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Low Self-Esteem and Being Alone On Valentine's Day

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Low self-esteem, loneliness, being single, recent break-ups, relationship difficulties, or feeling disconnected from loved ones, don’t go together very well with Valentine’s Day. If you identify with that, or a similar situation, I want to offer you some comfort and reassurance. Whatever your reason for being alone today, hearing and seeing all the togetherness stuff around you might leave you feeling like you’re a failure somehow. A failure in the sense of I’m supposed to be together with... and that you’re at fault for that. That sense of being on the outside looking in may leave you feeling very excluded and isolated.

As human beings, we’re wired for connection. From my perspective, this is about attachment. And if you’re dealing with low self-esteem, attachment is at the heart of your feeling unworthy and unlovable, whatever your story. You may have heard about attachment theory, especially “attachment styles.” Attachment theory has been around since the 1960s when it was first developed by psychologist John Bowlby and further developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. It’s helpful to know four things about it.

First, Bowlby's exploration was influenced by the concept of "good-enough" parenting, by his colleague Donald Winnicott. In Winnicott's view, childhood nurturing must meet a minimum threshold for a child to feel self-empowered. Parents need not strive for perfection (an unattainable ideal), but rather to be "good enough" to foster a child's growth and flourishing.

Second, Bowlby's own studies convinced him that the most important thing parents could provide for their children was a secure base. He observed how children at play instinctively stayed just near enough to their caregivers to explore their environment with a sense of security and openness. As long as they could keep their caregiver in sight, and return to them as they needed or wanted (especially when they were distressed), they would have their secure base. Always having this secure base was what gave a child an internal sense of confidence and security in adulthood.

Third, Mary Ainsworth extended this theory by watching how toddlers at play reacted when their mothers left them alone in the room, and then returned to them sometime later. She noticed a range of reactions which she classified into four “attachment styles” (the ones with which you may be familiar): secure, anxious-avoidant insecure, anxious-resistant insecure, and disorganized. These are echoed in adult life and influence how we view and approach relationships.

Fourth, these attachment styles don’t reflect something innate about the toddlers, but rather the holding environment provided by the caregiver. That goes back to Winnicott's good enough parenting. The holding environment is the emotional and relational space created by a caregiver: a consistent responsiveness to a child's emotional and physical needs. Winnicott understood that a parent couldn’t be perfect. Likewise, Ainsworth understood that a parent couldn’t be one hundred percent consistent with their holding environment.

From watching parents and toddlers reunite after separation, Ainsworth realized that part of being a “good enough” parent (who could provide a reasonably consistent holding environment) included being able to repair “ruptures” with the child. That is, to soothe the child and restore the child’s sense of security and connection after instances where they were unable to provide that secure base. In doing so, the child could see that separation was survivable, and did not impact their sense of innate worth and lovability.

It’s no surprise then that if you did not receive this in adequate measure, then your sense of self-worth and lovability will be affected. You learned to regulate your emotions from how your caregivers regulated theirs – especially during ruptures in the parent-child relationship. If expressing your distress resulted in you being shut down, ignored, gaslit, or yelled at, then it’s inevitable that you would feel shame for being vulnerable. And always feeling ashamed by the parent for being vulnerable won’t give you the internal sense of confidence and ability to be your authentic self in the world, nor freely and easily make romantic connections. Part of you won’t think you’re worth it, even though another part of you will feel desperate at times to seek it.

Feeling that you were “bad” for crying, or having a tantrum, or being injured, feels like rejection. For a child, there’s no intellectual ability to see that a parent’s reaction has nothing to do with the child. A child will simply feel like the parent “doesn’t love me anymore.” The inconsistency in the holding environment – the sense that today I feel loved, but yesterday I did not feel loved, will make love seem conditional. By conditional, I mean that your sense of lovability and worthiness may seem entirely dependent on being earned. Or a reward for pleasing the parent. A place will finally arrive at if only you can find the route.

