15. Self-Esteem in Relationship - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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15. Self-Esteem in Relationship

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Mirror Mirror- Self-Esteem Relationships

Mirror Mirror… Reflections of Self-Esteem in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

An individual often arrives in couple or family therapy and often explicitly or implicitly asks the therapist to work on the other partner or another family member.  Or, asks for the therapist to somehow empower him or her to change the other important person in his or her life outside of therapy.  This may be appropriate.  The other person, partner, or family member's self-esteem and the self-esteem of the relationship collectively often become an issue.  If anyone in the relationship at issue has weaknesses in his or her own foundation of self-esteem, he or she often is impaired working on the relationship.  If a personal foundation is healthy, then the individual can more readily support or build the "house" of the other person, couple, or family.  The therapist will find that if the foundation has been well established, the hard part is already done.  And that individuals, couples, or families with strong foundations are unlikely to seek or need therapy for assistance!  Unfortunately many people have had major traumas and stresses in their lives that weaken or have harmed their foundations.  Instead of addressing personal self-esteem issues, an individual often compensates by seeking to build and rescue someone else's self-esteem.  He or she tries to give support and nurturing not personally received.  If disabled by his or her own issues, helping another person or building the relationship becomes so much harder.  The therapist needs to be aware of various individual dynamics when working with relationships, couples, or families.

Rather than focusing on the other person, an individual may attempt to bolster his or her self-esteem by criticizing or tearing down the other person's sense of self-worth, dignity, and self-respect.  Denying the other person's feelings sometimes serves to keep an individual from falling into old distress.  Often the other person's distress brings the individual back to some childhood abyss of despair and hopelessness.  The urge to shut off despair surges and simultaneously cuts off emotional intimacy with the other person.  This fundamentally denies the other person's emotions and reality.  Stabilized personal emotional and psychological health opens the individual to another's needs.  Couple therapy often involves simultaneous work on one or both partners' personal issues, while family therapy works on all members' issues. Interactions between involved or invested individuals build the framework of the "house" of self-esteem.  Everything that follows in the structure of self-esteem goes on the first step of the framework- validation.  Validation is the first of seven guidelines to building self-esteem in oneself and others.  The therapist must validate, in individual therapy the person's needs in individual therapy and in couple or family therapy each of the partner or family member's needs and ideal self-definition.  He or she promotes the individual to validate the person in his or her relationship outside of therapy, as well as everyone in the couple or family to validate one another.  The therapist should be alert to seize any opportunity throughout the course of therapy to facilitate these principles and related processes with the individual, couple, or family.

If the individual or the therapist does not understand another individual, partner, or family member, he or she cannot accept the person.  Terry and Bert cannot accept each other without first understanding each other.  They did not really understand each other in their marriage, could not mirror each other, and ultimately rejected each other.  Personal prejudices, distortions, ghosts, and other issues confuse and obscure how the individual or therapist sees and understands someone else.  Self-awareness for the individual (also, appropriately processed counter-transference for the therapist) increases sensitivity for the other person.  However, sensitivity is not the same as assuming everyone has identical needs.  An individual may incorrectly project his or her sensitivity onto another person, especially the partner.  Sensitivity requires that the individual understand and accept how relevant issues manifest in an important other person.  For example, Terry never could understand the deeper emotional trauma that under lied Bert's need to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.  Bert had not understood how Terry had an accounting of her apparently selfless actions on his and the children's behalf accruing in expectations for reciprocal reward- and created growing resentment against him.  Only by getting to deeper meanings can one begin to relate to and then validate the other person's emotional processes.  This is not the same as supporting his or her fears, insecurities, and doubts.  The individual needs to support the other person when he or she is anxious.  Identifying only the fact of existing issues is not validating.  Acknowledging distress from the problems is validating and needs to occur first.  Validation sets the foundation for later addressing the logic or illogic of the fears, teach compensations for their issues, and still set boundaries about how to behave or not behave.  The emphasis is for later processing, not immediate dissection.  Without validation proceeding to work on these important therapeutic processes can feel dismissive to the other person.  He or she would tend to be resistant and defensive.  

