Are you emotionally dependent? If you struggle with low self-esteem and excessive worrying, there is a high probability that you are. Emotional dependency is a vulnerability of those who did not receive enough unconditional love in childhood so to build a solid sense of safety and self-worth. Because they lack self-esteem and that all important inner sense of safety, they become addicted to the approval of others in order to feel at ease with themselves and in the context of relationships. To find out if that fits your profile, here are common thoughts of the emotionally dependent:
“I often worry about what other people think of what I say and do”
“I need reassurance that I am doing the right thing, otherwise, I feel insecure”
“It is hard for me to truly know what is best for me”
“I try my best to make people feel good around me”
“I check in with others first, before making a decision”
“I tend to feel ashamed of myself when I make a mistake”
“If I do not get positive feedback when I do well, I feel extremely disappointed”
“I have been let down by a great number of people”
“I worry and feel guilty when I am not able to be there for others and make them happy”
“I do not trust my own feelings”
“I feel very ashamed and resentful when I am given criticism, even when I am aware that it is constructive”
“I make an effort to be liked”
“I love helping others and making them feel happy”
“When people are not OK around me, I think it is because of something I may have said or done wrong”
“I often do not know if I am doing what is right for me, or if it is what I truly want”
“I try to avoid confrontation because it makes me nervous”
“I am afraid of making mistakes and disappointing others”
“I put others’ need before mine, even when I do not want to”
“I would love to be able to trust and value myself”
“I feel more relaxed when others take the lead”
“I always try to do my best”
“When I say no, I feel guilty”
As with any type of dependency, healing is viable through true emotional freedom. To achieve emotional autonomy and self-confidence, it is essential that you learn how to be yourself, regardless of the consequences. As simple as that sounds, converting that into action requires great courage. That is because in Western culture, authenticity often requires a fearless attitude. Practice increasing you discomfort tolerance and tell yourself you can stand and overcome the anxiety, guilt and shame that arise from honouring your own feelings, interests and boundaries. As painful and as difficult as that may seem, your end goal makes it all worth it. After all, there is nothing more rewarding than living your own life and enjoying authentic self-expression.
Beliefs, like words, have power. What you tell yourself in your own head has immense influence on your self-image and self-esteem. That is because behind your negative self-talk, there are always negative beliefs about yourself, the world and others fuelling a pessimistic, weak and unfavourable outlook. Beliefs are so powerful, that they can guide you towards creating a reality you have built with thought alone. So if you believe you are not fit to run for more than 5 minutes, you will not. Equally, if you decide you can do it, not only rationally but also emotionally, you will. By believing in something “emotionally”, I mean with your whole being, namely, with your mind and body. As Lipton (2015) explains in The Biology of Belief, “Thoughts, the mind’s energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology”. That would explain how there are so many stories of people that defied terminal cancer diagnoses, for instance, and ended up living a much longer life. To help you start thinking and feeling better about yourself, below you will find 5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem:
1- I matter
Even if you are currently not in a relationship or do not have many friends, you are important to others. As a living being, you matter not only to the universe, but also to yourself and others around you, even when they do not know you. Life is precious and we all want to preserve it. Therefore, even if I have never seen you, as a fellow human being, I wish you all the best. And no, you do not have to be a therapist or a monk to think like this, since a great number of people do.
2- I am competent
Are you aware of how many skills are required of you just to read this blog article? Even if you feel depressed, in despair or heartbroken, you still have the ability and strength to wake up and face your fears every single day. It is sometimes hard being human, but we become masters of our existence already from a very early age. Remind yourself that trying is what matters, not winning. Every time you try, you show yourself, the world and others that you are alive and connected.
3- I can stand it
You have overcome disease, bad weather, hardship and disappointments. You have been able to get up and get things done even when you felt like curling into a ball and disappearing. You have shown up even when your body felt weak. You have been there for others when you could not be there for yourself. You have felt alone and bitter, but tried to be civil and respectful to others. You have dealt with your losses the best you could, even without validation or support from others. You are resilient and can stand pain and discomfort.
4- I can trust others
Would you have got this far without the help of others? Even though some of us are quite independent, we all survive and even thrive because we work in collaboration. Relationships of all kinds are risky, because everyone that comes into it does so with a set of expectations, vulnerabilities and at least one trauma. As we are imperfect beings, we all get hurt at some stage in our lives. The good news is, as you learned above, you can stand it! If you get disappointed, you will eventually get over it, as with most things in life.
5- I am good enough
You were good enough to have come into this world. You were good enough for growth and development, regardless of the circumstances. You were good enough to make it to your age and have known the people you do. You were good enough to achieve what you have and to make something out of it. You are good enough to be alive and worth every breath you take. You are good enough and worthy of everything you still have to give to yourself, the universe and others. You are good enough because you are you, and you are unique.
If you suffer from low self-esteem and struggle to feel whole and happy, it is time you started telling your brain a different story about yourself, the world and those around you. I highly recommend writing the above beliefs down and incorporating them into your meditation practice. When you reach a calm state of mind and feel at one with your body, create imaginary scenarios in which you see yourself behaving as mentioned above. Then, connect with the positive bodily sensations these images evoke, as if you were right there and then enjoying this new way of being. Repeat the exercise on a daily basis and observe the effects it has on you emotional health.
