You Need Help: How Do I Date With Devastatingly Low Self-Esteem?

Q:

Hello Autostraddle,

Most of the dating advice I see is just “be confident” and “love yourself.” This is crushing to me because it is genuinely such a hard thing to do. I’m not the type of person that can trick myself into “faking it until I make it.” I’ve suffered from a devastatingly low self esteem and mental health problems since I was a child. Validation from my friends don’t make me feel better about myself. I’m starting to worry that no one could ever love me because I hate myself so much (I’m told that people can’t love someone who doesn’t love themselves).

I tell people I have social anxiety because I don’t know what else to call it (I don’t know if I’m just shy or if I have an undiagnosed disorder). I have a terribly deep rooted belief that anyone I could approach (without them approaching me first) will always dislike me and think I’m not good enough, and that the people who DO say they like me are just lying to make me feel better about myself. Whatever it is, it’s making it really hard to date or just make friends. I’m really insecure, and I feel like everyone else can tell I’m insecure too.

Please help,
Very lonely and very sad

A:

Hi self-identified sad and lonely reader,

Firstly, I must say I’m sorry you feel so sad and lonely. You’re completely valid in your feelings, and I get what you mean when you say your friends’ validation doesn’t really help. If we feel at our core that we’re unlovable, no amount of external affection or praise is going to significantly change that. I think about that quote from RuPaul more often than I probably should: “if you can’t love yourself how the hell are you going to love anyone else.” I think it’s a bit more nuanced than this, but unfortunately a lot of folks use it as a catch-all for half-assed dating advice. Being confident and loving yourself is a hard thing to do. It takes work, practice, and an acceptance that you will be bad at it at first, just like learning to play an instrument or speak a language. It’s a lifelong process that you can invite other people into as you learn and grow.

However, if you haven’t started the work of loving yourself at all, I might err on the side of waiting to date until you have a grasp of what it is you’re dealing with. It sounds like you have a lot of internal thoughts and feelings swirling around, and you want it to make sense and be easy, but it just isn’t.

This brings me to a very important question buried underneath your insecurities: what are you looking for out of dating? Do you want to feel loved? Cared for? Or maybe you want someone to go have fun with? A distraction? Beyond what exactly you want out of a relationship (sex, intimacy, fun, etc.), there’s a need or desire there. I would encourage you to access this if you can to really reflect on what it is that you need and how you can give this to yourself in little ways.

For example, one of my major love languages is gift giving. I can’t expect any significant other to give me constant gifts because that’s just excessive. However, if I know I love receiving little things because I like being thought of, I sometimes make my bed in the morning or prep a good breakfast as a way to give a thoughtful gift to my future self. We can only start in small ways we can handle, so if loving yourself means you’re going to walk outside in the sunshine for ten minutes, label it as your self-love for the day.

Fear and anxiety has a function. What is yours doing for you? Protecting you from danger? Alerting you of a human need? Our little voices are trying to protect us, but this often can get out of hand. After all, we’re no longer an ancient civilization who needs survival instincts to protect ourselves from being eaten, and yet, our nervous system still operates this way. Meet a lack of self-esteem with curiosity.

You cannot control what other people think and feel. That is always going to be the case. What I’m hearing, though, is that you’re doing a lot of emotional labor by interpreting what other people are thinking or feeling. I get that you probably would love to change this but it feels impossible. That’s where therapy comes in. You know there are little voices in your head telling you all these horrible things about yourself, and therapy will help you understand why, and then give you tools to confront these feelings. They will also help you figure out any mental disorder stuff you want to sort through.

Approach cultivating a friendship with yourself as you would with other people. Notice likes, dislikes, fun or unique things, and comment on them to yourself. Getting acquainted with yourself through therapy and self-love with ultimately help you get acquainted with forming relationships in whatever that looks like for you.

Wish you lots of self-love,
Em


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Em Win

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Em now lives in Los Angeles where she does many odd jobs in addition to writing. When she's not sending 7-minute voice messages to friends and family, she enjoys swimming, yoga, candle-making, tarot, drag, and talking about the Enneagram.

Em has written 69 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Hey LW,

    First of all thank you for your vulnerability and I want you to know you aren’t alone in feeling how you do. I have had horrible feelings of low self esteem for most of my life. It took working with a trauma therapist to understand some of the verbal abuse and parental neglect I experienced when I was young and how that shaped how I’ve seen myself since. Twist that together which internalized homophobia and I felt like everyone was saying “just be yourself” and I didn’t know how to do that. It felt like another standard I just couldn’t meet.

    There are a couple resources that really helped me…
    -therapy if accessible, especially internal family systems or other trauma modalities
    -Kristen neffs work on self compassion. There’s a workbook I found useful.

