Is it possible to fix self-esteem issues from within a relationship?
July 14, 2014 11:38 PM   Subscribe

A common theme on AskMeFi is that a person should be able to take care of themselves first before they can be ready to establish and maintain a healthy relationship. What if the relationship itself is the driver of positive personal growth? And what if that process has been kind of painful so far?

I've been dating a guy for a few months now, officially boyfriend and girlfriend for 3. It's been a little bit up and down while we're figuring each other out, and we're both relatively new to relationships so neither of us has the benefit of healthy LTR experience to draw on. We click really well, have great physical chemistry, he is supportive and funny and kind, and up until a few days ago I would have unthinkingly said I was crazy about him, except that I hit a low point again and I've since lost that positive energy.

I have an anxious attachment style and he is definitely more secure. If something happens in the relationship that I'm not happy about, I have a tendency to ruminate about it for hours, not talk about it, and 99% of the time withdraw until I've recovered (by venting to friends, reading advice columns, just snapping out of it with self-talk, and only very rarely by discussing it with him). I previously posted this question about difficulties communicating my needs, so I know this is something I have to work on. Plus I have a boatload of trust and self-esteem issues and just generally feel like this boy has no idea what he signed up for.

The times I've come to him with my problems he's been very supportive. He doesn't mind when I'm in a grumpy or non-talkative mood and encourages me to vent if I need to. He's 'ridiculously into me' and has told everyone from his high school friends to his dad about me. He's good at reassuring me and tells me I should 'call him out' when I have a need I want met. (I still have difficulties with this because I'm paranoid about becoming the nagging girlfriend.)

But just because of who he is or differences in our personalities, sometimes things hit trigger points in me that on bad days send me into anxiety spirals. He's an extroverted, pretty popular guy with friends from all over the world and a fun, interesting friendship circle. From the outside, I can be very outgoing but I've always had trouble forming friendships and getting close to people - my network is quite small as a result. I can get quite down comparing myself to some of his gorgeous female friends and how close they are to each other. He himself is very good-looking whereas I look good in person but photograph terribly, which adds a lot of weird social media pressure.

I've noticed that sometimes low points coincide with uni stress (his timetable is much more relaxed than mine, I often have 8-5 days) as well as associated lack of sleep/irregular self-care routine; work stress, PMS, or occasional bouts of sickness.

Example scenario: My friend had to talk me down the other day when I had an anxious episode over the fact that a female friend of his had moved onto his most-snapped list on Snapchat (it updates weekly). In the ensuing breakdown, I told her how much I hated this part of me and that I wish I were with someone who didn't - even unknowingly - keep triggering this painful stuff in me. She told me very firmly and truthfully that I had blamed myself too for my ex breaking it off with me, that I'd believed he didn't want me because of who I was fundamentally as a person. And that I'd have the same problem again if I were in a relationship with someone else, because the problem was that I didn't like myself enough.

Today he posted pictures of himself with close friends he met at a semester abroad a few years ago (he's been overseas for a few weeks), and my mood dropped for the whole morning before I pulled myself out of it, because of course he should be happy, he hasn't seen these people in years! But even now I still can't reply to his messages through my envy.

I have had the same problem in all my past relationships, where I find something to get obsessive over (bf's ex, friends, even family) and fixate on it until the relationship is ruined for me and I want to leave. I guess the solution here is 'be single again and work on yourself properly', but I feel like being single gave me even less reason to work on my issues - when I was single I found it very easy to coast through life with superficial friendships and relationships and appear (to everyone else including myself) to be a happy, confident person.

When I have really low points I wish I'd never met my boyfriend at all, because of how hard it's been to learn to work out what I feel, assert myself and communicate my needs, and actually try to compromise and work problems out, instead of just cutting and running. I worry sometimes that my anxiety is still keeping me from being present in the relationship. But in the end, I really like this guy and I want this to work out. The problems just seem to be mostly on my end. I haven't talked to him about the anxiety/self-esteem bits - he just knows that I can get sad/moody and that I sometimes have trouble asking what I want.