The therapist should validate the difficulty of the feelings.  "You feel scared, huh?"  "I can see it's really hard."  "It doesn't feel good does it?"  "You must feel pretty badly."  The therapist should attempt to get an individual to express somehow that he or she is tuned into the emotional energy of the other person.  "We find that simply feeling heard can have a powerful effect.  Spouses can be quite stunned by this aspect of relating, which had been missing since early courtship, and they are newly awed by the poignancy of the partner's recollections and reflections.  The couple's creation of a space for intersubjective exchange (receptiveness and recognition) enhances the experience of 'knowing how it feels' to stand in another person's shoes without necessarily agreeing with the other person's point of view" (Pizer and Pizer, 2006, page 86).  The therapist should not allow either Terry or Bert or any individual to minimize or deny the other person's bad feelings.  This happens when an individual tries to explain why one doesn't need to feel scared, or why there "really" isn't any danger, or telling the other person that he or she is or will be OK.  That can be taken or experienced as if he or she should be OK.  Explaining away someone else's bad feelings invalidates the other person's just as much as calling him or her a "baby", or "silly", "stupid", and so forth.  One individual (or the therapist) may get frustrated at the other person's lack of reason or his or her not being receptive.  Feeling a lack of respect, deference, and listening, may provoke a sense of inadequacy, impotency, insecurity, and ignorance.  "Why?" or "How come the you're so mad?" or some other request for explanation will imply that the person must come up with a logical answer, or else does not have the right to his or her feelings.  In other words, he or she must justify him or herself in order to have the feelings.  

When the individual, either partner, or a family member is in distress for any reason, the therapist should first attempt to connect emotionally with him or her.  The therapist needs to validate the individual in his or her distress.  Then the therapist should try to facilitate emotional connection between the individual and the person in his or her outside relationship, between partners, or among family members.  The therapist may make some of the following recommendations to help the individual validate and support the other person:

Provide mutual trust and approval

Support the other person, partner, or family member's interests

Value creative and intellectual efforts

Provide quality time and communication

Respond to the other person, partner, or family member's needs

Reconcile personal demands with partner's aspirations

Learn how to set priorities that respect the partner's needs

Understand the other person, partner, or family member's strengths and weaknesses

Develop self-acceptance and recognition of his or her limitations

Reframe the notion of a mistake as a learning experience

Develop problem-solving and communication skills

Deal with tense situations with humor

Identify the sources of stress

Create an environment where the partner feels comfortable talking about their difficulties

Implement activities that nurture and highlight the other person, partner, or family member's and mutual interests, strengths, and abilities.

The individual can do this if he or she is emotionally available.  Emotional availability comes from having taken care of one's emotional/psychological health as part of the foundation to building self-esteem.  The words an individual says are often less important than whether he or she uses touch, the tone of voice, facial expression, and body language- that is, non-verbal communication to convey concern and caring.  Least important might be the individual's problem solving skills.  The therapist should try to be sure that each individual, partner, or family member gets the other person's concern and caring as genuine.  The foundations to self-esteem all speak to an individual being able to provide such support for the other person.  All of the following guidelines are variations and processes that require attentiveness and interactions that validate the other person.  Continuing the metaphor of building the house, after the foundation, with the framework established by validating the other person, now the individual can add the first of many key elements to the structure.  

"Shame is the feeling of being exposed, defective, unworthy, limited, and diminished as a person, out of control, incapable of living up to the standards of self and others, and not fully valid as a person.  Shame is different from guilt.  Guilt is a reaction to one's violation of a moral or ethical standard.  The difference between guilt and shame is the difference between 'doing' and 'being.'  Shame is different from low self-esteem.  Self-esteem is an evaluation of self based on realistic evidence.  Shame is an experience of self that defies the influence of realistic evidence such as public praise or personal accomplishment.  The difference between self-esteem and shame is the difference between 'knowing' and 'being.'  Ursu (1984) contends that shame is conceptually superior to self-esteem and can be more reliable as a predictor of social phenomena.  Shame grows out of familial relationships and influences perceptions of marital relationships.  Humans are social creatures who need to trust and depend on others.  Shame develops in the context of the breaking of an interpersonal bridge of trust and caring (Kaufman, 1981).  Harper and Hoopes (1990) suggest that shame grows out of a child's need for dependency, intimacy, and accountability in its relationship with its primary caregivers.  Those needs may also be reflected in marital relationships.  Retzinger (1991a, 1991b) asserts that shame has a significant role in marital conflict.  Her research indicates that most marital conflict is fueled by the need of shame-based individuals to save face" (Blavier and Glenn, 1995, page 74).

