This is the first post in a series of blogs I plan to do about the most common advice offered to polyamorous people, specifically newbies, why it’s useless and what you can do instead.
“Just believe in yourself”
The number one thing said to you when you’re scared your partner is going to leave you for someone else, when you’re worried that you don’t have enough to offer your partner, and when you’re scared that you’re not as good as the other people your partner dates is:
Just believe in yourself! You have something unique to offer!
And sometimes it helps. Just like when you’re having a rush of anxiety, taking a deep breath can help calm you down… but other times it can make you so hyper-aware of your breath that it starts a panic attack. More often than not, I don’t believe this bit of advice helps specifically people who struggle with mental health problems and it has some very dubious roots.
Self-esteem wasn’t built in a day
When we grow up, the standard we live in as children becomes our ‘normal’. For someone who grows up with adults that love, support and encourage them, a healthy foundation for a good self esteem and an inherent belief in your own worth grows. For someone who grows up being abused, it is easy to internalise the opposite.
If you haven’t yet heard of the Adverse Childhood Experiences score and the surrounding research, it’s worth having a look at, but one of the main takeaways from the research is that adverse childhood experiences have a huge impact on people’s behaviour as well as their physical and mental health. A high ACE score can contribute to everything from drug use to a higher risk of stroke, cancer, and heart disease. But what’s also important about the ACE score is that it’s not set in stone. The NPR website adds:
ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.
One of the most common affects of having a high ACE score is the difficulty in regulating emotions and behaviour. So if you grow up in an environment where you’re not taught how to regulate your own emotions, how to soothe yourself, how to love yourself… it has very big implications for how you will continue to manage your relationships in the future. And most importantly, it has a big implication for how you will manage the relationship you have with yourself.
The techniques for improving the regulation of emotions in childhood and adulthood are far more complex than simply telling yourself you have worth. Even if we were to assume that one compliment can outweigh one insult… for some people, there’s still an overwhelming deficit of insult they have to tackle before they can even begin to build a proper self esteem.
Society has a massive impact on who we are as people, especially as we grow and learn more about ourselves. Even if you had a great family life, you still could continue to get the message that you’re essentially worthless in many ways.
A study in 2012 revealed that television boosts the self-esteem of white boys only . Anyone else, specifically white girls and Black children can actually experience a decrease in their self esteem. Over the past 20 years, several links have been drawn between the prevalence of media consumption of the “ideal body” and body dissatisfaction , especially among young girls. If you’ve not yet seen or heard about The Doll Test , it’s a great example of how anti-Blackness impacts Black children’s self worth from a very young age. And it’s not quite yet known how a younger generation growing up with social media will be impacted by that exposure.
Aside from our families and especially if we are unlike our families, we look to media to fill that gap and find out more about ourselves. If the main images of us through media are completely absent or filled with negative stereotypes, it teaches us a lesson that we internalise. Even if you grew up in a supportive household with good parents, it’s almost impossible for you to have not internalised some of these ideals. Even day to day as you tell yourself that BMI is bullshit, that there are many good qualities to you, and every other thing you can think of, you can’t always logic your way out of it because it’s so well entrenched within you.
In romantic relationships, this is something can really bubble to the surface, especially if your metamours (partner’s partners) reflect the standards society deems as more attractive and valuable and you don’t. When you’re facing systems of power that permeate your life in ways you hate, it’s hard to shove it down in relationships and simply tell yourself that you’re a unique snowflake with everything to offer. That one statement is standing against what’s likely decades of internalised degradation.
And that brings me to the poisoned root of this horrible advice:
You are not a product to consume
Relationships should not be transactions. The capitalist system we live in tells us constantly that we’re only as valuable as the labour we can offer, the product we produce. And in many cases, especially for those of us too disabled to do specific types of labour or those of us whose labour has been deemed less valuable or not valuable at all, we *still* think that the best way to prove our self-worth is by what we’re worth. If not in monetary value, than as a product we can offer a partner.
You might think, “Okay, so maybe I’m not good looking enough but I’m a great cook. Maybe I can’t go out swing dancing with my partner but I write music. Maybe I’m not all that great with managing my feelings but I write excellent love notes”. We build ourselves up by trying to find our unique selling point and market ourselves to ourselves to make us less afraid of our partners leaving us. That’s what the standard advice leads you to do.
Like deep breathing, sometimes this works. For as fucked up as this capitalist system is, sometimes the only boost of self esteem we can get in a world that constantly devalues us is knowing we can make the best guacamole the world’s ever seen. It’s not inherently bad to focus on the things we can do well, especially when we’re in a sad, wretched place in our minds. But when those things we can do become the bullets on a CV for romantic partners… then we have to step back.
Because life changes in so many different ways. And with billions of people on this planet, there actually might be someone out there that makes a better guac than you can. More importantly, that’s not even the point of what a relationship is!
Think about why you are with or have been with someone you love. Did you decide to love them the day you sat, looked over their CV and thought, “The pros outweigh the cons here!” We don’t fall in love because someone offers us the best bang for our buck (literally?). I honestly couldn’t tell you why I’ve fallen in love for some people and why not others. I have a feeling that, if media and social influence impacts whether or not we can fall in love with ourselves, it must impact whether we fall in love with other people.
Regardless of the complex reasons of why we’re attracted to and fall in love with the people we do, one thing is pretty clear: it’s not about choosing someone who is good at everything or really good at a number of things despite their flaws. Instead of seeing partners and love in this very capitalist way of a value exchange, we should accept one inevitable truth: we have inherent value as human beings that is not dependent upon what we have to offer others.
There will always be something ‘better’
You can temporarily placate yourself by telling yourself you offer something unique to your romantic partner in the products you as a person can produce. But it’s like putting a strip of gauze on a wound that needs stitches. It treats the symptom, but not the problem. Because no matter how good you can be at one thing, there will always be someone better at it than you. And no matter how much you might be great in one moment, we all have our moments of difficulty and struggle which challenge our resources.
Applying stitches to the wound means reframing your thinking. Stop reinforcing the idea that you are something for someone else to consume and use and start trying to believe that there is an inherent value in your being that isn’t about what you can offer someone. Stop trying to find your USP (unique selling point) and start demanding that people who date you treat you with the respect you should inherently have rather than feel like you need to earn. Because as we all age, change and grow, every single USP we believe we have can change.
That’s not to say this all happens overnight. Again, you’re working against years of conditioning, possibly even conditioning done by your own family. This is going to take time. Insecurity is often the result not of self-hatred, but of not feeling secure. If you’re starting a new relationship, you’re going to feel insecure. And non-monogamy is something which doesn’t come with a cultural script that tells us the signs that our relationship is serious. As explained in The Relationship Escalator, we often have to come up with our own ways of establishing security.
Sometimes the best thing you can do with anxiety is sit with it, go through it and come out the other side knowing and seeing that you’ve survived. I’ve always found that bending to anxiety and trying to bargain with it always results in it slowly taking over my life. If in the short term, thinking of the ways that you can be awesome helps you snap out of an anxiety spiral, that’s fine. But try and not rest those on products of yourself, things you can offer and focus more on the fact that you have an inherent value that can’t be measured and that your relationships shouldn’t be about the perks you can offer someone.
If you liked this article…
I have written The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy designed as a starter book for someone who is new to non-monogamy and/or people struggling with anxiety in polyamory. You don’t have to be anxious for the book to help, especially as it comes with not just a bit of advice but activities for you to try on your own or with partners to help ground you.
The book is now available for pre-order from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be released late June 2022.