MeFites, do you think we should keep trying or is it a bit of a lost cause?

FWIW, we're both early-mid 20s, I've been in therapy since last year.
posted by sockitysock to Human Relations (17 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to address the headline question.

Is it possible to fix self-esteem issues from within a relationship?

Well, yes. Look at it this way: Taken literally, the common advice to get all ship-shape before/as a precondition of seeking out companionship would effectively mean that none of us would ever "deserve" it. The point of this adage is to avoid relying on someone else to fix us, or conversely, to avoid pinning our hopes on being the catalyst for someone else's changes.

I would argue that positive change, including improvements in self-esteem, are kind of a major benefit of healthy relationships. As long as there is some kind of balance, whether in terms of steady, mutual growth, or a sort of staggered leapfrogging... A problem can arise when only one person is putting in that work, however.

My girlfriend had a lot of trust and openness issues, coming into our relationship. These were things I had struggled with as a younger person, too, but I was in a better place. This allowed me to be sort of wise/supportive/patient, as she learned that it was safe to trust me. Meanwhile, I was still dealing with some previous mismatches with partners in terms of status and motivation (i.e. their feeling that I wasn't, and would never be, up to snuff in terms of professional success, etc.). Her ability to just respect and appreciate me for who I was, not who I could or should be, was really beneficial to my self-esteem. See what I mean? Leapfrogging.

I couldn't exactly track all of the issues you are dealing with, but it sounds like you think the level of change is uneven (it's all on your end, while he's blissfully self-confident and great at everything), it's too much work, and eventually he'll get annoyed by watching/helping as you work on your stuff. Try flipping it: First of all, he surely has self-doubts and things he wants to improve in himself. Secondly, you and your efforts may be helping him in those areas (he's learning from observing and participating in your work).

My suspicion is that it's wwaaayyyy too early to give up on this; you've only been seeing each other for a handful of months. Roughly six, apparently, which is one common point where people tend to take stock/freak out a little bit. Give it some more time.
posted by credible hulk at 12:38 AM on July 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

From this question and the one you linked to (which yielded some excellent answers, I thought), it sounds a bit like the differences you describe translate to a bit of a limitation on your part in terms of understanding the time and effort required to maintain the broader array of relationships your bf has, compared to yours. which is just a question of experience (bear with me), not your fault at all.

in the last question, you hoped he would go to the suburbs, drop off a friend, and come back that evening. he did try, because he wanted to please you, but found that he'd gotten drawn into whatever reality was happening there. it might not have been realistic (for either of you) to expect that he could do it. because it takes time to get to/from the suburbs, and have small talk with the friend and the parent. but if you don't live in the suburbs or make that commute, you can't know what it feels like to do it.

similarly, if you aren't used to juggling a lot of different relationships, it might be hard to appreciate the investment required to maintain them. which as i say is no fault of yours, at all -- it's just a difference in experience in terms of managing demands.

and, he might not know what it's like to derive more from a smaller number of relationships (which is just another kind of experience). but, he might assume you can understand what it's like for him to drive to the suburbs or engage in small talk with whoever, because he's probably not even aware of the mechanics and effort and assumptions behind his way of doing things.

i'd encourage you to think of this in terms of asymmetries of knowledge. good thing is, those can be remedied with experience. and what i think is, it'd be good to spread yourself around a bit more. do more things you care about enough to commit to them (if you can fit them around study, within your comfort zone). it'll enrich your life, distract you, and help you understand more about your SO's reality.

mindfulness meditation techniques might help you recognize, experience, understand and then let go the repetitive thoughts, as they're happening.

social media, ugh, that's something else, and you're far from the only person to worry over it. i hope someone else will speak to that.

but yes, i think it's possible to change through relationships. (and no, not a lost cause imo)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:32 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

sorry, among the things i think would be helpful would be working on finding ways of connecting with more people. hobbies are one way of doing that, too.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:39 AM on July 15, 2014

The one thing I don't like about the askmefi format for this is it encourages essay-responses, when in cases like these an honest, one-on-one conversation would, in my opinion, be most helpful. I find myself wanting to ask you questions, have you answer, ask another, etc.

