This is the third article in my series on the impact of self-esteem wounds. Today, we’ll look at the impact of these wounds on relationships. We’ll examine how your choices, your perceptions and your reactions in relationships can be altered by self-esteem wounds.
A self-esteem wound is a negative belief about self that has been created by previous negative experiences. Such wounds can be classified as person wounds or performance wounds.
A person wound means that the individual believes that he is not likeable or lovable. He may expect or anticipate rejection. Person wounds are produced when an individual experiences rejection or emotional distance from some family members or friends.
Performance wounds mean that the person believes that she is inadequate or not able to perform as well as others. She will anticipate that others are judging her and being critical. Performance wounds are created when one experiences harsh or frequent criticism or judgment during childhood.
First, let’s look at the impact of these wounds on your reactions in relationships. Scar tissue is more sensitive than the surrounding skin. Likewise, a self-esteem wound makes us more sensitive in that particular area.
Person wounds make us much more sensitive to incidents of rejection, disengagement or distance by others. When we are left out, we feel it more deeply. We hurt more intensely. Our reactions to perceived rejection are more intense or pronounced. Our partners may be confused and feel that we are overreacting. Conflicts may develop.
Performance wounds are similar. They make us more sensitive to incidents of criticism or judgment. We experience a deeper hurt when we feel criticized or judged. Our reactions may be anger and defensiveness or shutting down and distancing, but they are intense. Our partners may be not understand why we felt criticized or feel that we are overeating. Again, conflicts may ensue.
Perception is the brain’s attempt to make sense of the world. Our senses send patterns of electrical signals to the brain. The brain then has to put those signals together in a way that makes sense and has meaning. For example, when you look at a flower, your eye sends patterns of electrical signals to your brain. It doesn’t send a picture of a flower. Your brain has to interpret those signals, based on prior experience, and identify those signals as a flower. This works perfectly most of the time, but perception can be distorted at times. We see examples of this when we look at optical illusions.
Perceptions of social or relationship events work in much the same way. We observe a person’s words, facial expressions, body position and behaviors and have to make sense of the information. Our brain puts the data together in a way that makes sense to us. We “read between the lines” and conclude more than we actually know. We assume what the other person is thinking or feeling, based on an interpretation of their tone of voice or facial expression. Like the flower example, our brains interpret the information based on prior experience. If we have experienced rejection in the past, we anticipate rejection and often perceive rejection, when it really isn’t there. Likewise, prior experiences of criticism or judgment cause us to perceive that others are criticizing us even when they aren’t doing so.
We don’t react to other’s actual intensions or feelings, because we can’t know those. We react to our perceptions of their intension or feelings. When we misperceive, problems occur. Conflicts and confusion follow.
This issue is a bit complicated, but here goes. Our self-esteem wounds often have an impact on our choices of partners. We tend to find ourselves in relationships with people who frequently touch our wounds. Those with performance wounds (who are sensitive to criticism and judgment) tend to feel more attracted to people who seem critical or judgmental; people who seem hard to please. Those with person wounds (who are sensitive to rejection) of more attracted to people who seem distant or uncaring.
The pattern can be even more extreme. We often see the son of the alcoholic parent later marry the woman with alcohol or drug problems. Or we see the daughter of the abusive parent in an abusive marriage. Of course, this is not always true, but it often occurs.
It is important to note here that the partner rarely exhibits those behaviors in the beginning of the relationship. He or she isn’t critical, distant or abusive in the early stages of the relationship. Those behaviors don’t start until the relationship is firmly established.
Also, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in a relationship with the wrong person. It means that you have to work through how you react to those behaviors. Successful relationships can develop if we react to the other’s criticism or distance with vulnerable assertiveness. Being assertive, while sharing our hurts (not anger), can often bring relationship healing. Of course, we have to protect ourselves from abuse.
As I said, this issue is complicated. You can read more in “Getting the Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
Question: Have you seen the impact of self-esteem wounds on your relationships? What steps have you found helpful in addressing such issues?