Lipton, B. H. (2015). The Biology of Belief, Unleashing the power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsband, CA: Hay House
Shame is built in our bodies based on the experience we have had with other people, such as our caregivers, relatives, friends and teachers. Shame is morally, socially and evolutionarily relevant, because it favours the integrity of human groups, helping increase their survival rates. When we stick together, we tend to live longer and healthier lives. While behaviours such as altruism, treating each other well, being empathetic, sharing and helping each other favour the quality of our relationships, acting in an exclusively narcissistic, selfish, aggressive and anti-social manner threaten their unity. Fortunately, shame is an emotion that is there to regulate such behaviours, so that the interests of the group prevail. For that reason, shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group, or the rules that make us identify with each other and work in cooperation.
The role of shame
Shame warns us when we have broken the rules shared by a given group. Because those values or set of social rules vary according to cultural context, what is shameful for a certain group may be acceptable for another. While guilt tells us that we have done something wrong, shame points the finger directly at us, as if saying: “You are wrong”. Therefore, shame has the potential to become extremely toxic to self-esteem, because it causes us to feel rejected and even a failure. Moreover, since it is a “learned” emotion, it can become an internalised self-sabotaging mechanism or a bad emotional habit through which we constantly criticise and judge ourselves. When that occurs, we feel vulnerable and tend to isolate from others.
Feelings related to shame
Embarrassment, inadequacy, worthlessness and regret, as well as feeling mortified or dishonoured, are all shame-based feelings (If you need help identifying feelings of shame, please click here).
How shame is felt in the body
Interestingly, shame, as a “moral feeling” (Michl et al, 2014) is triggered by the frontal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain (linked to rational thinking, learning and fear and survival, respectively). As you can notice below, the bodily sensations associated with shame prepare us to disconnect, avoid and even hide from the other:
Heavy body: head, torso, legs and arms
Shoulders rolled forward
Eyes look downward
Lack of movement
Heated head and face
Adaptive and maladaptive shame
Because we value a sense of belonging, adaptive shame can stop us from acting against our best interests, as damaging the relationships we value. The same applies to our life goals and achievements. When a friend catches you out watching TV in the afternoon, when you had planned to study for a big exam, for instance, and, consequently, you feel inadequate, shame helps you stay focused on what is important to you in the long term (qualifications, better chance of employment, etc.). In such contexts, shame is adaptive because it favours goal attainment and psychological wellbeing. In that context, shame does not “run the show” as the sole motivator, but it arises in specific contexts to remind a confident and responsible individual to choose the behaviours that match his or her objectives. Maladaptive shame, however, does not contribute to personal and professional growth gracefully, but it has a hindering and lasting, self-destructive effect. When behaviour is dictated by shame, incredible harm is done to identity and self-esteem, which creates a great distance between our ourselves and our essence. Maladaptive shame is considered the most toxic of emotions, since its effect is extremely debilitating to one’s ability to connect not only with his or her own self, but also with others, making it impossible for one to feel contentment, as well as a real sense of love and joy in life.
What your shame says about you
As we have already noted, shame tells you when there is something supposedly wrong with your way of being or behaving. If you relate to your shame in a functional way – listening to its message from a balanced perspective – you take what you need (if anything) from it, and use it to recentre or reach a better state of alignment between your values and true identity. By doing so, you act with self-esteem and grow from the experience. That pragmatic attitude towards shame, and your ability to judge and regulate it, reflect a high level of self-awareness, respect and love for yourself. Shame that cannot be shaken off that effectively, but it seems to resonate with negative core beliefs such as, “I am not good enough” or “I am damaged goods”, however, lingers for longer than required to create a healthy sense of awareness. In that case, its purpose is not to inform and help you regain focus on what enhances wellbeing and development, but humiliate and denigrate you. Recurrent feelings of toxic shame is often a sign that you need to take better care of yourself emotionally and psychologically.
Due to its harmful effect on the psyche and body, toxic shame is connected to an array of mental health problems such as unresolved childhood trauma, as well as personality, anxiety and mood disorders, amongst others. If you are not satisfied with the relationship you keep with your shame or ability to control it, I highly recommend seeking professional health. Facing your shame head-on, with energy and courage, remains the best away to weaken its power over you and improve self-esteem.
Michl P., Meindl T., Meister F., Born C., Engel R.R., Reiser, M., Hennig-Fast K. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(2): 150–157. http://dx. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114
If you find it hard to enjoy your achievements, be they big or small, you might be struggling with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes it impossible to love and accept yourself for whom you are and what you do with confidence. That is because perfectionist attitudes, rules and assumptions take everything a step further. “Big” becomes “bigger” and “good” becomes “better”. The language of perfectionism is never satisfied with the present, but it revolves around past – and often idealistic – future experience. Thoughts such as “if I had done it better, that wouldn’t have happened”, “I’ve done it better before” or “I need to get it absolutely right next time” take the power away from the here and now. You become obsessed with results, like a hamster on a wheel or a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit around a racetrack, focused but slightly delusional.