That said, a general theme I'm seeing is you're just having the same issues that almost every human has, at least any human with a conscience- that voice in your head. That voice is a locus of your conscious attention. It's not 'you'. When you think of 'me', that voice is a conglomeration of so many things outside of your control- thoughts pop up randomly it seems- you don't choose them. They are influenced by culture, society, and peers as we grow up- it's the tool we've leveraged for thousands of years to create this amazing civilization of cities and machines- but it has also caused us great suffering because we take it a little more seriously than we need to. The idea we have of 'me' excludes many things, such as all of the unconscious psychological and biological processes of our bodies...

Our bodies? The truth is, we don't have bodies- we are bodies. The point: humans have evolved this cognitive tool we call conscious attention, and its hijacked our sense of self. When you are anxious, the clear sky that is your mind develops a storm. Does it matter? Storms dissipate and leave a clear sky behind- that's the backdrop that is always there. Don't take your thoughts too seriously- if you can, regard them with a sense of fascination, of intrigue. Watch them like you watch clouds.

What I've just described is what many people call 'mindfulness'. It's pretty helpful for allowing you to be more present in relationships with others. When you're not stuck thinking about your own thinking, it's a lot easier to pay attention to what's being said and what other people are communicating to you. As it turns out, we all have these same issues- when we see it in others, we feel compassion and interest in their problems. People really appreciate being fully listened to.

Our conscious attention is like a spotlight- we can shine it on anything we want, but only one thing at a time. You can't pay attention to your fears if you're paying attention to the person talking to you. What will you pay attention to? Without getting into whether we have free will or not- it's more or less your choice. Except not really- so don't feel too bad if it's difficult at first. Good luck with everything. If you have any questions don't hesitate to ask.
posted by drd at 1:48 AM on July 15, 2014 [24 favorites]

One big thing that is influencing your relationship right now is that (forgive me if I read this incorrectly) he is overseas and you have effectively been in a long distance relationship for a few weeks. The difference when you're depending on things like facebook chat, emails and snapchat rather than real, in person interaction is absolutely huge, and I think you'd do yourself a disservice if you didn't factor that in to how you're feeling about this, and cut yourself some slack because of it.

Anecdote time: I'm in a LTR of 2 and a half years, and we have had periodic separations of between 4 weeks and 2.5 months throughout the relationship because my partner is a student in my country and returns to their home country during university holidays. The first 18 months or so of our relationship was quite rocky for many of the same reasons as yours- insecurity and anxiety on my part, which my partner tried my best to deal with, but found confusing and stressful. And when we were in separate countries for weeks at a time, it got so much worse. There is so little capacity to communicate in the ways we had got used to, even with the modern day bounty of social media, and it was really hard not to read a lot of negative things into every nuance of a chat message or online activity. It was really, really hard to not feel neglected and abandoned just because of the way social media is- when you have the potential to be chatting ALL THE TIME across multiple media platforms and then, when because of y'know, life, one or both of you can't do that, it feels like rejection.

Because we had to not let our relationship get strained to breaking point three or four times a year because of the temporary distance, we had to talk about how social media impacted our feelings and how to use it in ways which were healthier and encouraged us to not get sucked into the horrible spirals of "they were online but didn't message me, obviously I'm not a priority in their life right now so I better not message them either" and "there are only so many ways to express affection via emojis and they're all ringing horribly hollow and maybe that means we don't really love each other?". You'll have to find what works for the two of you, but for us it meant that we try to keep instant messaging for more light hearted chats and interesting-link-sharing, and not get drawn into heavy conversations on it. We then email a couple of times a week for more in-depth sharing and conversations, and video chat once a week to hear and see each other (too much of that is too sad). I can tell you that you reading stuff into his snapchat history indicates you're not using social media healthily, to grow your relationship, and I hope my partner's and I's story can help you think of ways to modify that.

