How is it that so many of us end up in relationships with people who don’t value us and treat us well? The relationship starts off good, we feel elated being with the person and then one day everything shifts. All of a sudden, it’s like we don’t matter to them and we wonder if we ever did.
If this is a pattern you have noticed in your relationships, you need to take an honest look at what you believe to be true about yourself. To break this cycle, you need to dig deep and unearth what kind of childhood conditioning has caused you to gravitate towards people who treat you poorly. The cycle continues because on some level, you believe that the treatment is okay.
So let’s back up for a minute here. Where does this kind of conditioning come from? First, let’s look at what healthy conditioning about the self looks like. In a healthy childhood, the child learns that their thoughts, feelings and preferences are valued and that they matter. They are taught and encouraged to protect themselves with healthy boundaries and to recognize when they are being harmed relationally.
When you have a caregiver struggling with addiction or mental health issues such as narcissism or depression, the child doesn’t learn that their feelings or thoughts are important. The needs of the caregiver often come first, and the child learns that what they think and feel are not important. What this often leads to is conditioning in the child’s mind that they are wrong for having feelings or that their feelings are invalid or less valuable than someone else’s.
In many cases, the child will learn how to anticipate the moods and feelings of their caregiver before they can identify how they feel themselves. They don’t learn how to recognize when someone is harmful to them relationally, because their caregiver often blurs boundaries with them. They learn that mistreatment and not standing up for yourself is normal in relationships.
Here are some beliefs you may have if you find yourself in these relationships often:
- I give people the benefit of the doubt too much or too many second chances.
- I worry about offending my partner if I stand up for myself.
- I have a hard time recognizing when I am being disrespected. Sometimes it takes someone else pointing it out to me.
- When someone hurts me, instead of setting a boundary with them, I feel like I need to prove my worthiness and why they should value me more.
- When someone hurts me, I need them validate me and my feelings by admitting that they were wrong or disrespectful.
- I don’t even know what respect feels like in a relationship.
- I feel guilty when setting boundaries and worry that I am being unfair. Sometimes I even convince myself that by setting the boundary, I am overreacting.
- I would rather put up with shitty treatment than be alone.
So how do we undo this conditioning about how we feel towards ourselves? How do we start recognizing that our thoughts and feelings matter and are just as valuable as anyone else’s?
1.) Be gentle with yourself. We seek out dynamics and relationships that are familiar to us, even if they are unhealthy. Understand and accept that you adapted the way that any child would have and that this kind of conditioning runs deep. It’s going to take time and practice to heal it.
2.) Validate your own feelings as if you would a friend’s. Chances are if a friend came to you with feelings they were having, you would totally get it and validate them. Your feelings are just as valid – show the same compassion you show to others to yourself.
3.) Identify negative and positive reinforcers. Who are the people who you feel good after spending time with? Who recharges your spirit? What about the people who are negative reinforcers? Are you surrounding yourself by others who confirm the negative things you believe about yourself? Limit your time around the negative reinforcers and choose to spend more time with people who treat you well.
4.) Don’t stay in love with potential. You could come up with so many potential ways the person who treats you crappy could choose to behave and make things better. But here’s the thing – they have already chosen to be crappy. Set your boundaries and let them be responsible for not violating them. If they do violate them, know how you will respond and stick to it.
5.) Remember the Law of Effect. We teach people how to treat us. When someone does something disrespectful to you, respond in a way that honors your self respect. This can look like setting boundaries or changing up the way you respond to something. For example, say your partner makes a hurtful comment to you while you are on the way out to dinner with them. Maybe in the past you shrugged it off or brought it up to them and tried to get them to see how hurtful they were. You know how that game goes. You basically argue with them so they see your point and give you external validation and things calm down for a while. Maybe this time, you tell them you’re not feeling up to going out for dinner and you’re just going to go home. And end the night early. Why? Because this teaches someone that if they mistreat you, you won’t spend time with them. They aren’t your only option to have dinner with.