By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Before a woman can begin to build successful relationships, she must have healthy self-esteem. The way you feel about yourself today is directly related to how you felt about yourself as a child. If your parents’ divorce left you with a limited ability to see yourself as loveable and valued, you must build a positive sense of self on your own. Although your childhood experiences have helped create the woman you have become, it is up to you to carve out a new story for your life. Take the time to examine how your relationships have played themselves out, and what role your self-esteem took.
Sarah, for instance, has struggled with self-esteem issues since adolescence. At times, she blamed herself for her parents’ breakup because she was a strong willed child. At age twenty-one, Sarah is a tall, attractive, and athletic college basketball player. Her parents divorced when she was sixteen, and she describes her father as emotionally unavailable. During our interview, Sarah spoke with passion in her voice, saying: “I feel uncomfortable with men,” she says, “My relationship with my dad caused me to seek approval in the wrong way. I don’t know how to keep a guy without sleeping with him.” In Sarah’s case, her feelings of diminished self-worth caused her to settle for less than she deserved – to believe that she wasn’t worthy of being respected or being number one in anyone’s life.
Negative experiences in childhood forever change a woman; and can change how she feels about relationships and her expectations from her partner. Divorce can alter a girl’s self-worth and make her feel damaged, even if her parents tell her that it is not her fault. Studies show that from an early age, girls are socialized to seek approval from others and to look for connection for a sense of self-worth. For the most part, females tend to focus more on relationships than males so they may be more vulnerable to the loss of an intact family.
Don’t let your parents’ breakup, or your own, define who you are today. Like Sarah, you must examine your past and shed toxic self-defeating messages before you can heal and feel good about yourself. It is important to realize that self-esteem exists on a continuum, and is often a matter of degree. Some women have suffered more than others due to a father-daughter wound, successive losses, or the breakup of their own marriage. Nonetheless, you don’t have to let the pain you’ve suffered in the past carry over to current relationships. Penny, for instance, has learned not to take on other people’s pain and she refuses to let anyone take advantage of her. Her real-life story illustrates the importance of exploring your past and taking charge of your life.
Let’s examine Penny’s view of herself and relationships. Competent-and-caring, Penny, age thirty-six, was raised to please others, and struggled to be on the good side of both parents. As a child, she was pushed and pulled in many directions in a frenzied search for approval after her parents’ split. As an adult, Penny’s self-esteem doesn’t match her accomplishments. A human service professional, she is raising a ten year-old daughter on her own. The truth is that Penny is successful at work, extremely self-reliant, and yet suffers from low self-esteem. But once she began to view her parents’ divorce and its aftermath from an adult perspective, she began feeling differently about herself and relationships. With the help of a therapist, Penny has reclaimed her life and is learning to love herself as she is today.
The following are steps to gaining self-worth and shedding self-defeating messages:
Examine your divorce experience and self-defeating messages derived from it.
Make choices that impact the way you live in a positive way. Don’t allow yourself to play the role of victim and begin to make decisions that reflect your strength as a woman.
Surround yourself with people who support your journey and can allow you to build self-worth. This may mean shedding toxic relationships and developing new ones. Don’t settle for less than you deserve.
Build relationships based on mutual respect, integrity, and honesty. You can’t alter your past, but you can make better choices today.
Learning to love yourself is an inner journey which involves examining your past from a fresh perspective. Take the time to investigate any carry over from the past that might impact your current relationships. At times, people may resent you as you start to set boundaries and take care of your needs. But rather than giving in, it’s important to embrace loving relationships without giving up part of yourself. Make a commitment to get rid of sabotaging guilt and fear. Like Penny, you can learn to assert yourself in relationships because you are worth it. You deserve to have your needs met and you are worthy of love.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
We’d love to hear more about your struggle with self-esteem. Share your story with us so that we can support your journey. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”