That was a bit off topic, but to answer your actual question (and add to this essay): it absolutely is possible to get better about self esteem and anxiety when in a relationship. I've done it- I'm not fully "fixed", but I'm much much better. But I think the absolutely key thing is that if you want to do this while you're with your boyfriend, you have to let him be part of the process. You have to let him in to all the horrible wormy feelings you're having about yourself, and talk with him about what's going on with you, and be really present about the reality of your self perception, the patterns of how you've been in past relationships, and how you feel it's affecting the relationship now. If he's good, and worth being with, he'll want to be there for you, and talk with you about your anxieties, and offer his perspective and generally be a supportive partner. It's not about him changing his behaviour in order to allay your irrational fears and insecurities, because that way madness and misery lies. It's about the the two of you understanding what's going on with each other as individuals, and you allowing your anxiety to be a part of the relationship, that you work on in his presence, rather than turning mute and moody whenever you feel bad (and trust me, I know that instinct very well. I still do it- but because of the work we've done together, my partner can help pull me out of myself so I am able to talk about what I'm feeling and not just block them out).

Ultimately this is all about being trusting and open and vulnerable with another person- one of the hardest and most rewarding things in the world. If this guy is worth it, you won't regret it.
posted by mymbleth at 2:36 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

To answer your above-the-fold question: I was not completely mentally well when I started dating my now-husband. I give him a lot of credit for motivating me to get better: for being the kind of partner I wanted to be, for being patient and supportive during my low times, for recognizing when I needed outside help, and so on. I ultimately had to do my own work on myself, with professional help when needed, but having someone I wanted to be a better partner for was and still is a huge factor in motivating me to take care of myself. I'm not certain I would have gotten where I am if I were doing it for a hypothetical future partner.

The people who most desperately need the "work on yourself first" advice are the people who think a relationship is the one missing piece, that once they find the right person everything will fall into line, that love is a one-dose panacea instead of a complex, ever-evolving thing that needs its own care. You're in a good relationship and you know you still need to make some progress, so while the "work on yourself first" advice still stands, it's not the "whooooaa there buddy" advice some people need to hear. And it sounds like you're already aware of the insecurities you bring into the relationship, and that they're yours to fix. That, right there, is excellent news: self-knowledge is the first step in self-care.

Keep working at it. Do not give up because you're not an ideal partner yet; you're still worthy of love. Keep up the therapy, and bring this question up next session. Keep observing yourself and recognizing your trigger points, what helps you, what helps him, when you're comfortable talking to your boyfriend about mental funkiness, what he needs from you and what you need from him. You're in a better place than you think you are and you can do this.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:53 AM on July 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I have had many happy LTR and I can tell you the beginnings are always anxious for me. I use "fake it to make it" strategies in the beginning. I over analyze everything and am on a bit of a roller coaster. I know I am being overly anxious so I don't bring my concerns to my partner. I think being too needy (way needier than I am in "real life") makes my partner anxious and maybe less enthusiastic, which in turn makes me feel more anxious!

It also helps me to take things a little slow, and accept some relationships work out and some don't, and try to prepare myself for either outcome.
posted by beccaj at 5:00 AM on July 15, 2014

Having a loving supportive person in your life can only help you get over self-esteem issues. However it will take work. You also need to cajole yourself out of your moods. Act-As If, so if you feel down, or mopey or whatever, challenge that, tell yourself, "That's my lying-ass anxiety talking, I hate that asshole. I'm not going to listen to any thoughts about envy or jealousy right now. I'm much too busy. I'm going to put Prince on and dance around for a bit, then I'm going for a brisk walk."

Realize that 90% of your bad feelings are either depression or anxiety or your fucked up thinking trying to beat up on you. So tell those thoughts and feelings that they're full of shit, and move on. It will take work at first, but once you start doing it, you'll find it easier, and you'll find that it happens less and less.

