Self worth and relationships

Ever find yourself looking to someone else – maybe a love interest – to validate you? Find that your sense of self is deeply tied to how much attention they pay you? Feel buoyed when they notice you and crushed when they seem to lose interest? We’ve all been there. It sucks. It’s exhausting, it’s damaging, and it’s got a lot to do with our sense of self worth. 

When we get rejected, treated poorly, or someone blows hot and cold in a relationship with us, we often become stuck and fixated on that person. We become convinced that we’re in love and we try over and over again to prove ourselves, to show the objects of our affection that we are worthy of their love and attention.

We often don’t recognize that the reason someone isn’t interested in us may have absolutely nothing to do with us at all. We tend to internalize the rejection that it must be because we’ve been seen, evaluated and judged as not good enough and that they are no longer interested.

When this happens, our interest in this person can turn into a fevered obsession and we can go to great lengths to get them to notice us. We may engage in shape shifting behaviours where we stop being ourselves and try to turn into whatever we think they might like best. We will jump through hoop after hoop hoping to demonstrate just how special and unique we are, so that they will change their minds about us.

We don’t focus on whether or not this is a good situation for us. If it’s going to make us happy or that our needs and wants are even being met. All we’re focusing on is this feeling that they don’t want us when we should be focusing on whether we do (or don’t) actually want them, because first and foremost a healthy relationship must have two people that actually want to be in it (and have you ever stopped to wonder that the chances are if you actually had them, you probably wouldn’t want them anyway?)

When we look to others to show us our worth, they are always going to fall short, and so are we. Primarily, because it’s no one else’s job to give us our self-esteem – that’s up to us. Secondly, people are mostly self-interested: they don’t care about how you feel about you – the fact that you are jumping through hoops and treating them like they are the greatest thing since macadamia nut butter (I bant) is a huge ego boost for them, and you gaining self-respect changes the dynamics of the relationship. 

Here’s where it gets weird and can really mess with your brain: when they notice that you have stopped jumping, it doesn’t serve them and they don’t want that, so you may well find that they will deliberately or inadvertently behave in a manner that keeps you stuck and fixated on them.
When we have low self-esteem we have become so comfortable with our own negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves that we will actually seek out people and situations that confirm those beliefs. It’s the devil we know and it feels familiar and like home. We have become so used to the idea that love equals pain and that what we are calling love is actually us seeking validation and begging to have someone show us our worth.

Could it be that if someone healthy did show up in our lives that was interested in us and was offering us the relationship that we claim we want, there’s a chance we would run like hell, because it goes against everything that we believe about ourselves and we would feel incredibly uncomfortable? And that instead we inadvertently seek out people that evoke those feelings of unworthiness in us? 

The problem is when someone can’t make up their mind about us, the price we pay, trying to convince them – or ourselves – that we’re good enough, is our self-esteem. The mere fact that we are going to all this effort proves to them that we actually aren’t worthy, because if we were, we would know our own worth and we would’ve told them to take a hike long ago.

When you engage with a fence sitter, or continue in a relationship with someone that treats you poorly, you will find that there is always another obstacle, another reason, why they can’t give you the relationship you want or the respect you deserve. You pay the price and the payoff for you is that you get to continue to confirm to yourself that you aren’t good enough. You will end up feeling used and like you are just someone’s option for a rainy day.

It becomes a never ending cycle and you may go from relationship to relationship and find yourself in the same situation, with the same guy, who just happens to have a different face.

It’s taken me years – literally decades – of hearing the theory and of trying to put into practice the belief that I alone determine my worth, that I deserve more than just crumbs of someone’s attention and that only when I treat myself in a loving, respectful way, others may start to follow my lead – although I hasten to add that that’s a nice by-product, not the reason. The reason is my quality of life, my sense of self, my mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and my continued long term recovery from addiction and childhood trauma. 

It has been, and sometimes continues to be, SO DAMN HARD to change the way that I feel about me, but it’s only since the shift came that I slowly stopped seeking validation and relationships from unwilling sources. 

Social media is a minefield for anyone with fragile self esteem because it’s completely set up to feed a need for external validation (I am still a sucker for those little red dots that say I have x amount of “likes” and have to work lovingly with myself to recognize that pattern and see what’s going on, and spend some time reminding myself that they don’t define my value either within or outside of the online world). It’s a work in progress. I’m committed to it. 

Healthy people don’t sit around wondering why someone doesn’t want them. They are too busy living their lives, strutting their stuff in the radiant knowledge that they are MAGNIFICENT, regardless of what anyone else thinks of them. 

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#SpeakOut this 16 Days of Activism to End Violence against Women

This is a cause that is extremely close to my heart. I am a rape survivor and even though I was one of the lucky ones who had the full support of my family, the opportunity to get counselling if I wanted, excellent medical attention, access to all the necessary information and resources that my heart desired to help me come to terms with what had happened to me – and for years and years genuinely thought that I had got away from the attack with little to no real damage – it’s only now at the age of 40+ that I’m realising how it bruised me to the very core. Body, mind and soul. I was 13 when it happened. And I thought I was so fine that I hardly even knew to make use of all these aforementioned resources to help me get better. So, I feel incredibly passionate about all those women with zero support from their community and family – whose rapists are very often those in their social circles – and who can only dream of getting access to the support that was so readily available to me. I am signed up to get involved with Rape Crisis CT next year and this is just a small way of getting that ball rollling in the meantime. Please show your support of this fantastic cause and the incredible and vital work they do. Read on to find out more…

Rape Crisis Cape Town Blog

Rape is prevalent in the Western Cape and in South Africa but it is also under reported because communities have no faith in a system that lacks the capacity to address their needs and allows rapists to go unpunished.  The resulting culture of impunity drives the number of rape incidents upwards which means that women’s right to live free from violence is compromised.