Responsibility is about power and control.  Respond + Ability = Responsibility.  Responsibility becomes the ability to respond.  Both individuals in a pairing need to learn how to take responsibility in the relationship and in their lives.  Taking responsibility is self-empowering and counter-indicative of a victim mentality.  Unfortunately instead of responsibility, many people are taught that they should have shame, guilt, and feel at fault.  Responsibility is positive, but shame, guilt, and fault are about ones rotten inner essence.  People confuse blame with responsibility.  While people generally assert and preach taking responsibility, one often cannot take or avoids taking blame.  That accepts being a rotten person.  An individual may use the word, "responsibility" incorrectly, making is synonymous with blame and contaminate the concept in the relationship.  Many people have come to assume that when someone talks to another about an individual's responsibility, he or she is often about to get in trouble.  "That was your responsibility!" is spat out as an accusation.  The therapist should interrupt when an individual starts blaming and shaming communication in the session.  This would be important whether the person blamed is a part of the therapy or not.  The therapist should challenge the individual to reframe or restate the communication in a less injurious fashion.  It is hard, however to resist blaming and shaming if the individual still blames him or herself or feels guilty.  The therapist should show and model responsibility, and give and expect responsibility.  The individual, couple, or family should be directed to practice the process of responsibility and merely not the product of responsibility.  The product of responsibility is the outcome, which cannot always be controlled and may not turn out well.  The process of responsibility involves making willful and purposeful choices.  Anticipating a negative outcome or failure leads to blaming and shaming.  Initially, the individual, couple, or family may have problems being successful avoiding their habitual negativity.  The therapist should initially emphasize the practice of being responsible and holding oneself and each other responsible without allowing blame and shame.  Bert might have particular difficulty with shame for his years of substance abuse, emotional abuse of Terry, and violent hurling of his child across the room.  The therapist can validate his taking responsibility for all these behaviors in getting sober, his apologies to Terry, and his other actions to prevent any repetition, including using therapy.

A child runs, slips into the table and causes the glass of milk to spill onto to the rug below.  If he or she is to blame, at fault, and guilty of this horrendous act, then subsequent responsible actions do not matter.  If he or she picks up the glass, cleans it, refills it with milk, wipes the table dry, and cleans the rug so that there is no stain.  However if blamed, a stain remains on him or her.  The stain upon his or her character remains and negatively affects his or her self-worth no matter how he or she makes amends or takes care to not make the mistake again.  Many adults carry personal stains from being shamed as children.  However, if the child was encouraged to be and validated for being responsible, such enduring damage can be avoided.  The child is held responsible for running, remains responsible to dry the table, for cleaning and then refilling the glass with milk, and continuing cleaning so no stain stays on the rug.   And, because he or she was held responsible and not shamed and blamed, there never was a stain upon his or her soul.  And, he or she continues to be responsible by taking care to prevent repetition of such a mistake.

The therapist guides the individual, couple, or family to validate good choices and responsible behavior.  When an individual makes a mistake, the therapist (and eventually, the other person) can help him or her take responsibility make amends for harm that may have been caused.  Finding out how to problem solve mistakes comes later.  The individual that makes a mistake often feels great shame from it, strongly affecting the relationship.  "…shame is more significant than self-esteem in one's perceptions of marital relationships.  The experience of equity and intimacy in a marital relation seems to be built more on the individual's emotional experience than on data about the relationship.  This would suggest that a marital therapist would be well advised to ascertain the level of shame intensity experienced by a client.  If shame intensity is high, therapeutic interventions may need to be emotional and experiential rather than cognitive" (Blavier and Glenn, 1995, page 80).  Validating distress including the difficult experience of shame focuses the relationship on affirmative processes.  The therapist emphasizes that everyone has power and control in the situation to do something positive.  To an individual, already distressed and feeling bad about messing up, would experience a "responsibility speech" as insensitivity or being punished.  It is salt added to the wound.  Part of the core distress is of making a mistake and having no power or control over making it, nor of fixing it.  Therapy validates the distress of messing up and inner fear of being a "mess up."  The mistake cannot be undone.  However, the individual with the therapist's assistance can help the other person address the distress of losing power and control by giving guidance and support to either fix it or make amends for it.  This could be in session or outside of therapy.