    That being said, some healing comes from being in relationship/friendship with safe people who let you know regularly that they like you just as you are, anxious and everything, and that they want to be around you and to hear what’s on your mind. It’s been so important for me to have friendships where I didn’t have to hide and I could take off my mask of being mentally okay and “normal.” Where I could voice my insecurities and self doubts.

    My worry is that often as people with low self worth there is a risk of falling into unhealthy or unsafe relationships. You deserve to be loved by people who treat you with care, dignity, and respect. Other people are lucky and honored to have you in their lives. I hope I can impress upon you that you don’t have to take whatever love is available. You deserve love that takes things slow, respects your boundaries, and treats you well.

    The hardest thing for me with low self worth is projecting. I look around and assume nobody likes me, because I don’t like myself. But often we are reading people wrong. Other people actual might find you delightful or hilarious or deeply human and loveable. I hear people say something neutral or just direct, and I read into it that they hate me or find me annoying. But often my assumptions are just simply false. And if people were judging me off of small mistakes or displays of anxiety, that’s actually a sign that they might not be a good person for me to be around and I can choose to be around folks who are understanding and kind.

    You are worthy of loving friends and partners, and you are also deserving of professional care that helps move you into a place of greater security in yourself. I know it can feel hopeless, but I’ve found real forward progress with what I outlined above. Sending all the love 🖤🖤🖤

    • as a queer/trans trauma therapist I want to extremely co-sign this comment! You don’t need to have confidence or ‘self-love’ in order to practice treating yourself kindly. I also want to strongly recommend the work of KC Davis and Mara Glatzel.

  2. Feeling that way sucks. So many of us have been there or are there now.

    Yes, absolutely we heal in relationships so please don’t cut yourself off from connection while you wait to be fully “fixed.” BUT I would advise against online dating if you’re someone with a core belief of being disliked/being unlovable and are quick to take others’ behavior personally since there’s a lot of opportunity in online dating to feed that belief. (eg if you’re chatting with three people off a dating app and all three of them stop replying to you would you be able to say ‘eh normal behavior on an app. life happens.’ or would it make you think you’re fundamentally unlovable and should live in a hole?)

    The response above and the first comment are both so lovely, and I’m just repeating key points above but I really encourage you to make every effort to start therapy or some sort of deliberate therapeutic practice.

    Like the commenter above said, it’s so normal for kids to develop a belief that they are fundamentally bad/unlovable/unworthy when, for whatever reason, their primary caregivers aren’t able to provide consistent, emotionally attuned support. It’s often safer to start believing “I’m bad” than to believe “my parent/caregiver is bad/imperfect” when you’re a kid since you’re fundamentally dependent on them.

    The above commenter suggested IFS, and I think EMDR, any sort of parts work (whether it’s IFS or inner child healing or some other parts work style), or relational psychodynamic therapy could all be good fits — the style of therapy matters less than the strength of the therapeutic connection itself.

    (Personally the combo that worked for me was long term relational psychodynamic therapy + EMDR around the core belief ‘I’m disgusting’ + getting on an antidepressant but everyone is different.)

    If therapy isn’t appealing for any reason, I’d recommend some sort of deliberate therapeutic practice like regularly volunteering at an animal shelter or yoga or spending more time in nature.

    Healing and hope is possible, I promise <3

  3. hey LW,

    a lot of this absolutely resonates with me, i’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this, i know it really hurts but i promise it’s not forever. i also totally hear you on how unhelpful platitudes and general validation from friends is, but it sounds like you have friends that value you which is a good thing to have regardless. i wrote into this column about basically the same issue a few months ago and even the process of getting it out and getting feedback on it from outside my friends really helped and i have made progress since then.

    also, i agree with the commenter above that online dating/apps is not the place to be when you’re in this mindset, it’s the deep end of putting yourself out there and has been really tough for me before. but, it does get better and now that’s something i can do (with strategies in place to emotionally protect myself).

    one of the things i found most helpful in growing away from this way of thinking was to realise the ways in which i’d tried to become a person that was ‘easier’ for other people to deal with. i wanted to hide ‘bad’ bits that might make them dislike me, but also i wasn’t living up to this imagined version of myself. the dissonance between who i was and who i was making myself into was a big cause of unhappiness and not believing other people could like me.

    i’m still working on it but i can see the difference in how there are parts of myself i’m now neutral or positive about that i loathed beforehand. this wasn’t ‘just being myself’ but working out the bits of me that i did because of what other people ‘wanted’ and deciding whether i liked and wanted that too. this was bound up in my queerness and internalised homophobia and not wanting to accept something that made me ‘different’ – now i’ve accepted it, it’s one of my favourite things about myself and something i connect with people over. you might have parts of yourself you assume other people won’t like, but really they will love it and maybe bond with you over it.

    i hope that you can find some methods that can help you work through everything, and that the responses here at least make it clear that you aren’t alone in feeling this way, and that it can change over time. sorry for the essay but seeing the caring replies from others reminds me how wonderful this community can be and i wanted to contribute. <3

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