“One day soon, I will tell you what I really think! I just need the right moment… I don’t feel up to another argument… It’s the only way to get a little peace around here.”
We’ve all been there and chances are we will be there again. Instead of acting out of our sense of self esteem and self worth, we give in, turn a blind eye, swallow our pride and walk away.
1. Not standing up for our self esteem
There is a whole spectrum of reasons and consequences for not standing up for ourselves:
- At one end, we may do it very little and only on selected occasions.
- At the other end, it is almost a default behaviour and attitude we bring to the relationships we have.
- And depending on what happens in our lives many of us hover around that spectrum.
It’s not all bad.
Depending on who we are dealing with, standing up for our beliefs can be harmful and dangerous. That’s why some relationships (intimate, friends, at work or in other settings) can last as long as they do, even though they are clearly damaging one party or even both.
Strangely enough, the fear of consequences can make us feel strong; so strong that we put up with an awful lot – of injustice, unfairness and attack (verbal, emotional, physical, financial, spiritual).
Fear can push our endurance thresholds really high and we can become the emotional equivalent of Iron Wo/man.
But rarely does it last – long or forever. Because this strategy, like every other, comes at a cost.
2. Chicken and egg
A long-term or even default strategy of not standing up for our self worth, needs, rights and interests means we undermine our self esteem. Which can lead to low confidence, permanent fear, exhaustion, depression, self-loathing, burn-out, breakdowns, and much more and much worse.
Now you might say, we can compromise ourselves and our self esteem exactly because we feel some or many of the above.
Yes, and that can happen, too. Of course. And then often things get a lot worse.
We may even be convinced that not standing up for ourselves is appropriate behaviour. It might be a social norm we have been taught or a behaviour we were modelled in our childhood. It might be a pattern across generations in our families – usually on the female side.
Ultimately, whatever we do is intended to help. And when we understand the origins it may even make sense. But it does mean that what we do is helpful – to us and others.
3. Our complicity
If we have a tendency to keep stumm and do not want to rock someone else’s boat, then we signal to the other how much or little we value ourselves.
If we do not stand up for our interests and make ourselves heard, then others can be forgiven for not bearing our interests in my mind and not hearing our voice.
In that way, we lead by example and ultimately are complicit in setting up a power imbalance and hierarchy with us in the bottom half.
When I was younger I did exactly that, at work and in relationships. At the beginning this was great.
People liked it. Of course they would!
Because they were not challenged. Life was easy for them but became a lot harder for me. Over time it started to cause some real problems, and after some years I needed to slam on the brakes. How?
4. We have choices
When I felt hopeless and lost, someone said to me:
“I don’t want your tears. I want to know what you are going to do about it?”
Instead of sympathy and empathy I got a sharp shock. I would not always recommend it, but it worked.
Up until then I had not realised that I do have choices. I started making them. I was frightened, it was not pretty, but I knew it had to be done.
It was hard work to get myself out of some mess, I had been complicit in creating by not saying ‘no’ sooner and loud enough.
I believe we always do the best we can. At the time I did not know better. Luckily I managed to learn the hard way.
Sometimes we gain insights and change our views and behaviour. And sometimes life is just too hard. Facing up to situations may cause conflict and takes energy.
5. When walking away is not giving in
Recently I wrote about a situation, just like that, when someone’s bullying behaviour towards me upset me to the core. It took me a while to figure out what to do.
I noticed the sudden surge of fear in me, which stayed for a considerable amount of time.
Eventually my sense of self worth got the better of me and I started to feel outrage and anger – “How dare they … that’s not on …”.
And then I decided to walk away from it.
The moment for a constructive challenging had past. There may be another opportunity, and then I may be better prepared. Who knows.
But the main point for me is, that I feel I have not given in to the bully or compromised myself. I have made a rational choice.
Acting not out of fear but out of conviction, even when we choose not to speak out and choose to avoid conflict, that can only make us stronger.
Because then, deep down, we are in charge and have the moral high ground. And that nourishes our self esteem.
6. Self esteem and abusive relationships
But what about abusive relationships, I hear you ask? Then it’s not as simple as that. Lives might be at stake.
Yes, that’s right.
Abuse can be complex and is not just physical, but can also be emotional, verbal, financial, social. It is about disempowering the other through subtle manipulation or outright threat.
Sometimes we know when it’s happening and sometimes we have little or no idea. It can creep up and before we know it’s controlling our life.
Some years ago I worked with women who had experienced domestic violence (men experience it, too).
Domestic violence does not discriminate, and I don’t just mean by gender.
In one setting I was a counsellor, in another a case worker in a refuge. I know that swallowing ones pride, putting up with daily humiliation and dehumanising treatment may well be the best strategy of keeping safe and staying alive. But this comes at a cost.
Breaking the cycle of abuse, doing something about it or reaching out for help can be utterly terrifying.
You do not need to be in a violent or abuse relationship to know what I am talking about.
Constantly giving in and not standing up for ourselves, will either chip away at our self respect and self worth, or create an environment where neither can develop and grow.
The only thing that can grow under those conditions is fear, self doubt and shame. Even though we have nothing to feel ashamed of!
7. The muscle we all have
Being in touch with our self esteem is like a muscle. Without exercise it will not be strong enough to support, protect and carry us.
And like with any other type of exercise, there are times when we cannot be bothered, don’t feel up to it, doubt we are strong enough to do it or think it’s simply too late.
But often muscles can be built up from scratch, whatever time of our life. And weak muscles can be strengthened. So there is hope, and we have options.
Like with everything else in life, there are consequences and a price we pay, for whatever we choose to do.
Alas, compromising our self esteem is never a real compromise or solution.
Sign up to my newsletter here
If you are based in the UK and affected by domestic violence then help is available via various local and national channels, check