Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dismaying Story # 73: Past Baggage

Dear Andrew,

I am a forty-year-old man who has been divorced for twelve years. I've had a few relationships of varying lengths over the past 12 years (three years was the longest), but this is the first time I've been interested in getting re-married. I truly feel like I've found "the one."

I'm afraid, however, that a lot of my past baggage is getting in the way. The current problem is that my fiancée does not give me much praise and reassurance, and she needs and gives much less physical affection (I'm not talking about sex here) than I am used to and expect.

I have depression, was sexually abused as a child, and adopted when I was young. My depression is very well controlled through meds and cognitive behavioral work I do on my own, as well as what I've learned in therapy in the past. Through lots of therapy I have recognized that I have huge issues with fear of abandonment and feeling I'm not worthy of being loved. I've surrounded myself with very expressive friends who constantly reassure me by telling me how great I am.

I've mostly dated women who fit this mode. I also have a history of over-achieving and doing tons of volunteer work to prove my worth to myself. I realize I have become addicted to external praise. I realize that and I'm working on it.

In my current relationship, though, I'm having a hard time drawing the line between my insecurities versus my legitimate right to tell my fiancée what I need out of the relationship.

How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?

Signed, Needs PLENTY of Hugs

Dear Needs Plenty of Hugs,

Many times since starting this site I have recommended that people should seek help from a professional -- a therapist or psychologist. As your letter makes clear, this is not always the end of the road, not by a long shot. There is never any guarantee that a series of sessions with a therapist will provide the relief you seek. It might be the most appropriate course of action -- your best bet, if you will -- and many people make tremendous strides as a result of their therapy, but seeing a professional is not always a silver bullet cure-all.

There can be several reasons for this. Some clients are simply not committed to putting in the effort to help themselves. As the joke in my sidebar alludes, you have to be ready and willing to make changes in your life.

Another fundamental reason is that psychology is an inexact science. Our understanding of the complexities of human behavior is far from complete, as is our knowledge of how to intervene when things go awry. Some types of behaviors are resistant to change, and persist despite the best efforts of patient and therapist.

You can point to several reasons for your fears. Feelings of low self worth are a classic response to sexual abuse, as is fear of abandonment for those who have been adopted or who have lived through foster care. Your therapy has made you aware of the fears as well as the causes, and has given you some techniques you can use to manage the effects. You have worked out other coping strategies on your own, such as gravitating toward expressive, supportive friends.

It is obvious, though, that you have not actually addressed the roots of your fears. You still struggle to think of yourself as worthy of love, as someone that people will like and want to be around.

Think about that. After years of therapy and medication, the problems are still there. Does that mean you are destined to struggle for your entire life? I have no way of knowing whether that is true in your individual case, but many people in your situation are able to make breakthroughs once they begin addressing the root causes rather than the surface behaviors.

Let's consider your self-esteem for a moment. You can do all the exercises you want, shouting "I'm great" affirmations at the top of your lungs, having therapists and friends assure you that you really are worthy, but at some point you will have some alone-time again. That's when your inner voice will whisper to you: "Psst. Hey! You know that was a load of baloney, right? None of that play-acting changes what you and I know. We both know what people really think of you." Your therapy has not evicted this malicious tenant from your head. You have not yet gone back to the events that caused your fears, dealt with them effectively and successfully, and discarded their harmful effects.

All of this is a preamble to answering your question, which is: How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?

We all have baggage, every single one of us. We are all individuals with our own hot buttons, topics about which we really don't want to be teased, and sensitivities for which we could use a little moral support. These are legitimate relationship concerns. When your fiancée chooses to be with you, she chooses all of you. Like it or not, she will have to deal with your insecurities.

The question, though, is what constitutes an appropriate way to address these concerns. You would like her to give you more praise, reassurance and physical contact, which is just another form of reassurance -- the touch or hug when passing in the kitchen, in effect saying, "Yes, I still love you." In other words, you want her to feed your insecurities. You want the quick hit, the temporary fix of external gratification so you'll feel okay for another few minutes.

And I don't blame you. For someone who feels badly like you do, of course you are looking for ways to feel better, and temporarily better is preferable to not at all. It's okay for you to ask for this type of help. If this sort of touchy-feely constant reassurance does not come naturally for your partner, though, it may be difficult for her to provide it to the level you seek. You risk straining the relationship by asking her to provide more than she has to give.

More than that, it may not be the only way (or even the best way) for her to help address your legitimate relationship concerns. Perhaps she could say, "You should keep looking for a professional who can get to the root of your problems and help you discard their effects, someone with a proven track record of helping people with their self-esteem issues."

I realize that may be difficult to hear after all your experiences with therapy, but it just might be an idea worth considering. I wish you luck in achieving a workable balance of need-versus-give with your fiancée.

All the best,

Does your inner voice take a few stabs at your self-esteem whenever you're naked, alone in the dark? Does this affect how you interact with others? Drop me an email and I'll try to help. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.


  1. wow - he could have been talking about me..

    20 years of therapy and i still have my moments..

    but one thing i have done for me -- is live alone..i have a cat but i'm alone (both kids are out successfully on their own)

    every day i have to be the one to give myself the hugs and love and praise that i need! it's been the thing that i needed to do right now..

    and when i'm done, i'll try the relationship game again...maybe i'll really be ready then

    thanks for your blog doc!