Rape leads to high levels of psychological trauma and when this goes untreated the social fabric, in other words the bonds between people in a community, which determine how well the community can function, is eroded. The trauma of rape can have physical, psychological and behavioural effects on the rape survivor including injury, pregnancy, HIV or other sexual transmitted infections, shock, depression, nightmares, thoughts of suicide, isolation from other people and feelings of anger, extreme anxiety and shame. Sometimes survivors turn to substance abuse as a way…

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Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll. Kind of.

Okay, not quite. But ‘rape, wine and guitar lessons’ doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as glibly.

Anyone who takes their interest in yoga beyond the mat and into the texts written on the subject will come across Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which refers to the ‘eightfold path’, also known as ‘ashtanga‘ which literally means ‘eight limbs’ (ashta = eight, anga = limb in Sanskrit). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life: ‘they serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health and help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature’ (I quote shamelessly from Yoga Journal’s http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158).

The limbs make sense to me in a way that a lot of other ‘moral truths’ or ‘rules’ don’t. Not every limb or even every part of every limb resonates entirely with me but as a whole I find them a very helpful guide to living a ‘good’ life.  They work for me on many levels.  The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Stick with me if your eyes are starting to glaze over – I’m getting to the point).

Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice. Incidentally, I don’t say grace but I do give thanks to all sentient beings who were involved in preparing the food that I am about to consume. It blows my mind every time I do it. 

Breaking it down further: the five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-covetousness) and the five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (heat/spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of the sacred scriptures and of the self) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to God or a higher being as you know it).

Now svadyaya is where the rape, wine and guitar lessons fit in. Svadhyaya or self-inquiry ‘encompasses all learning, reflection and experience which is said to result in a greater understanding of our own fundamental nature. Self-study is perhaps the most crucial of the niyamas because at some point we must all reconcile to the fact that although higher consciousness is within everyone’s grasp, no guru, priest or other person can do the work for us’. Or, in  my case, no psychologist, marriage therapist, trauma counsellor, friend, parent, sibling or social worker.

I’ve never kept it a secret that I was raped when I was 14. Ten days after my 14th birthday, to be precise, in my own bed, in  my own house with my parents and sister sleeping soundly in their own rooms. It goes without saying that it was a terrifying and traumatic event in my life and affected each and every one of us in all sorts of ways. We all went through our own processes of dealing with it and the fall-0ut that ensued, and as I found myself heading towards my mid-thirties, I remember feeling quite good about how well I’d handled it and assimilated the experience into the rich tapestry of my life. Ha! How I smile fondly at my younger self when I think back on that now. As it turns out, it took me having my own two children and deepening my 20-odd years of precious yoga practice before I really started seeing things the way they actually were, and that what I thought was me finally coming out of the wilderness was actually me just starting to enter a dark and very convoluted path through a very dense forest with lots of scary beasts lurking around every ominous corner.

They say that the teacher appears when the student is ready. I give thanks on a daily basis – (literally, every night when I write in my gratitude journal) – that a kick-butt band of phenomenal teachers appeared at the very moment that my walls truly started crumbling and my eyes started opening to what a catastrophe my emotional life had actually become.

The last number of years have been a massive, massive growth curve for me. With the help of these incredible people and the svadhyaya that I speak of above, I came to see how what had been a coping mechanism for years (drinking wine to make the bad times bearable and the good times better) had gone completely haywire and was starting to badly affect not just me but some of the people closest to me. I came to admit for the first time how utterly horrific, sad, heartbreakingly awful the rape was. How it had affected our whole family. How a mask that I had learnt to put on as a confused and hormonal teenager became a permanent feature that eventually I didn’t even realise that I could take it off if I wanted to. I had no idea how to.

The Yoga Sutra says that as we progress on our path of self-study ‘we develop a connection to the universal Divine laws and the spiritual masters who revealed them. It is not only meant for those dedicated to matters of the spirit however but has great practical meaning for anyone who recognize there is room for improvement in our lives’ – and frankly, who doesn’t! ‘Svadhyaya represents an ongoing process through which we can assess where we are at a given moment. It is like attuning our inner navigator and finding meaningful answers to questions: Where am I now, and where am I going? What is my direction, and what are my aspirations? What are my responsibilities? What are my priorities?’

We often find ourselves on cruise control, acting habitually and being so swept up in the momentum of our daily lives that we don’t take the time to check where we are or where we are headed. It’s  not been painless to stop and take stock of all that I was doing that was entirely automatic and unintentional and downright destructive at times, but it’s been worth it and it can surely only continue to be worth any discomfort or work. I’m told that that uncomfortable space is exactly where transformation happens. The mantras and textual studies offered by the classical tradition function as references from which we can measure where we are. To take the forest analogy a bit further (bear with me, I know it’s tenuous): I am not out of it yet but it’s no longer a tunnel at the end of the light that I see, rather the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s hard to look away from that gorgeous light because it’s finally straight ahead rather than winking at me from around yet another corner. I feel like I’m walking into the light. It’s warm, it’s safe, it’s beautiful and it’s so welcome in my life.

Oh, the guitar lessons (aka rock ‘n roll): in the process of embracing the bruised 14 year old who is and always will be very much a part of me, I’ve dusted off my old guitar and started to take lessons again – after almost 30 years, at the ripe old age of 40. My teacher is an uber-cool musical whizz-kid who is young enough to be my child, but we seem to get on well and share a love for all things jazz and blues so it’s surely a matter of time before I’m carving out a career as a rock chick.

On second thoughts, I’ll stick to teaching yoga.

For more about the eightfold path and to see where a lot of this post stems from, visit http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158.