Think of this, while you're filled with envy that your BF went some place fun with friends before he met you, he may be filled with regret that he didn't know you then, and wishes you could have been there too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:45 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes absolutely you can.

First off, don't put this guy on a pedestal. He sounds awesome and everyone has their shit too, no one is perfect.

Over time as you two grow closer you can start to share this struggle with him. Not "barfing it at his feet and expecting him to fix it" but honestly talking about and owning your own feelings. A partner with good boundaries will help & encourage you & be happy about your growth.

Finally studies show over time a securely attached person rubs off on an anxious partner and the relationship becomes secure. I can attest to that one. I'm more high strung than my partner and it took a long while for me to relax into the relationship but now we are boring stable couple and the stuff that used to put me on edge doesn't bug me at all anymore and we've also learned to give each other the reassurances we need so that anxiety buttons don't get pushed in the first place.

The first few months of dating is pretty anxiety provoking - is this for real, does he like me as much as I like him, don't want to mess this up etc. but try to relax and enjoy this time and enjoy this relationship. you sound like a good person and this sounds promising! Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:53 AM on July 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Positive personal growth is always painful. That's just how it works. And as you're finding out, being in a relationship with somebody who loves you and is willing to put up with your shit while you get it together is a very strong incentive to fast-track doing just that - which does indeed hurt heaps, but is so worth it. Stick it out for as long as you can. You'll be glad you did.
posted by flabdablet at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've noticed that sometimes low points coincide with uni stress (his timetable is much more relaxed than mine, I often have 8-5 days) as well as associated lack of sleep/irregular self-care routine; work stress, PMS, or occasional bouts of sickness.

Awesome -- so you know full well that these low points are often not because of anything your boyfriend is doing, which means they're almost entirely within your control. You can prioritize sleep and self-care; you can remind yourself, when you're feeling insecure, that it's the stress/sickness/lack of sleep that's making you feel vulnerable. You can also use this knowledge to seek reassurance from your boyfriend in a healthy way -- it should be totally fine to say to him, "I'm really stressed out about this paper (or, I'm really feeling shitty because I didn't sleep well) and it's making me feel anxious. Can you give me a hug? (or, Can you do something silly with me for five minutes? Or, Can we take a 10-minute walk tonight to just reconnect a bit?)" Framing it as "This is what I'm feeling, I am not blaming you, but I would like some help feeling better," assuming he's a good guy who generally responds positively to the non-accusatory requests, can help you realize that (a) you have control over your anxiety and (b) your guy is willing to be there to help you get through it. Both of which can feed on each other to help you feel more secure overall.
posted by jaguar at 6:54 AM on July 15, 2014

I think the reason people often get the advice to work on themselves first is because being in a bad place emotionally can make you feel like you have to stick around in a bad relationship. It doesn't sound like you're in a bad relationship, though.

You say, "I guess the solution here is 'be single again and work on yourself properly,'" but if you can work on yourself properly without being single, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If you figure your own shit out you might realize that this isn't the relationship you want to be in. And you'll also realize that if your relationship with this guy (or anyone else) isn't a net positive in your life, then it's fine to just break it off, you don't have to sabotage it.
posted by mskyle at 7:15 AM on July 15, 2014

i'm in a similar situation actually(you can see from my earlier question), only difference is that we've both had a few LTR before so the bit of experience has helped with perspective.

to respond to the title question, i think it is definitely possible to grow and improve yourself within the context of a relationship. in fact, a good relationship is supposed to help you grow and push both of you in a good direction. i spent three years single trying to work on myself and my insecurity issues. when i started dating my now bf, it just started unraveling again. these are interpersonal issues that sometimes don't manifest unless you're in the situation. like, i can't work on my issues of jealousy when i have no one to be jealous of.