  2. I don't have much insight on the topic. But when it comes to telling yourself that you are "good enough"... maybe you aren't good enough. Maybe you'd feel a lot better if you recognized your other faults and started working on them. No one really has more worth than anyone else, so it also requires acceptance that you can never be really spectacular. Volunteer work is great, but instead of taking a self-esteem boost out of it, simply knowing that it's one small step in your effort to do something for humanity can bring some peace of mind.

    Sometimes, I'm happy, other times I'm depressed, but I know that it's not my day-to-day emotions that make me the person I am.

  3. Anonymous3:36 AM

    this one really hits close to home. i haven't been sexually abused but my parents left me when i was 3 and it took me a long time (and a lot of therapy) to realize what that has done to me (you'd think you don't remember anything from that age... but it seems you do). i still expect everyone to leave me. 'nothing lasts forever' is something i say very often: to me and to others. it's like looking for excuses for something that hasn't happened yet. because that voice (and that's the point that really hit close to home in this entry), that voice is always there. whenever i fail at something, whenever i feel something or someone slipping away: nothing lasts forever...

    the sad thing is that while that might prevent me from hurting as much as i would if it would come unexpected, it also prevents me from having a healthy relationship with anyone around me, from boyfriends to friends and relatives.

  4. I found your blog by blog hopping around, and I am so impressed.

    Mostly I go to the fun, goofy blogs. Mine fits into the goofy category for sure. So it's a pleasant surprise to find one that's so full of really good, useful advice.

    Count me as one of your fans.

  5. I don't have the history of violence, but as anyone else I also have struggles with self esteem and enjoy praise and adoration. I do have lots and lots of people who give me that. My current love interest does not. He's not at all comfortable with that sort of display of affection. But he's so expressive in his actions. I don't mean touching and kissing, etc. I mean in the little and big things he does. Like taking me out to dinner and a movie every weekend. Like being willing to sleep in a twin bed with me cause that's all I had. Like buying my favorite candy when he comes over and handing it nonchalantly over, without a word. Like calling me on his drive home from work. Like never ever mentioning that stupid line, "I can't talk now. I'm using my daytime minutes." We sometimes just sit in silence on the phone. I think it makes him feel connected to me. He doesn't say, "I love you" and he doesn't buy me flowers but a better man does not exist.

    I've had to learn to enjoy and embrace him for who he is. A life of wanting someone to be different is no life for me. And I expect the same from him.

  6. Okay, I want to be nice about this but ouch, Shan--I didn't think the poor guy wanted to be a big show-off, I thought he just wanted not to feel worthless and undeserving all the time. I don't think it's so much about boosting ego as it is just keeping your head above water.

    Sometimes you just don't have any hugs left to give yourself and you need some help. If it's just a day every now and then it's not so bad but when it's chronic and you're either desperate all the time or have given up because you've convinced yourself it will never work, anyway, it's a problem.

  7. I wonder if this poster's need for positive reassurance is the entire problem? It sounds as though it's part of a cycle of behavior in which he needs someone to be in the codependent role.

    I agree with the first comment that he should live alone and spend time getting to know himself. There's no better way, in my humble opinion, to learn to love yourself and accept who you are. Solitude helps to build independent thinking and living, in my opinion. Perhaps he's going from relationship to relationship looking for someone to fill an impossible void - the one he has inside??

  8. I don't think anyone has mentioned this yet but this one really stood out for me in his story. He explained that his past girlfriends were all cheerleader types for his self-esteem. The woman that he is set to marry is not able to give him the emotional or cuddly type reassurance that he needs. His fiancée reflects his inner voice quite well. Her behaviors toward him keep him in the same doubt as his inner voice. I believe that people marry those whom they think they deserve. He has always struggled with his sense of self worth, he is going to marry someone who reinforces that idea on a daily basis. I think that part of him believes that if he can change this woman's attitude toward him, that he then becomes worthy of love. But, doing this is an absolutely futile endeavor and possibly even a harmful endeavor He is still trying to prove his worth and instead of seeing and knowing that he is already worthy. His fiancé represents his struggle with worth and this demonstrates just how unhealthy he is. I can infer that he broke up with the emotional cheerleaders because he knew out his core that they were all lying. In reality, I know they were being sincere, but it was the inner voice of his that told him these women were a in reality, I know they were being sincere, but it was the inner voice of his that told him these women were lying. So, he chose to marry someone who reflects that inner voice accurately. I Masters in clinical psychology and I specialize in blogging about infidelity. But, I have a lot of knowledge on how to treat trauma.

    The reason I noticed this about the fellow because my best friend struggled with this type of issue for many years, but hers was due to her parents divorce and her dad's subsequent abandonment of the family. For a while there, we would spend a couple of hours on the phone each day. I coached her through three bad relationships. Now, she has a nice guy who is a lot younger than she is and I have been helping her be at peace with having a Good Guy in her life instead of bolting. Quite often, she couldn't survive in a relationship with a good man because a good man didn't reinforce abandonment issues. Only the bad guys did.
    But, I know for a fact that these things could be overcome.

  9. I think he chose a woman who reinforces his inner voice. He was not comfortable with his other girlfriends because they genuinely showed him he was lovable. Since he still does not feel that way, he chose someone who knew reinforces that feeling. I believe that we will try to work out his inner issues during their marriage and try to get her to be more of a warm really tr during their marriage and try to get her to be more of a warm feely type. If he can get her to be warm feels type, he can somehow prove to his inner voice that he is lovable. I always say that if you want to know something about a person, look at the partner that they choose to marry. We can only marry those with whom we feel comfortable. Often, on a subconscious level, we marry people so that we can work out the issues with our inner voice and self-esteem.