Each time you affirm your true, authentic self, every cell in your body cheers “Yes!” When you negate yourself, it has negative biological consequences. To build self-esteem and affirm your true self, try this:
Take action to meet your needs.
Express who you really are.
Think good thoughts about yourself.
Take action to do what you really want.
Affirming yourself entails putting yourself at the center of your decision-making (having an internal locus of control) – something hard for codependents, who are other-focused, ignore their needs, and have trouble asserting themselves. Negating yourself or allowing others to do so have the opposite effect.
Neuroscience has substantiated the body-mind connection revealing that hormones, neurotransmitters, immunotransmitters, and neuropeptides all respond to emotion, imagery, and thought. See neuroscience article. The powerful placebo effect is an example of how thoughts can heal. Merely talking about food can make you hungry, a sad memory or movie can make you cry, and imagining a lemon can make your mouth water. Research shows that low self-esteem and low internal locus of control are linked to stress and higher cortisol responses that over time affect brain structures. See brain research. It’s important to note that it’s not just the amount of stress that’s pivotal, but the belief in your ability to handle it that matters. Codependents with low self-esteem more often perceive situations as stressful – like saying “no” or asking for help – that needn’t be. However, taking such actions in the face of anxiety builds self-esteem and confidence; while shunning them increases a fear response.
Self-affirming actions can be challenging for codependents, because they have an external locus-of-control. Typically, they’re disconnected from their authentic self and are preoccupied with, take the lead from, and react to others. They unconsciously don’t believe they’re important and deserve love or respect. Some don’t feel entitled to happiness or success. Low self-esteem makes them self-critical. It’s hard for them to be proud and self-encouraging. Their shame leads to fear and anxiety about being judged, making mistakes, and failing. From being shamed as children, they may not be able to identify their needs, feelings, and wants, or believe that their feelings, opinions, or needs matter. These are all obstacles to taking self-affirming action, self-expression, decision-making, and putting themselves first.
Being loved and accepted are paramount for codependents. To ensure this, they hide who they really are and become who they aren’t. They tend to accommodate others rather than affirm their true self. They may anticipate anger, criticism, rejection, or abuse for setting limits, because that is what they experienced in childhood. As adults, they often choose partners and friends who repeat that pattern due to low self-esteem. Many even accept abuse rather than risk rejection or end toxic relationships, including friendships. Some fear being alone. Adding to their predicament, codependents don’t realize their own power in asserting themselves. They may have had an abusive, narcissistic, or addict parent(s) and learned that their voice didn’t matter. Moreover, they were never protected and didn’t learn how to stand-up for themselves.
Codependents frequently misinterpret others’ responses in a negative light. The following is an example of how expectations of others (including that they read your mind) and negative, personalized interpretations of behavior can lead to hurt feelings, which reinforce low self-esteem and feeling unlovable.
Bonnie was terribly hurt when her boyfriend Mark refused to loan her money, which he had and she needed and wanted. She took this to mean that he didn’t love or care about her. Adding to the problem, she never actually requested a loan, but presumed he should have offered anyway. The truth was that he was raised to have different beliefs about money and lending, and therefore disagreed with her expectations and her assumptions about how he should act. After she understood his background, and even though he was empathetic to her situation, she couldn’t forgive him unless he agreed with her about what he should have done. She was surprised when I questioned why his disagreement (which clearly had nothing to do with her) meant he neither understood nor loved her and why he couldn’t both love her and disagree. These were novel thoughts that hadn’t occurred to her.
Taking self-affirming action can feel uncomfortable at first and create anxiety, guilt, and self-doubt. Plan to expect this – like soreness after using weak muscles – and know that it’s a sign that you’re doing the right thing. Give yourself credit for taking a risk. Throughout the day, you’re confronted with many opportunities to affirm yourself – to disregard or attune to your feelings, to judge or to honor them, to keep commitments and be responsible to yourself, and to act in accordance with your needs, values, and feelings. (Learn tips on self-nurturing.) Doing so builds self-esteem and your authentic true self. You’re developing a practice of self-love. (See my blog on self-love.)
After a while, such actions feel more natural and less anxiety-provoking, until one day, you find yourself spontaneously doing them – setting limits, asking for what you want, trying something new, expressing a minority opinion, giving yourself credit, and doing more enjoyable activities – even alone. You find you have less resentments and judgments and that relationships are easier. You start to like and love yourself and enjoy the process of living.
©Darlene Lancer 2013