A child does not have the self-awareness to effectively adjust and regulate behavior per convoluted adult demands.  As an individual gets older and learns, he or she becomes more responsible to compensate to minimize negative consequences from such challenges.  Knowledge empowers the individual to take responsibility to change behavior.  Mutually invested individuals in relationships help each other become responsible if no one is not overly drawn to or sensationalized by mistakes or the behavior itself.  A partner can do this if he or she can distinguish love for the other partner from not liking some aspect of the other partner's behavior.  A mistake or the behavior is not done "at" another person in the relationship.  It was not done purposely "to" the other person.  Of course, no one is supposed to like negative, hurtful, or disruptive behavior- purposeful or accidental.  The therapist trains all individuals to give feedback to each other.  This is how an individual learns to recognize what should be done instead, what can be done now, what the poor choices were, and what better choices would be.  This confrontation gives the individual the opportunity to be responsible.  Feedback invokes the recipient's ability to respond with better choices and regain appropriate power and control as invested individuals in the relationship.

Frustrated with another person's behavior, an individual might lose patience and act out or say something regrettable.  The individual may betray his or her ideal self that he or she otherwise committed to with others, especially the valued partner- romantic or otherwise.  The other person may not get seriously or even mildly hurt.  But it does not matter.  Bert was triggered by something Terry said.  He flipped and snapped at Terry.  This happened once in a while.  He would emotionally react too intensely over innocuous comments.  He would yell or say something disrespectful to Terry.  He knew he did it.  He had been sensitive and volatile since elementary school to anything possibly critical of him.  It had messed up previous relationships before he met Terry.  It harmed their marriage, and had in no small part broken their intimacy.  Bert was apologetic once he calmed down.  Terry understood that Bert had trouble with this and tried to be patient.  However, it was getting old.  Getting blasted for trivial crap was not fun.  It was up to Bert, the transgressor and his real self and ideal self to reconcile the mistake.  When Terry snarled back, "NO! I'm tired of you going off on me.  You need to stop it!"  Bert got it.  He took responsibility for what he had done.  He took responsibility for how it had gotten to that point.  And, he continued to take responsibility to not violate Terry like this again.  He took responsibility to do more than just resist, but to do whatever it took.  Merely resisting losing his temper did not work, so Bert had to address his deeper painful issues that created his sensitivity and volatility.  

Responsibility is about learning from mistakes, because any individual will make plenty of mistakes.  Making a mistake does not destroy a relationship.  When mistakes happen over and over in a pattern of behavior and interaction, then they become damaging.  If the overall pattern in the relationship is of attention, nurturing, and appropriate behavior, then a person can tolerate a mistake occasionally.  The mistake becomes an opportunity for an individual to learn about him or herself and the greater complexity of the relationship dynamic.  If an individual remains horrified at what he or she did, the therapist should consider it to be indicative of a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental, and shallow insecurity.  If either two partners: Bert, the transgressor or Terry, the harmed stays unforgiving after processing the dynamics, the therapist should take it to mean that there are probably deeper rigid moral constructions.

After processing Bert's shame and guilt and eventually getting him to take responsibility, the therapist was struck by the powerful assertion of Terry snarling, "Stop it!"  Terry had implicitly said, "Bert doesn't have… NO one has the right to hurt me!!  You don't have the right!  Matt doesn't have the right!"  While Terry had many issues herself, determination that she had the right to be not hurt or abused was something she always had although not always could access.  After the seven fundamentals to the foundation of building self-esteem, come the first two guidelines to building self-esteem in relationships: validate the other person and teach responsibility without shame, blame, and fault.  Terry with a growing assertiveness had begun internalizing the lessons of the next guideline.  Far too often, adults preach to children not let anyone abuse them, yet harm them with verbal, emotional, and physical abuse (and sometimes, sexual abuse).  This unfortunately can carry forward into adult relationships.  A common response for an individual challenged by an assertive like Terry at this time would be embarrassment.  Rather than take responsibility, the individual such as Bert might hide embarrassment with greater aggression and intimidation against the aggressive boundaries.  Any individual is extremely vulnerable to any antagonisms from or conflict with his or her intimate partner or other important colleague or associate.  In the couple or family, an individual can be mistreated, neglected, and unfairly treated out of the view of others.  Or, if such treatment were observed, other people may decide to "mind their own business" and give often permission by silence.  The more a person, people, or community is vulnerable and the greater their dependence is on those they must trust.  

In therapy, the therapist holds great responsibility because of the individual, couple, or family's trust in him or her.  Each individual is vulnerable to the other important person or partner.  Society is not too far removed from when wives were legally considered to the property of their husbands, to do with as they saw fit as they did with other property.  In some communities, societies, and families, a husband retains the moral right to physically discipline his wife, sometimes to the extent of severe pain and injury.  If not physical assault, he may feel entitled to psychologically humiliate or terrorize his wife for misbehavior.  The bully or abuser, or the perpetrator teaches the victim that he or she deserves punishment and is powerless to stop it.  Growing up in an arbitrarily erratic and punitive family makes one more likely to enter into and tolerate relationships with abusive partners and/or colleagues and associates.  An individual may replicate the pattern of helplessness and abuse from childhood into adult relationships.  The therapist must confront hurtful behavior and set boundaries when the individual, either partner, or any family member lack the ability to assert his or her right not to be abused.

