Last week, we met Mimi and Jordan, a lovely young couple whose dating relationship was marked by Mimi being attracted to Jordan precisely because he did not fawn over her. Mimi, although very pretty, smart, and nice, had low self-esteem.
She kept that well-hidden with great social skills but in her heart of hearts she did not believe in herself; she felt weak and unsure.
Therefore, if a boy would be too admiring, she foolishly felt that it could only mean one thing: He would expect her to take leadership in the relationship and that was something she didn’t feel she could do.
Jordan was reserved. He was a responsible person and a hard worker and did not seem to expect anything from Mimi except to be there for him. Oddly enough, once the marriage got underway, Mimi felt the absence of the very thing she had been afraid of in other boys — attention.
Actually, this makes sense:
The attention made her insecure while dating but once married she felt needy because of her own insecurities.
The more she complained to Jordan, the more irritated he felt; she was no longer the same sweet girl he had been dating.
Now that Mimi and Jordan have been married for six months and the marriage seems to be heading to that unnecessary and terrible place starting with the word “d,” is there a way to avert this tragic next step?
Of course there is.
Mimi and Jordan engaged in a short course of counseling to address three issues: Mimi, Jordan, and them. Issue #1: Mimi:
- Mimi needed a little time to explore her sense of self. Where did her low self-esteem come from? Why did she imagine that attention from an admirer would be a sign of weakness? How can she re-learn what relationships really are made of and how to be happy in this one?
It does not require years of therapy for Mimi to make these discoveries about herself, although there are modalities of therapy that seem to go on forever.
However, a tools-based therapy gives clients a means to think, feel, and behave in ways that are self-enhancing rather than self-defeating and ultimately create strong relationships with others.
In going over her family background, it didn’t take Mimi long to see that her low self-esteem came directly from her own parents’ divorce.
She was the oldest of three children, but rather young when the divorce took place. Her mother was awarded the children and she was left in charge of her siblings starting at age eleven; her mother would not return from work for another hour after they all got home from school.
Mimi was frightened to be the oldest in the house for that hour but she learned to put on good appearances for the little ones.
When her mother got home, her mother was preoccupied with her own emotional pain and fatigue. She didn’t ask Mimi how she was doing; she didn’t thank her for her help or give her the sort of positive feedback such a huge job would require. The task of assisting her siblings was overwhelming to Mimi and she was quite sure that her mother’s silence on the subject meant she was doing it wrong.
As Mimi grew older, she found that even when she directly asked for feedback, she did not get the sort of concrete answers she was looking for. Her mother frequently met her questions with some irritation so she learned not to ask. Her father visited occasionally but he was also preoccupied with worries of his own.
In just a few weeks of therapy, it dawned on Mimi that the admirers in her dating years “felt like” her little siblings hanging onto her skirts – and that was scary. Even more, she realized with a start that Jordan’s reserve was like her mother’s reserve. Wow! What a revelation. No wonder it disturbed her greatly.
Now, what to do about all these discoveries?
The first thing that Mimi needed to do was re-visit her assumptions about herself.
“Now that you are an adult,” the therapist asked, “how do you see the enormous job you did taking care of your sister and brother?”
“Obviously, I did a fantastic job,” Mimi answered without hesitation.
“Exactly,” the therapist replied. “You did. So now the task at hand is to remind yourself that you are, indeed, a capable person.”
“I know, at some level, that that is true,” Mimi responded. “But there is that little voice in me that says, ‘No,’ even when rationally I know it is not true.”
“Yes, those toxic messages are the problem people usually have when there is a disconnect between their rational evaluations of themselves and how they feel. The way to handle this is to remind yourself ten times – or more – a day that you are a capable person.”
The therapist went on to explain the role of neural circuits in the brain and how they can change so that the automatic thoughts we have will, in turn, change. The key to re-wiring the brain is a program of well-placed and correctly-done affirmations like the one above.
Mimi was excited. She now had the tool to literally undo the damage of a lifetime of wrong thinking and low self-esteem. But more was needed. How can she come to enjoy and appreciate Jordan?
When the revelation hit her that Jordan’s reserve was like her mother’s, she burst out with one of those oft-heard statements: “I married my mother!”
“No, you didn’t,” the therapist weighed in. “Your mother’s reserve came from her own feelings of being overwhelmed, possibly depressed, and frankly, a lack of understanding of child development.
“She was not there for you because she didn’t even realize she needed to be. Jordan, on the other hand, is there for you. He is doing exactly what he was going to do and what you already knew at the beginning: He works, he cares, he returns home to smile at you. What Jordan never knew is that you felt insecure to begin with. He didn’t know he was supposed to fill that empty spot in your heart.”
“Well, now what?” asked Mimi plaintively. “How can I get him to fill it?”
“First of all,” the therapist answered, “the person who must fill that empty spot is you, yourself. No one else can make up for what a parent didn’t give.
“Second of all, general feedback without the insecurity is always nice to have and to get it all you have to do is ask for it. And we will work on that in our couples session.
“But what has been sorely missing, I want you to start thinking about before our next couples appointment, is that you have not given Jordan any positive feedback. He’s a good boy, doing what you knew he would be doing, and all you do is complain.”
Mimi saw that her therapist was right. She owed Jordan something he’d never received. Imagine that: In wanting so desperately for her empty spot to be filled inside, she neglected her husband’s need for the same loving recognition. She made up her mind to rectify that as soon as she got home.
Stay tuned next week for the next part of this series when we take a look at Jordan himself and how the two of them can build a beautiful home.