therapy helped me a lot in learning how to handle irrational feelings when they arise. but one thing that really stuck with me from therapy is that all your feelings are valid. i noticed i would get in these spirals of being upset at myself for being upset, and it's immensely harder to break out of those. just accept what you are feeling, and let it take its course. it also helps me to talk about them and say them out loud, and it sounds like your guy is understanding about it as well. when you bottle them in, that energy turns into anxiety.

some CBT skills can be helpful because they address these kind of negative thoughts and how to break out of them. i think it's also common to feel this way in the early stages of a relationship when you're still learning about each other. we just passed the one year mark, and with therapy, i'm already doing better with these feelings.

feel free to memail if you feel like it.
posted by monologish at 7:32 AM on July 15, 2014

Yes, you should keep trying. My partner and I have largely overcome a lot of issues very similar to yours, through intensive therapy on both our parts, so it is definitely possible. I do want to offer you a few things.

First, I notice a pattern of putting yourself down and talking about all of your issues, while simultaneously lighting him up as a saint. My partner did this with me, and while it was true at the time that I was presenting outwardly as being fairly together, I had all kinds of intense issues that didn't start coming out until much later in the relationship. In part I kept these hidden, but in part she was so caught in her reality of her as the broken one and me as the perfect one that there wasn't much space for them to come out anyway. Your guy may be holding things together pretty well, but he's messy in that human way just like all of us, and he feels insecure or sad or anxious sometimes too. If you give him a chance to be vulnerable and human, you might be surprised at what comes out, and you might find yourself having more in common than you think.

Second, it's very important to express emotions. It's the only way to avoid getting stuck in them or having them spiral. If you feel envious, then allow yourself to feel envious. You have reasons for it. Say them to yourself. "I envy him because he has many close friends, and I feel isolated. I am anxious about these female friends, because I feel ugly and they look pretty, and I believe he would choose them over me, and he will leave me and I will be alone." Give words to the feelings and let them out. You need a safe space for this, though, and some of this might not be appropriate to share with your partner. It's great you're in therapy -- this is a great place to feel things safely.

Third, about the desire to cut and run and be happy while single again. I have that too -- it's an anxiety response. In my personal experience, anxiety tends to be centered around an intolerance of not knowing for sure what's going to happen, and then generating action tendencies to control the outcome one way or the other -- always to an extreme where there is certainty. So, if the uncertainty of an emergent, satisfying, yet somewhat unpredictable relationship with another complex human is too difficult to bear -- because it's true, he could leave you, or you could grow apart, or any number of things could happen -- then the anxiety wants to turn the uncertain situation into a certain one. You might want to completely attach, merging the selves so totally until you feel safe knowing everything that's going to happen, or perhaps trying to control the other's actions either directly or by acting out emotionally whenever they do things that feel threatening, even innocuous things like hanging out with their friends. Alternatively, you might want to completely detach, pulling away so that the actions of the other are distant enough that they won't affect you. Either extreme leads to non-functional relationships, but oh man, is it ever hard to operate in that middle space, especially when there's uncertainty, and double-especially when you are not resourced. I find just like you said about work stress that when I am depleted or tired my anxiety totally spikes. It's really great you recognized that pattern -- pay some attention to it. This piece has been one of the fundamental themes of my own therapy.

Fourth and finally, about the feeling that you were pretty happy and together on your own. Also true for me, in that all the issues triggered by relationships weren't present. But a bit of a lie, because I did have that desire for closeness and intimacy and I did have needs that were going unfulfilled; that was the price. But also in my own journey we've uncovered how intimate relationships are the next step towards being able to form genuine deep connections with people, including friends or family members. There is kind of a concentric-circle thing, with the self at the middle, partner at the first layer, family members next, then close friends, and so on. The closer people are to the self, the more dangerous it becomes, because you open yourself up to being hurt. But likewise the more rewarding and close the connection becomes. You definitely have a lot of work to do regarding anxiety, boundaries, attachment patterns, and so on; but I expect for you that as you work through these issues with your intimate partner, which is the most vulnerable and triggering relationship you will have in your life because it sits right next to the self and even overlaps it a bit (though hopefully only a bit), you'll find you will start to see improvements in ALL of your relationships, across each layer of your life. Your idea of putting in the work so that you are healthy in this relationship is a great one.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:28 AM on July 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

A few thoughts on what you're dealing with:

I totally understand what it's like to feel envy, insecurity or other icky feelings and wish you didn't feel them. Everyone with any modicum of awareness feels this way. This is not original to you or unique to your experience. Everyone is dealing with how painful it is to feel "bad things".