Only an emotionally and psychologically stable individual as Bert was trying to become in his sobriety can empower another person to assert the right to be free from abuse—even from him or her!  It can be very difficult, even impossible for some individuals to challenge their partners, other intimates, or those with power and influence.  An individual may challenge defiantly and disrespectfully.  This makes it incumbent on the recipient of the challenge to be firm and fair, but also sensitive and nurturing while setting boundaries.  This may mean letting the other person win some of battles or disagreements.  The individual becomes over-controlling when all the battles are perceived as "big" and important to win.  A person who rarely or never experiences "winning" becomes prone to either rebel eventually, or accept domination and exploitation later.  The therapist can have the individual, couple, or couple set a value and practice of each person being able to tell the other he or she is wrong or crossing boundaries when appropriate.  

The therapist should instruct and encourage the individual in relationships, both partners and each family member to take care of oneself within the couple or family.  Each individual needs to constantly ask him or herself: "Is this good for me?  Or, bad for me?"  "I want this now, but how will I feel later?"  "Is this healthy?"  "Are the consequences to me and others going to be good?"  "How will this be for me now and later?"  The therapist should continually ask clarifying questions whenever any individual asserts anything without apparent logic.  Individuals can be prompted to own and reveal selfish reasons for behavior and decisions.  Each individual can then learn how personal needs- that is, selfishness can be met through or be sometimes compatible with meeting another's needs.  Sometimes it is appropriate to sacrifice individual's needs in order to balance the needs of the group (couple, family, peer group, classroom, workplace, etc.).  While this may sound contradictory to the mandate of taking care of oneself, taking care of the group dynamic and social harmony constitutes a form of self-care through the community.  Alienating the group and then being ostracized or rejected (sent into the wilderness, fired, divorced, and so forth) is not a good way to take care of oneself.  These principles can offer guidance for balancing individual needs and group, but cannot be a blueprint because of the inherent complexity in each relationship.  An individual cannot be forced to take care of him or herself, if his or her model is continual self-sacrifice.  Does he or she let others (partner, family, boss, colleagues, peers, authorities) abuse him or her?  Does the individual take care of him or herself first?  Has the individual integrated being a good partner with healthy selfishness? Is the individual a model of self-love?  As the individual nurtures him or herself, he or she can more readily and honestly be selfless with another person.  The individual should model never allowing others to abuse him or her, and how to take care of oneself first within a relationship context.  The therapist may find significant cross-cultural complications trying to teach "appropriate selfishness."

The therapist constantly challenges values and pushes for change with the individual, couple, or family.  The individual also can push the other person with demands that can be extremely stressful or completely inappropriate.  This can happen when rigid standards of behavior are required that have little or nothing to do with actual needs or personality.  Standards have somehow been raised to a high, often moralistic level through either personal experiences or the promotion of some authoritative or political "expert."  The experts may be an author, a teacher, a minister, some political figure, in a book, from a magazine, on TV, and/or the movies.  It may be the therapist.  Some recommendations and concepts are excellent and soundly based, while some are incredibly off the wall, judgmental and moralistic, or archaic.  However, even the soundest theories need to be examined for specific applicability to a unique one-of-a-kind person, couple, or family.  Challenging and having expectations of the individual with respect for his or her uniqueness differs from pushing and making demands of him or her.  To challenge someone appropriately, the therapist or other person needs to find the edge of his or her comfort zone.  Challenge involves finding one's extreme edge where secure competence moves into uncertainty about one's ability.  An individual may be being pushed towards what may be highly uncomfortable or even dangerous.  It may be well beyond his or her competence.  This would push the individual into failure and loss of self-esteem.  The therapist's sensitivity and skills are put to the test finding and working at each individual's locus of proximal development.  Growth and learning happen at the edge of discomfort- not in the secure comfort zone, but also not in the zone of radically unfamiliar or foreign territory.  The simple, familiar, and secure offer no challenge or growth opportunities.  If the individual, couple, or family is asked to stretch beyond its current capacity, it can create feelings of incompetence and overwhelming anxiety.  However, the therapist's challenge is also a statement of confidence that the individual, couple, or family can handle it.

