Do I measure up? It’s a question that everyone asks themself. But for those who struggle with low self-esteem, it plays on repeat with an answer of “no”. When someone believes that their talent or skills are not worthwhile, it bleeds into every area of their life. As the partner or friend of someone struggling, it’s difficult to see how they view themselves and it can often make your relationship and day-to-day life harder. You want to help them. But how can you?
While it’s completely normal for instances of low self-esteem to pop up on occasion (especially for parents for whom there’s no lack of responsibilities and expectations), low self-esteem can be a chronic issue. This can be draining and toxic for the person struggling and, over time, everyone around them.
Being in a relationship with someone who has low self-esteem can be particularly tough, especially if you’re relying on them to contribute to the family. Before you can address your partner’s issues, it’s important to distinguish between low self-worth and low self-esteem. According to therapist and coach Laura Steventon, people with low self-worth believe they’re fundamentally worthless and useless, while those with self-esteem believe they don’t have the talent or skills to achieve success. “They are both equally draining to the person and the relationship,” she says.
Low self-esteem can manifest in a variety of ways. People struggling with it typically have very loud inner critics. They may be workaholics, people-pleasers, or perfectionists, and they may pick arguments to relieve the internal pressure they feel inside.
“It puts the person suffering in a cycle of push-and-pull with themselves, creating an internal tension and stress,” she says.
At times, you might find yourself just as stressed if you’re in a relationship with a person with low self-esteem. Your partner’s self-deprecating tendency could cause them to be controlling, jealous, insecure, or critical. On the flip side, Steventon says, they may be so passive that they don’t make any decisions or plans and leave you to organize everything, so you feel like you’re carrying the weight of responsibility.
Difficulties aside, it’s simply hard to watch someone you love be so hard on themselves. So how do you help someone with low self-esteem?
Unfortunately, says Billy Roberts, a therapist in Columbus, you can’t fix your partner’s self-esteem — and your own self-care might depend on you acknowledging this truth. However, you can provide conditions for your partner’s self-esteem to grow through validation and support — and, at the same time, develop skills that help you become a more understanding partner in the process.
Here are six ways to do that, according to therapists.
How to help someone with low self-esteem
1. Validate their emotions
It may be frustrating to deal with a partner who’s insecure or unmotivated, especially if you just can’t understand why they’re so hard on themselves. But Roberts says the best thing to do is simply ask your partner about their feelings and accept them as their reality. “Too often, partners might try to argue with their partner’s feelings or talk them out of them,” he says. “However, feelings are like the weather: They’ll ultimately do what they do, and validating them can help you to be more patient and encouraging.”
2. Address the problem
If you’re ready to talk about the self-esteem issue, focus on the behavior instead of your partner’s identity –– your partner might shut down and grow even more insecure if you come off as harsh. Try pointing out in a non-judgmental way how your partner’s behavior negatively impacts your relationship, and let them know you want to grow in intimacy because you value them as a person. For example, you could say “I get discouraged from telling you how attractive you are when you dismiss me,” says Maryland-based clinical social worker Kimberly Perlin.
3. Don’t dole out false praise
In the case of an insecure spouse, it’s best to save the gratuitous gold stars for your preschooler. Therapist Jen Kelman, suggests avoiding false praise or “propping up,” which could come across as disingenuous and further detract from your partner’s self-esteem. “False praise or overcompensation is typically very obvious,” she says. “This can bring up feelings of unworthiness in your spouse and the feeling you must not really believe in them.” Instead of coddling your partner, focus on giving honest — but loving — feedback. For example, if you’re frustrated your partner didn’t do the dishes, avoid statements like “You never do what I ask you to do.” Instead, calmly tell them a tidy kitchen is important to you, and you’re frustrated that the dishes don’t seem like a priority.
4. Don’t do the work for them
Anyone struggling with self-confidence can benefit from outside support, whether from trusted friends or a therapist. It may be tempting to “do the work” of finding those support systems for your insecure partner, but Perlin cautions against it. Instead, find ways to let your partner have their own agency –– successes along the way will only help their self-esteem grow over time. And if they don’t see their behavior as a problem? “Explore with them when they would feel the need to get outside assistance so you can get an idea of their sense of the problem,” Perlin suggests.
5. Set boundaries
It’s easy to become drained and resentful when you’re dealing with a partner who constantly needs your help, but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) stay resentful indefinitely. Marriage and family therapist Jenny Walters suggests maintaining a compassionate-but-firm stance that encourages your partner to take responsibility for their own behavior –– and telling them what could happen in your relationship if they don’t. “Having a boundary is important,” she says. “Let them know this is their work to do, and that there’s a consequence to not doing that internal growth work.”
6. Prioritize your own well-being
Ultimately, your relationship is a two-way street. While it’s important to provide a supportive atmosphere for your partner, you won’t get very far if you’re burning yourself out doing it. Try not to stop your life or give up interests to address your partner’s struggle; it’ll only cause unnecessary resentment, which won’t help either of you. And if you find yourself in need of further support, don’t hesitate to seek out a therapist of your own. “You need joy and strength to continue to grow your relationship and self,” Perlin says.
Low self-esteem likely stems from years of negative thinking. It’s a difficult pattern to correct. If your partner is truly struggling, suggest (gently, of course) that they attend therapy. They may not think that they need — or even deserve — counseling, but there is help. And it can bring your relationship to a better place.
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