Here's the thing, though:

You will never, ever find a partner who will not "trigger painful things". That's what intimate relationships do: they bring to the surface all the painful bits we are still processing and recovering from. That might sound like really depressing news, but it isn't. If you're committed to self-care and growth, you might see that every partner you have ever had and will ever have is helping you come into a more perfect acceptance and love for yourself.

Intimate relationships are difficult and rewarding precisely because they challenge our ability to tolerate vulnerability. There are two levels you have to work on when it comes to expanding your capacity for being vulnerable. First, you have to deal with being vulnerable with yourself -- accepting that you feel icky things like jealousy, insecurity and envy. The more you fully accept that these human feelings are completely normal aspects of the human experience, the more you can experience these uncomfortable emotions with some distance and even a sense of humor. The more comfortable you can get with feeling uncomfortable, the more comfortable you will feel with sharing your full self -- icky feelings included -- with your partner.

That's the second level of "the work" -- learning how to be vulnerable with others. You CAN do this from within a relationship -- if you're self-aware, it's something you are always kind of working on, whether you're single or partnered. You don't have to go off in a cave to figure it out -- and in fact, you CAN'T figure it out in isolation from other people. This is definitely something that falls under the category of learning by doing.

Therapy and meditation can both help with this. But on a practical level, here is some advice:

1) You need to practice being honest about how you feel with your boyfriend. If you're in one of those low moods where you can't even talk about your feelings, just tell him that: "Honey, I'm feeling very triggered / sad / jealous / anxious right now - so much so that my head hurts and my chest is tight. I'm sorry I can't really communicate at this moment but I want to talk with you later."

2) Share your fears with your boyfriend: "I'm really afraid that I'm such a mess emotionally that when you see the real me, you'll run away." Have a casual conversation about this (over wine, for example). He has fears too -- maybe he'll share them as well. People in healthy, functioning relationships can talk about their dark sides and fears.

3) Take better care of yourself. This is the thing that people sometimes lose sight of in the early phase of a relationship. You're caught up in merging your lives and experiencing romantic bliss -- but you need to strengthen your romance with yourself. You correctly noticed that you feel especially low when you're not sleeping, eating well, etc. Use this as a wake-up call to recommit to a healthy routine.

4) Check out Brene Brown's work on vulnerability. She has a lot of videos and resources on Oprah's OWN site, too.

5) Remind yourself: if your boyfriend can't handle your issues, then he's not the one for you. Don't try to hide your stuff. The right partner will be able to compassionately understand how you feel and share their stuff as well. And the good news? Even a partner who turns out to be "wrong" for you can nonetheless help you grow and make better decisions in a future relationship.

Know that what you're experiencing is normal. With work, it gets better.
posted by Gray Skies at 8:30 AM on July 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

I also want to add that, as a fairly independent person, I used to find it hard to believe that an intimate relationship could help you get over self-esteem issues. But when I was single, my therapist assured me that this was possible, and now I am experiencing the dynamic for the first time in a healthy relationship.

One of the nice things I really learned from Brene Brown is that being vulnerable and honest about your issues in a relationship is not guarantee that your partner will get closer to you. You may in fact push them away. But when people leave you because they cannot deal with your vulnerability, that's actually not a loss. You learn a lot about your strength -- and you develop the skill of being able to be honest somewhat unconditionally .. you get to a place where you can say "This is who I am. This is how I feel." and not need a particular kind of response. You may want support, but if you don't get it - and notice that your partner is not capable of giving it - then you may find yourself moving on, perhaps painfully, but eventually with greater wisdom and compassion for yourself - more willing to welcome someone into your life who can accept you just as you are.