Perfectionism has the potential to kill the little pleasures that make life worth living. That beautiful moment of lying in bed after having just changed the sheets, while enjoying their fresh smell, can be ruined by the thought of “Designer sheets are much softer”. Perfectionism also makes your efforts seem pointless. After realising you have managed to meditate successfully for 15 minutes, you feel a little pride building up. Then, the thought “If I had managed it for 30 minutes, I would be feeling much more relaxed” comes racing through and completely changes your mood. Perfectionism makes you feel as if you were in a constant battle against yourself and the world around you. A moment of joy becomes something unattainable.
Feeling good and fulfilled in life also relies greatly on your ability to have a good relationship with yourself. A perfectionist attitude, however, hinders that process. That is because perfectionist thinking and self-criticism are partners in crime when it comes to murdering one’s self-esteem. Perfectionism does not only make you second-guess yourself, but it fuels self-denigration. Under its spell, you may easily find yourself stuck in a fault-finding cycle that only ends when you feel completely taken by guilt, shame and/or anxiety. Perfectionism threatens your mental health and is at the core of problems such as depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism does not lead you down the path to success and happiness, but it makes you weak and miserable, as if you had lost your own sense of self and self-direction.
To put an end to perfectionism, start actively monitoring and challenging your own negative thoughts. If you need help with that, I highly recommend starting a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts to identify and target them effectively. After challenging automatic thoughts with a DRDT for a reasonable period, try doing it without the help of a piece of paper, but mentally or even orally if you are in a private environment. Create the cognitive habit of being very suspicious of thoughts that seem to try to convince you that who you are, what you do or achieve is not good enough. Quiet the voice of your perfectionist gremlin by introducing a compassionate attitude towards yourself, as if you were your own best friend. Forgive and praise yourself, always recognising the value of your efforts in the here and now. Learn how to live in the present and for, not against yourself.
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.
A traumatic event is an adverse experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope and integrate the memories and emotions connected to it. Psychological/emotional trauma is caused by damage that is not of a physical nature, but that severely affects the individual’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. Making one feel worthless, blaming someone else for one’s mistakes or shortcomings, refusing to acknowledge or accept someone else’s feelings, displaying extreme ranges of mood, being extremely critical of the other person, belittling, humiliating, bullying, being verbally abusive and giving someone else “the silent treatment”, are some of the most common dysfunctional behaviours characteristic of abusive relationships.
Despite being the most common type of trauma, psychological/emotional trauma is the least talked about, understood and recognised by the general public as well as the psychiatric community. Due to its pervasiveness, however, it is vital that we explore the impact that psychological/emotional trauma has on our bodies, brains and emotions – honestly and openly. If you believe to have been psychologically/emotionally traumatised by an abusive parent, relative, partner or any other significant other, the following are the effects of psychological/emotional trauma that may be causing you prolonged pain and distress:
Feelings of intense sadness/depression: lack of enthusiasm for life, inability to feel happy and content, inability to enjoy the little pleasures in life, feeling like you do not belong or cannot connect with life, living on “automatic pilot”, only to fulfil your “duties” or the expectations of others.
Intimacy problems: having difficulties to love and accept yourself, hiding or being ashamed of your weakness/vulnerabilities, repressing negative emotions, refusing to share the whole of you/the real you with somebody else.
Feeling out of control
Difficulty trusting others
Feeling detached, distanced from others
Self-harm: cutting, scratching, pinching, burning, banging or punching yourself
Compulsive and obsessive behaviours: fear of being contaminated by germs, of losing control and hurting others, of intrusive thoughts and images, of losing and forgetting things, accumulating junk, double checking locks, appliances and switches, having to have things arranged in a particular way, spending a lot of time washing or cleaning, counting or repeating certain words to reduce anxiety.
Self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviours: behaving recklessly and irresponsibly, comfort eating and/or self-medicating to “deal” with negative emotions, procrastinating, difficulty carrying out long-term goals and staying focused
Social isolation: refusing to respond, initiate or keep social contact
Difficulties in relationships: choosing the wrong people as friends or partners, identifying with chaotic, dysfunctional and dramatic relationship styles
Pent-up rage: feeling an intense anger towards someone or a situation that does not subside with time
Sleep disturbances: difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early or in the middle of the night
Difficulty remembering traumatic memories
Losing track of time
Difficulty making decisions
Lack of concentration
Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts
Thoughts of suicide
Exaggerated startle response
Biased perception: displaying a strong tendency to interpreting faces, people’s behaviours and situations as negative, threatening or frightening
The effects of psychological/emotional trauma are as potentially harmful to our general wellbeing as physical trauma. Victims/survivors of this type of trauma tend to feel isolated and misunderstood in their pain, and can go through months, if not years of suffering before they find the correct route to their emotional healing. If you identify with any of the above and feel ready to make some positive changes in your life, trauma counselling can help. For more information about trauma therapy, please click here
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