You ARE What You Think!

A regular reader of this column sent me an email asking for my perspective on an interesting psychological oddity, namely, people who don’t like to be treated well. Most of us want to be treated with kindness and respect, but she specifically refers to people who become anxious and suspicious when things are otherwise going smoothly. I have encountered this seemingly illogical tendency when talking to people.

The most obvious reason for this unusual behavior is low self-worth, i.e., “I’m not worthwhile. If you’re being nice to me, then what’s wrong with you?” Still others have been trained to believe that reasonableness and kindness are equal to weakness. Others might think that human beings are deceptive by nature, so sensible people must be phonies.

There are also those who want to be martyrs. They think suffering is good because it’s (supposedly) an indicator of self-sacrifice. The martyr needs 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. Cognitive psychotherapists such as the late Albert Ellis, Ph.D., state that self-loathing and self-hatred stem from the way we think. If you thought of yourself as unworthy or undesirable (possibly because your parents or others seemed to view you that way), then you’re going to feel that way as an adult. 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.”

If a child feels his or her parents are unhappy, he or she can personalize these ideas by thinking, “It must be me.” With some kids, that morphs into “I must be a bad person.” And that label will stick all the way into adulthood, especially for those who are chronically anxious. 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?”

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 cases of despair and depression; 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 that might include all the things everyone supposedly wants in a relationship. 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. 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 she needs. 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. Get rid of whatever self-image baggage, guilt and martyr issues you may be carrying around. It is truly possible that there’s nothing wrong with being liked, or even loved.