Expectations, especially expectations to be engaged or struggle imply encouraging the individual, couple, or couple to be in a process of growth.  Demands define the goals explicitly and punish one for not reaching them.  Demands are achievement and performance oriented while expectations are developmentally oriented.  How is a therapist, individual, couple, or family to distinguish between challenging and pushing? Between expectation and demands?  To challenge and have expectations, an individual needs to be aware of and respectful of the other person's individuality, developmental stages, and personality.  An individual needs to know the other important person, especially the partner as completely as possible.  When therapy seeks information about one individual in couple or family therapy, the therapist is prompting self-knowledge and also knowledge about him or her for everyone in the session.  In doing so, everyone begins to learn what is possible, improbable, and impossible for each individual.  Then the therapist and each individual can mutually nudge, encourage, or bring one another to his or her edge of discomfort to conquer new horizons and grow.  Individuals such as Terry and Bert must learn to challenge each other appropriately and to respond to challenges well.  And, be able to give one another the appropriate support to handle the slight but hopefully not overwhelming discomfort.  

There are times when people overdo it with praise.  They praise and praise and praise trying to build the self-esteem of others.  However, praise can also convey doubt that the person actually is worthy of praise, and/or doubt that the speaker really believes it.  Or, it implies that the praised person needs it to boost him or her.  Praise may be a backhanded way to complain about a person by making note of a too rare occurrence.  Praise can imply how the person should be behaving.  "Bert can be so helpful," might mean "Bert needs to help because he doesn't help much."  Or, "Bert needs to know when I need help and do it without me asking."  "Terry is usually very sweet," might be asserting that "Terry is NOT sweet now."  Or, "Terry must not show any anger with me."  It can make an individual insecure, including by setting expectations difficult to achieve.  Only by meeting such standards, which may actually be demands is the individual acceptable.  When people that are significant to the individual, find him or her to be significant as well, it builds the individual's self-esteem.  Praise comes from this principle.  However, just as there was more to building self-esteem than just significance, and there is more to significance than just praising each other.  Or, there is more to therapy than the therapist praising a client.  "…an individual with a negative self-view who receives overly positive spousal feedback may fear inevitable rejection or humiliation given these high expectations by the marital partner.  For example, if a man who considered himself socially unskilled was married to someone who thought him socially adept, he might fear that his wife would expect him to be the life of the party at social functions.  Conversely, if his wife held congruent, negative views about his social skills, this concern would be minimized… if the spouse receives support that is inconsistent with one's self-view, it might not benefit and might even damage the marital relationship, even if that support is perceived as self-enhancing" (Katz et al., 1996, page 347).

Self-esteem support from the other person and the level of self-esteem was correlated with relationship quality only in as much as when the support matched the level of self-esteem.  Effusive support over what the individual experiences in terms of self-esteem did not improve the quality of the relationship- nor did other non-confirming affirmations.  Praise or support has to be not just genuinely conveyed but also relevant to actual behavior.  "In contrast, among undervalued respondents, greater discrepancies between self-esteem and perceived levels of partner self-esteem support were significantly negatively related to marital satisfaction, stability, and intimacy" (Katz et al., 1996, page 354-55).  Promoting positive mutual confirming communication between individuals may not be particularly effective if one or both persons have low self-esteem.  "…an initial positive tracking of behaviors that make spouses feel loved or cared for (i.e., valued) is a commonly used strategy in the early stages of couples therapy.  The current findings suggest that continuing to boost perceptions of value from a partner may be even more important for some couples (i.e., those characterized by one or more undervalued individuals) than others (i.e., those with overvalued partners)" (Katz et al., 1996, page 357).  While helpful in dealing with stressful situations, the individual's overall self-esteem limits the effect of increasing self-esteem support for improving the relationship.  

Praise may be pleasant but may be akin to empty calories.  Helping an individual become praise-worthy rather than increasing praise itself per se may be more helpful to his or her self-esteem and relationships.  The therapist needs to stay aware of these nuances and praise appropriately.  Frequent and undifferentiated praise can have an unexpected debilitating effect.  Effusive praise can have the unfortunate consequence of making someone dependent upon the approval of others.  The individual can become accustomed to and dependent upon praise to motivate him or her to give honest effort, to have high standards of performance, and to achieve competency.  An unintended result may be someone who is not conscientious if there is no one there to praise, acknowledge, or reward him or her.  A successful relationship consists of individuals who each have expectations from strong ideal selves.  As such, each individual will expend personal effort and strive to perform skillfully in the relationship, whether or not the other person is aware of it.  The therapist can prompt each individual to note and acknowledge his or her positive choices in the relationship that the other may not be aware of.  

