change that prioritises your physical, psychological and emotional well-being is how self-empowerment materializes. The more you believe in the benefits of change and make them happen, the more trust you gain in yourself. Self-confidence, in turn, boosts self-esteem, which makes life more enjoyable and worth living.
Not resisting and challenging self-limiting beliefs, such as the ones mentioned above, keep you stuck in denial. Denial may successfully protect a frail sense of self-esteem and relieve anxiety temporarily, but it restricts learning and personal growth. Behavioural change often follows a new way of thinking or approaching your thoughts and actions. It is never too late to put an end to your denial and introduce healthy cognitive and behavioural habits.
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