A regular reader sent me an email asking for my perspective on an interesting psychological oddity, namely, people who don’t like to be treated well. Of course most of us want to be treated with kindness and respect, but she refers specifically to people who appear to become anxious and suspicious when things are otherwise going smoothly in their romantic relationships. I have encountered this seemingly illogical tendency when talking to people.
There can be many reasons for this unusual behavior, depending on the personality of the person who seems to ‘thrive’ on mistreatment. The most obvious reason is low self-worth. This feeling, if it could speak, might say, “I’m not worthwhile. If you’re being nice to me, then what’s wrong with you? Nobody worthwhile would be nice to ME!’ Still others have been trained to believe that reasonableness and kindness are equal to weakness. Some might also think that human beings are deceptive by nature, so they falsely believe that sensible people must be phonies.
There are also those who, quite frankly, want to be martyrs. They think suffering is good because it’s (supposedly) an indicator of self-sacrifice. The martyr wants attention drawn to this fact so he or she can ‘earn’ the approval of others.
My clinical experience has shown that a surprising number of people are motivated by self-loathing. Even if a person doesn’t consider him- or herself a full-blown ‘masochist’ as such, there might still be some emotional tendencies in that direction.
There are good techniques to try in the event this becomes a problem in a relationship. Cognitive psychotherapists such as the late Albert Ellis, Ph.D., state that self-loathing and self-hatred stem from the way we think. If as a child you thought of yourself as unworthy or undesirable (possibly because your parents or others appeared to view you that way), then you’re going to continue to feel that way as an adult. To get past these destructive habits, you need to vigorously question and reject this line of thinking. Dr. Ellis said it well: ‘Your parents, friends, and culture often encouraged you to damn yourself, others, and the world ‘In spite of your biology, your family, and your culture you don’t need to stupidly disturb yourself ‘ Because your disturbances include thoughts, feelings, and actions, you can make a three-way attack on them: Change your thinking, your emoting, and your behaving. Use your head, your heart, and your hands and feet! ‘There is no magic, no free lunch. Self-change, while almost always possible, requires persistent work and practice.’
In childhood, people sometimes got the impression that their parents were unhappy or unduly stressed. Often, these impressions are right. Unfortunately, a child can personalize these ideas by thinking, ‘It must be me.’ With some children, that will convert into ‘I must be a bad person.’ And that emotional label will stick all the way into adulthood, especially for those who are chronically anxious or prone to depression. When this carries over into relationships, there’s a tendency to mistrust people who are nice or reasonable, and to refuse to believe they are sincere. After all, if ‘I’m bad, then who could love me?’ Most people who feel this way don’t actually go looking for emotional pain. It’s just that they can’t believe they will find, or perhaps deserve, anything else.
In his interesting book, ‘Compassion and Self-Hate,’ Theodore Rubin, M.D., writes, ‘To be nice to a person who considers herself lower than dirt seems grossly inappropriate to the victim and engenders much guilt.’ This doesn’t just apply to the extreme cases of despair and depression that a psychiatrist encounters; it also applies to people with various ‘self-esteem’ issues — especially those that arise in their personal relationships. These people consider themselves somehow unworthy, and find it difficult to handle a new situation where the love is mutual and all the things everyone supposedly wants in a relationship. You hear about ‘intimacy phobics’ who run away from relationships, and this is often what’s happening in those cases. Complicating matters is the assumption that, ‘This can’t be right. It’s too good. I’d better get out before I get hurt.’
It’s your thinking that makes you who you are. And changing your thinking is key to overcoming emotional issues and self-defeating behavior. It’s not easy. I’d love to tell the person who wrote to me that there’s a miracle medication or therapy that will fix everything at once, while magically bestowing upon her all the self-esteem needed to live a happy life. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Many things can be helpful in the short run, but in the end you have to love yourself enough to believe that others can and should love you too. Getting rid of whatever self-image baggage, guilt and martyr issues you may be carrying around is a good start. It really is possible to believe that there’s nothing wrong with being liked — or even loved.