Sometimes, praise consists of one individual telling another how much potential he or she has.  The discussion of potential however can come from the opinion that the individual is not reaching his or her potential.  It becomes a backhanded way to criticize in the guise of support.  In addition, an individual may have a fear that an "Inner Fraud" would be exposed.  The individual may feel undeserving of praise and adulation- that the reflected words are blurred at best.  Worse yet, that the individual may feel he or she has actually fooled everyone into thinking that him or her competent, talented, and deserving.  He or she fears he or she will be exposed as a fraud.  The Inner Fraud develops when an individual gets praise with ulterior motives.  The praise was not to acknowledge competency or performance.  Spoken by significant others, it was a demand for competency and performance that is often outside the comfort zone- beyond the normal range of functional and developmental ability.  Along with such praise/demands is an implicit "or else" message.  Failure to show competency or performance would indicate inherent unworthiness.  It may result in rejection or anger. Terrified to expose unworthiness to another individual- his or her partner for example, the individual struggles mightily, while often denying emotional and developmental needs to meet the performance demands of the praise.  However, even as an individual is successful meeting expectation, he or she may not be able to celebrate because he or she feels it was accomplished only by the skin of his or her teeth or by luck or deception.  Any satisfaction in achievement is transitory.  And, the individual fears that he or she will be exposed as a fraud any second.  Worse yet, now the others will expect comparable or more performance of him or her again!  The therapist should explore if an individual's praise is really a demand for performance in disguise.  Is it a nice sounding but insidious destructive way to express disappointment?  

False praise rings hollow.  Praise for lousy effort is insincere and at its worse, reinforces lousy effort.  There are people who are sparse with praise who never or rarely acknowledge others' effort, competency, achievements, or performances.  There might be family models or cultural factors that limit or preclude praising another person, especially ones partner or child.  In totalitarian societies, high self-esteem, which is promoted by praise, may actually be avoided.  It would make one stand out to be possibly harmed by those in power.  However, depending on immersed the individual, couple, or family may be the values of our democratic society, this cultural factor may not be as relevant.  Those who have suffered the lack of praise from teachers and parents often resolve not to replicate such behavior.  As a result, they may easily and frequently praise children, partners, and other close associates.  The therapist may require a cross-cultural approach to be successful in getting the individual to praise another or partners or family members to praise each other appropriately.  Unfortunately, the therapist may also praise effusively and dishonestly for lackadaisical or careless effort.  Unearned praise reinforces that mediocre effort and marginal investment should be acceptable in the relationship… in therapy!  

This flawed approach is based upon an assumption that an individual will be devastated if not positively reinforced.  It assumes that the individual's self-esteem is so fragile that it must be supported with false praise.  Some individuals have moved into the real world expecting treatment similar to what they had received from their over-praising parents, teachers, or coaches.  They continue to expect praise for poor performance and low effort or investment.  Such an individual will be devastated, experiencing being rejected and disabled by having not acquired subsequent relationship skills.  He or she is likely to become angered from a sense of entitlement as the other person cares more about relationship needs over unconditionally supporting his or her self-esteem.  False praise can build up a false self that an individual is aware of as being false, or accepts as legitimate although others reject it.  The therapist should praise the process and validate the energy, if the process and energy deserve praise.  The other person should be encouraged to do likewise.  In order to recognize real effort, each individual must know the other person's capacity.  The goal of therapist praise should be to teach each individual how to self-praise.  The therapist can ask, "What do you think about what you did?  How is that different or better?"  Hopefully, the individual will be able to self-acknowledge and say, "I did well.  It's better than I've done before."  Then the therapist can respond with integrity, "Bert, I think you did well too!  Good job." In other words, the therapist should then praise both the higher quality of the result and the individual's additional positive attention or energy.  Then the therapist can add, "How you feel about what you did?  Aren't you glad you put more into it?  I think it was worth it. Can you tell how much happier Terry was?… or is?... or your family is?"