This is what shapes attachment styles, which shapes expectations for relationships and, most importantly, the meaning you make of being alone. Reasonably consistent holding environments, with healthy repairs of ruptures, foster the secure attachment style. That leads to seeking out others with the same style. When the holding environment is not consistent, an insecure attachment style evolves, leading to insecure attachment patterning in relationships. In more severe cases of constant attachment rupture in childhood, a disorganized attachment style evolves. With a disorganized attachment style, a child doesn’t know what to do. And so, neither does the adult who feels no security whatsoever.

If any of this feels like parent-bashing (perhaps you’re a single parent who’s trying hard to do their best), remember that parents were children too. If you’re a parent reading this, focus on yourself as the child and how it was for you.

When you really bring an intentional, compassionate, non-judging kind of awareness to how it feels to be lonely and living with low self-esteem (especially on Valentine’s Day), you may notice two important things. First, it’s familiar, because it goes all the way back to those young years. Second, it feels life-threatening.

I’m not trying to be dramatic when I say life-threatening. It really did feel life-threatening as a child to feel invalidated, shut down, pushed away, ignored, yelled at or otherwise shamed by a parent, for your vulnerability. It’s because of that business of being wired for connection that you will feel so threatened, especially in adulthood, with conflict in relationships. It’s part of being a mammal. It’s primal. We’re born with the instinct to seek connection as a matter of survival.

Human infants have no ability to care for themselves. All they can do is cry in distress as a way to bring the caregiver to them for protection, feeding and nurturing. Without this, an infant or toddler will not survive. Being “cut out of the herd” means certain death and so it’s in the interest of the young mammal to “keep up” with the herd.

As a child, this is not something you would have thought to yourself, of course. You were not able to intellectually contemplate themes of survival and death. Your most memorable and impressionable experiences as a toddler could not be processed verbally by you. And so, most of those experiences were processed non-verbally. They were processed emotionally. You may not necessarily remember what happened, or you may not be able to articulate what happened, but you remember how you felt. And so, the sense of being rejected by the caregiving environment was to feel the impending threat of annihilation.

You would have felt an urge to remedy the rupture somehow in order to avoid the annihilation. What must I do to feel loved and to feel worthy of being loved? An attachment style generally reflects the strategy you evolved in your young life to try and achieve that goal. We most often carry that strategy unconsciously into adult life where we repeat it when seeking and maintaining connection.

There’s nothing like a day where people around you celebrate love and togetherness to underscore that primal feeling of impending annihilation. That sense of being doomed to be forever alone, cast adrift into the blackness of cold, empty space. As though you are fated for this because of something innately defective about you.

Those are the themes. But it’s easy to get lost in the “content.” That’s the story of yourself, if you were to explain to someone why Valentine’s Day today, or in general, is not a happy day for you. It’s all the memories you might relate, or the narrative of why you feel you’re fated to be forever alone. If it were just a matter of me telling you that you’re worthy of love, and lovable, just by the fact of your birth alone, then there wouldn’t be any need for this blog post, among many other things.

But the conviction you may feel for your beliefs about yourself will come from the strength of the emotions you feel behind those convictions. They will give the sense of truth to your thoughts – to the extent that you don’t just think you’re unworthy of love, but that you “feel” unworthy of love.

That emotion is memory. It’s that non-verbal recollection of what it was like to be very young and feel that somehow you were singled out for exclusion.

On a scale of one to ten, you might downplay this and say that your childhood wasn’t really all that bad. You’d rate it a “one.” So maybe this seems all a bit over the top. But it doesn’t take much rupturing of the holding environment without proper repair on a regular basis to create those emotional memories. They will be triggered on a day like this.

Disentangling your sense of self in memory from your sense of self as present, whole, engaged, and innately worthy of love is most often difficult to do on one’s own. I encourage you to reach out to a helping professional who understands all this and can be the stable base for you to shift your relationship to yourself and your memories.

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What You Can Do About Low Self-Esteem

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