The Surprising Reason that Reassurance Can Be a Self-Esteem Killer

The Surprising Reason that Reassurance Can Be a Self-Esteem Killer

What is it that helps people regain their balance when the mess of daily life knocks them down? It’s not reassurance that everything’s going to be all right. Actually, the most powerful stabilizing force is simple and difficult at the same time, and that’s being comfortable with your own feelings, no matter what they are.

For example.  It’s 5:00, and the Arsenic Hour is in full swing. The baby’s crying, your kindergartner is racing across the house in her beloved, but muddy rubber frog boots, and dinner is burning.  Maternal bliss is nothing but a pipe dream; in fact, bliss seems far more probable on an desert island.

“Never mind, Mary, the kids are fine! Isn’t it great that you can be with them full time?” says your mother through the phone.

But it doesn’t feel great.  You feel trapped and tired — and now, on top of the misery, you feel ungrateful, as well.  Because how many moms would give their eye teeth for the opportunity that you have?

Your husband looks at the mud-streaked carpet and says, “It’s no big deal.  Don’t be mad at her.” But it feels like a huge deal — and you are mad.  And tired.  Resentful, even.  In fact, the more he and your mom spout Pollyanna platitudes, the worse you feel.

Why? Because in their efforts to reassure you, what they have conveyed to you is that your actual feelings are not the feelings that they want you to have.  And now you are even more upset, because it seems that you aren’t being who you should be.  You know — calm, serene, philosophical about small children and filthy carpet — and happy.

When you’re in a bad situation and sinking fast, comments like: “It’s really okay;” “Don’t cry,” or “Things are not so bad,” while usually well-intended, widen the gap between how you really are and how you’re being told you should be.  Your sense of self is divided between your real feelings and required façade of should be’s.  The wider that gap gets, the lower your self-esteem dips and the more depression and disconnection grow. That well-intended reassurance has backfired big time.

But what if your mom had said, “Gosh, you’re having a bad day.  Sometimes you just wish you could escape the madness,” and your husband had given you a knowing hug, grabbed the muddy boots before another step could be taken and said, “Hard day?”

When your feelings are fully understood, reflected and accepted, the gap disappears as the “What I should be” and “What I am” slide back together.

You feel accepted and acceptable — angry, ungrateful feelings and all.  Immediately, your self-esteem and self-worth begin to bubble back.  Depression dissipates. Your energy is freed up, resilience and resourcefulness kick in, and you begin to have the strength to solve the problem.

The reassurance that really can help is the certainty that whatever you are feeling, it’s okay.  Because it really is.

And, by the way, this is all true for your kids, too.