The therapist tries to teach each individual to critique him or herself.  Criticism in of itself does not have to be negative or harmful.  It is the critiquing of performance or effort.  It is not necessarily a judgment of the quality or inherent worth of the individual.  When performance is equated with an individual's worth, then criticism becomes dangerous.  Criticism may be difficult to present in a nurturing manner if the therapist or individual is unaware or dismissive of another person's individuality and challenges.  All criticism should include praise; validate effort and energy; be honest; be appropriate to the individual's abilities.  Criticism should include evaluation and feedback.  It can serve to extend the potential of an individual.  It should challenge at the edge of his or her potential, and not according to some outside standards.  Socialization oriented criticism should promote positive service to functioning in the relationship.  Self-criticism then serves the same positive purpose.  Self-criticism should then include self-praise for good effort, integrity, and performance as well.  The individual however may be comfortable about praising others but is negatively self-critical.  He or she may be unable to acknowledge personal achievements and positive qualities.  He or she cannot self-praise.  The therapist may need to do extensive individual work to help an individual become able to self-praise.  It is essential to any relationship an individual participates in.

Individuals want to be able to trust that the other person will not engage in any problematic and hurtful behaviors available: losing motivation in work, hanging around with negative people, excessive drinking, drug use or abuse, and engaging in inappropriate intimate relationships with others.  Sometimes, an individual knows that he or she had deceived, omitted or held back, or outright lied to the other person. Sadly, a part of the individual knows that the other important person should not trust them.  The individual is not the partner or family member or friend or colleague he or she wants to be.  In childhood, parents had tried very hard to train and discipline the individual to live the values that the parents had deemed appropriate.  Parents can intimidate, punish, and force children to toe the line drawn.  Un-emancipated and relatively powerless, children cannot do much more than endure the teachers' or parents' demands.  "Do it, or else!"  While the individual more or less had to submit to the threat as a child, he or she may become resistant as a teen… or as an adult partner in the couple or socially or at work.  "Do it, or else!" worked because of adult dominance and childhood dependence.  In the couple, dependence may be functional- being unable to move out and survive financially in the general community without a partner's support.  Work relationships may be similarly restrictive.  In the couple "or else" is more and more an empty threat functionally, aside from the special circumstances of domestic violence and divorce.  Frustrated with the realization that there is little or nothing a partner can do short of physical battles (risking legal consequences) or divorce (legal termination), the completion of the "or else…" threat becomes or else "I will not love you anymore."  

This may be similar to children dependent on parental care.  Or else "I will disapprove of you."  Or else "I will reject you!"  A threat, an implied threat, or an anticipated threat in adult relationships moreover can ignite childhood fears of being dominated and cause instinctive resistance.  Resistance, defiance, and retaliation that result may stun the other person.  On the other hand, "or else" threats are powerful sanctions that a person may not be able to resist.  For a multitude of reasons, the other person's actions, resources, care, love, presence, and availability may dominate the individual's life.  And, consequently an individual may suppress or ignore personal desires and acquiesce to demands.  He or she submits to the "or else" threat, but holds resentment as a result.  The emotional "or else," however loses much of its impact if the other person turns towards others for guidance, support, and emotional sustenance.  The person turns to the approval of friends or children, or work or hobby colleagues.  An unfortunate consequence of relationship disconnection is someone finding status or validation among his or her peers more vital to him or her.  Harsh insensitive demands and emotional punishment backfire and create resentment and rebellion.  Individuals make decisions based on getting positive motivation (praise) or aversion to emotional punishment, rather than personal motivation.  Internalized motivation, praise, and morals need to be the goal of therapist when working with the individual, couple, or family.  The therapist should help clients identify both positive and negative internalized motivations, with an emphasis on the positive.  Internalized motivation is what enables the individual to progress in life- to be resistant to negative influences, impulsive feelings, and so forth.  

Without the development of internalized motivation in the individual or everyone involved, the therapist cannot be confident that the individual, couple, or family will make healthy decisions and live the constructive relationship they long for.  The therapist seeks to guide individuals to continuing building their own structures of self-esteem.  The therapist should assert, "No Terry, don't do what I want you to do.  Don't obey Bert (or parent, friend, or colleague) or me.  Obey yourself.  Be clear about the kind of partner (family member, friend, or colleague) you want to be.  Develop values that you believe in and that you want to live up to.  Neither another person including Bert nor I control your behavior.  You don't answer to anyone else including me.  Hold yourself responsible to being the great person you have self-defined for yourself.  The reassurance and confidence you will have should come from knowing that Bert as the other has core self-definitions are strong and healthy.  The confidence in the relationship comes from having positively influenced and mutually developed these self-definitions."  There will remain multiple relationship challenges.  The therapist should continue to focus the relationship on each individual's self-definition and self-motivation to drive meeting and resolving those challenges.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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