Breaking the cycle on October 5, 1998…
Dear Breakup Girl,
Love your column, long-time listener, first-time caller, etc., etc., posture, pose, whine, wheedle.
I have the perfect relationship. I’m engaged to my high school sweetheart, who is intelligent, witty, well-read, and fun to be with. And, of course, as an added bonus: she’s gorgeous. Sorta like moving into a cool, inexpensive apartment and finding out that it has a dishwasher.
It may sound as if Ms. Perfect is just that, but she’s got an annoying flaw. She has absolutely no self-esteem whatsoever. She’s constantly belittling her appearance and her intelligence.
I’m fairly certain that it’s not a “fishing for compliments” thing. If she is looking for compliments, then she’s got a *really* high quota: this trend reared its ugly head well into the relationship…she’d had over a year of “gosh, you look nice today,” “you’ve got really pretty eyes, dear,” “hey beautiful,” and other such compliments. (We’ve been dating for nearly five years, and it didn’t really start until midway through the second year.)
At first, she stumbled awkwardly over them, and I could tell that she just wasn’t sure how to react…then she started deflecting them with either self-hateful remarks, the ever-popular “oh you’re just saying that,” or simply a scathing “whatever.”
Telling her that her rebuttals to my compliments are causing me angst causes her to lapse into a depressed self-flagellation, where she berates herself for being an “awful bitch” and offers to break up so that I can find someone better.
She’s 5’2″ and 120 pounds, and she calls herself fat. She’s got a 3.8 GPA and considers herself dumb. She’s the most wonderful human being on the planet and she thinks she’s Leona Helmsley.
I’m certainly not verbally abusive to her…I don’t have time to be, since I’m nearly constantly trying to stop her cycle of self-abuse.
My question is “what the hell’s wrong, and how can I help her fix it?” Are there details that probably are the cause and contributors to this issue that I’ve left out? I’m not trying to “fix” my certain someone, since I love her deeply despite her problem, I just think it’s better for her in the long-term if she stops…well…hating herself.
–Madly in Love
You’re right, I doubt your dishwasher is fishing for compliments. I think part of it is that she’s lousy at taking them. Heck, we all are. How often do we just toss off, “Hey thanks, you look great too!” without pausing to bask in that rare moment when it is, just briefly, all about us. How often, instead, do we just say, “Thanks” — and let our complimenters enjoy their good deeds?
In fact, even Breakup Girl forgot to acknowledge your compliment. Thanks.
Likewise, few of us are ever satisfied. Why isn’t a 3.8 a 3.9? You know what I mean?
That said, Dishwasher’s case of what is really just humanness does sound a tad extreme. I really don’t know why. She does have it set up where you can’t win. Not only is she a bad person, but she’s also a bad person for not letting her tell you she’s a good person. Voila!
But have you noticed that whatever you’re doing (“constantly trying to stop her cycle of self-abuse”) isn’t working? Well, you have noticed, but even so, you haven’t stopped trying to stop it. I’m thinking, Madly, that all you can really do is show, not tell. