Is Low Self-Esteem Hurting Your Relationship?

woman with poor body image looking in funhouse mirror
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Love, Self

It's hard to accept love in a relationship if you don't love yourself first.

Your relationship with your "self" is one of the most critical relationships you'll be in over the course of your life.

How you feel, and what you believe to be true about your self, your body, your mind and your spirit translates into your collective self image often called your self-esteem. Positive, loving beliefs appear to inspire loving actions and a loving relationship with your self.  Similarly, negative, mistaken beliefs often inspire an abusive and a mistrusting relationship with your self.

Because relationships with other people are created using our own frame of the world, how we feel about ourselves has a direct impact on our relationships. This isn't to say that people with poor self images can't have successful relationships, but they will battle with the incongruity between how they see themselves and how their partner sees them, and that can be a real challenge.

Consider this, your partner says, "you look beautiful" and you don't believe that to be true. In your mind you're having a bad hair day, your makeup's smeared, you're wearing the wrong clothes, which don't really fit anyway because you're "fat." Suddenly there are a lot of questions about the honesty, validity and trustworthiness of your partner. How can she not see the real you? Does he even know you at all?

On the other hand, if you do believe him/her, then the questions about honesty turn inward; you now have the challenge of questioning your beliefs about yourself. In healthy relationships, when someone sees something wonderful about us that we have missed, it's like being given a gift. A gift of clarity and a gift of love. If we're brave enough to accept it, and believe it, over time it can help to transform a negative self image into something more positive.  But that doesn't happen without taking some time to get to know the "new you"; the one who has come to light out of the loving lens of your partner's eyes.

So the message here is that your body image does have an impact on your relationships, good or bad. The next questions are to what extent—and is it harming your chances of finding (and keeping love)?

There are three areas in the body image arena that strike coaches and counselors as red flags. If you've found yourself "obsessing" about them or if reading this hits that pit of your stomach, it may be a good sign that it's time to take a deeper look inward to try and discover where this message about yourself has come from.

Red flag #1: Hiding Your Body
One common sign that a person isn't in a loving relationship with their body is when they constantly hide it from others. Big, baggy, formless clothing is the uniform of many people who believe they're too fat or ugly for "pretty things."

In addition to now showing their body form, many of these same people report issues in their sex lives because their discomfort with showing their naked body outweighs their desire to be intimate. They may have good relationships with their significant others but will admit that their sex life could be better. Being naked in front of that person is very difficult when body image is poor. In fact, many of our Experts who work with clients share that it's not uncommon to hear about clients who never take all their clothing off in front of the person they love the most. This behavior often changes as they lose weight and their confidence and self-esteem rise.  A great sign that some is turning the tide on their self image is when they go shopping for new, better-fitting clothes to wear in public, and even buy sexy sleepwear or try out sleeping naked. How To Love Your Body In Bed

Red flag #2: Habitual, Negative Self-Talk
For many couples, sex can improve when one or both partners is successful in changing how they see themselves. But even with weight loss, it's not a guarantee that things will change internally; after all, self-image and self-esteem are things that go on inside the mind. So how can your "belief" about yourself change? By changing the words, language, tone and message you say to yourself. 

When there are body image issues, self-talk can be very negative, "I know he thinks I am fat," "I know that he would rather have a skinny wife," "I can't take all my clothes off because he will see my rolls," "I didn't look like this when we met, maybe he'll leave me for a younger, thinner woman"... you get the idea. In a lot of relationships, the partner may not think these things at all, but we can convince ourselves otherwise because the obsessive, negative messages going on are stronger (and louder) than anything being said to the contrary.  

Working on positive self-talk is a huge part of maintaining a healthy body image, weight and relationships.  To change it, you need to focus on the positive and catch the negative messages that come up and change them. When you hear "you're fat" in your head, change that message to be "you have a beautiful smile." For every negative message you hear, say something positive that you believe. Over time, being mindful about your inner dialogue will help to alter what you hear. When this is accomplished, behaviors change and self esteem rises.

Red flag #3: Obsessive Behaviors Around Food, Eating & Exercise
A third common red flag is if a person talks religiously about their appearance and eating habits. You can recognize this behavior when someone brings up "how they look" repeatedly in conversation. This is not a casual "how do I look?" question, but more of the critical/negative chatter about looks, weight, comparisons with other people and plans to change it. 

People who are on the extreme end of thinking about their outward appearance often fall into two categories: those who are obsessed with being thin and those who routinely sabotage their physical health. Food is the first way we love or hate ourselves and either extreme indicates we are trying to cover up a poor body image.

The way someone eats is the way they do everything.  People obsessed with being thin may:

1. Talk about how overweight they are despite being thin by "normal" standards. 

2. Religiously count calories or track fat content of food.

3. Lose focus. Being thin takes priority in their lives. They spend their time, energy and resources to support their obsessive worry that they are not good enough.

To disengage with these destructive habits, they need to embrace a positive, balanced look at food.  Some easy ways to start include:

  1. Avoid zero calorie and low-fat foods.
  2. Stop skipping meals.
  3. Start practicing positive self-talk.
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