Self-esteem is the opinion you have of yourself, the respect you hold for yourself, and your overall sense of worth. When you consider your self-esteem, what “self” do you have in mind? Your looks? Feelings? Abilities?
People struggling with eating disorders often overvalue their bodies as the primary way they feel good about themselves. By focusing on their physical selves, they devalue other aspects and qualities.
They must learn to appreciate the other aspects of themselves in order to sustain a confident and positive experience of self-worth.
#1 – What does self-esteem have to do with other people?
Self-esteem has a direct impact on the quality of your relationships. If you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to imagine and trust that other people accept and like you.
Conversely, if you judge yourself, it’s easier to believe that others are judging you. When you are overly self-critical, you may also be susceptible to accepting criticism from a significant other, and staying in an unhealthy relationship.
#2 – Why can’t I feel good about myself?
“I can’t stand my gross, squishy stomach. I’m so disgusting.”
If your self-esteem is based on your “body self” the underlying message is: “I have to be perfect to be loveable.”
Our culture privileges looks as a primary means by which people are judged acceptable. Magazines saturate us with images of thin, fit men and women, reducing people to bodies and equating thinness with sexiness.
For people who struggle with eating disorders, this tendency towards objectification can be especially acute. When you objectify yourself, your primary relationship is often to your own body, instead of to people.
If you’re waiting to be “perfect” before you have a romantic relationship, your idea of perfection may be defined by a number on a scale, the size of your clothes, the circumference of your thighs, or the definition of your abs.
Often, that definition of “perfection” changes as you near your goal, the finish line moving farther out of reach, along with your willingness to risk romantic involvement. If this is the case, the goal is to learn to accept and trust other people.
#3 – How do I trust other people?
If you constantly find fault with your body, consider how your partner responds to your self-criticism about a “gross, squishy stomach” and other parts you find objectionable.
A comment along the lines of, “It wouldn’t hurt to tighten up those abs,” reinforces the idea that you’re not acceptable, and that you need to change.
It is important to distinguish your appearance from your personality, to differentiate your looks from the internal qualities that make you likeable and loveable.
Ideally your partner would say, “If you want to do more crunches, I’m here to support you, but there’s nothing gross or disgusting about you.”
If your self-esteem is overly invested in your physicality, you may be focused on your body as a way of protecting yourself from the vulnerability of relating to another person, either avoiding involvement completely, or keeping yourself from the intimacy of knowing and being known.
#4 – Who would want someone as emotional as I am?
“I’m really oversensitive and dramatic.” This comment attacks the “emotional/feeling self” and the underlying message is: “I’m too much for anyone to handle” or “My feelings are a burden to others.”
We live in a society that condemns emotional self-expression and turns normal human reactions into something negative. People are urged to be “strong” and not give in to their emotions. If those feelings cannot be denied, there is always a solution:
Sad? Take an anti-depressant for depression.
Angry? Go to an anger management class.
Happy? You may be in a hypo-manic state and bipolar.
People who struggle with disordered eating often think their emotions are too intense. They unconsciously displace their emotions onto their physical size, so that experiencing huge feelings becomes actually “being” huge.
Consider how intense issues are said to be “weighty” or “heavy,” an example of how emotions are converted into physical features.
Trying to lose weight can represent an attempt to diminish the force of intense emotional needs and wants. Turning to food may be understood as a way of attempting to get emotional needs met, filling up on food instead of having a fulfilling connection.
Learning to respond to your needs and wants in a healthy way, opens the way for letting others be responsive to you. This is an important component in mutual, satisfying relationships.
#5 – What does an emotionally healthy relationship look like?
If you have a romantic partner, pay attention to how he or she responds to your feelings. Comments such as, “It’s not the end of the world” or “Don’t be silly” are dismissive, as are well meaning statements such as, “It’ll be better tomorrow” or “Don’t let it get to you.”
These remarks are designed to make you stop feeling what you are feeling. As counterintuitive as it might sound, the only way to get rid of emotions is to actually feel them.
A better response is for your partner to say, “Tell me more about what’s upsetting you.”
If your self-esteem is based on being “strong” and not having feelings, challenge the notion that strength equals a lack of emotions.
Be less critical and more curious about your anger, sadness, fear, guilt and anxiety. When you can express emotions, and soothe yourself, you will be more accepting of the interest, support and comfort of others.
#6 – Who would want me? I haven’t done enough with my life.
“I didn’t get a promotion at work. I’m so worthless.” When your self-esteem is predicated on what you accomplish, rather than who you are as a person, you may never feel good enough. The underlying message is,“I am what I do. My value lies only in what I achieve.”
People who struggle with their relationship to food often have a difficult time “being” with themselves and turn to “doing” in order to protect themselves from uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and conflicts. In doing so, they focus on productivity as the way to define themselves.
Dieting, counting calories, and going to the gym are all ways of being productive and staying focused on achievements. In moderation, those activities are positive, but when productivity is the sole way people define themselves, it’s detrimental to self-esteem.
#7 – Isn’t pushing myself a good thing?
It is one thing to push, and another to be a slave-driver. If you constantly find fault with yourself, and never think you’re doing enough, you cannot feel good about yourself.
You may also be more tolerant of others who treat you the same way. If you tell yourself you’re not good enough, a partner who lists your perceived deficits may seem like a person who knows you really well, not a person who’s tearing you down.
Alternately, if you have a supportive partner, you may not take in that person’s comfort and support. If not, you may stay “hungry for love”, and be more likely to turn to (or from) food, as a way to soothe or comfort yourself.
#8 – Self-acceptance is the key to happy relationships
Self-acceptance refers to balancing different facets of yourself, holding onto the features you like about yourself, along with those you’d like to change.
That means giving up an idealized view of perfection – in terms of your appearance, your internal emotions and conflicts, and your achievements.
When you can appreciate all the various parts of yourself, without focusing on how you should or might be, you’re also more likely to accept your partner.
Giving yourself and the people you love the right to be “perfectly imperfect” will improve the closeness and quality of your relationships.
About the author
Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D. is a Los Angeles-based psychoanalyst who specializes in weight, food and body image issues. She is a recognized expert in eating disorders, interviewed and quoted by the Los Angeles Times, Prevention, Real Simple, Huffington Post and many other publications. She is considered a thought leader in eating psychology and is a regular contributor to the Eating Disorder Hope website and the National Eating Disorders Association blog.
Dr. Nina brings a fresh perspective to the treatment of disordered eating, helping people understand “why” they turn to food instead of focusing on the behavior itself. She writes an award-winning blog, Make Peace With Food, hosts a popular podcast, Win The Diet War with Dr. Nina, (voted “New & Noteworthy” by iTunes the first week of release) and offers “food for thought” on her video series, The Dr. Nina Show. She is currently writing a book for Rowman & Littlefield on the psychoanalytic treatment of eating disorders. For more information, please visit www.winthedietwar.com.