Now that I'm with my partner, I see that it is completely possible to be vulnerable with someone and have them respond in a way that helps build your self-esteem or remind you of the love you already have for yourself. When I'm feeling low and I tell my partner, she responds in gentle, loving ways that remind me of my light, my highest self, my wisdom. She is not afraid of my dark feelings because she has compassion for those same feelings in herself. In the same way, when she is feeling low, I am able to remind her of her highest self, of her own wisdom. People in the past? When I shared my fears or anxieties, they would get angry, clam up or even use my vulnerability against me as an emotional weapon.

I'm sharing this to let you know that the main thing is to focus on shoring up your ability to love yourself, dark feelings and all -- and be honest with your partner, no matter what that means for the relationship. If it all blows up in your face, sobeit. You'll find someone who is a better fit. But being authentic might help you discover new levels of trust and support with your boyfriend.. there's only one way to find out. And you'll be absolutely fine either way.
posted by Gray Skies at 8:54 AM on July 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

It is definitely better to have a good intrapersonal skill set coming into a relationship. If you understand yourself reasonably well, you will have a much better idea of how to handle the struggles a relationship with another person brings to your plate.

That said, it seems like you are doing well. You don't have everything figured out (and who does!), but you are aware of yourself and you have a genuine desire to figure it out, and that is really the most important thing. The people I've known who have not been healthy enough to be in good relationships are those who refuse to look inside themselves and refuse to get professional help though they desperately need it. I can't even imagine any of them posting to a site like askmefi, because they don't want to hear the answers. They know they won't like them.

I have had very similar experiences myself. Coming into my relationship with my now-husband, I had a LOT of trust issues. They are centered on my childhood. I found that therapy helped a lot. I started therapy a few months before I met him, and I continued for 3 years. It really helped me to understand where my irrational fears/anxiety were coming from and helped me to dismantle them.

My partner was also a HUGE help. His patience with whatever CraZy I had going on eventually proved to me that he did love me, and that I could trust him. Which essentially put a crack in all of my deep, painful fears.

All of this can be incredibly painful, but you come out stronger for it.

If this guy will be patient, kind, and gentle with you, stick with the relationship for awhile. That's the kind of person you will need to grow, and you will grow, so long as you are determined to. And you should try, though I know it's hard, to communicate to him what is going on in your head.

Jealousy is definitely one of those issues that has been baffling for me, and I cannot say I've conquered it yet. About six months into my relationship I had my first, and most terrible, experience with jealousy, and honestly, it was devastating. I put myself into crisis mode. In spite of having no proof, I was convinced that my now-husband would go back to his ex when she moved back into town. Why? Because my modus operandi was to assume that OF COURSE I was unlovable and OF COURSE he would love anyone over me and OF COURSE I'm just going to be betrayed again, "that's how it always is." You really need to find the root of that fear and expose it.

Here are two things I found helped me with irrational jealous feelings:

- Writing down, or saying out loud, in a list, the things you like about yourself. Your strengths, the characteristics that would make anyone lucky to be with you.
- Writing stream-of-consciousness-type entries in a journal when you are feeling the most afraid or anxious. For me, writing down all of the gritty details of what I'm afraid will happen and why I think they will happen exposes just how irrational they are when I read them again later on, when I'm not so freaked out.

Also, try your hardest not to ruminate on the jealous feelings. I have a tendency to obsess over an idea that frightens me, imagining it over and over again, hoping that I can, I dunno, scare it back. It doesn't work though. Learning how to turn your mind away once it is no longer healthy to confront the idea is also very important (and also, hard). Practice putting the idea away, refusing to indulge it, and giving your heart a rest. If you find that writing in a journal is useful, for instance, limit your time with the idea only to writing about it and then force it away again. Don't allow hours at a time to be eaten away by it.
posted by highwayshoes at 5:03 PM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

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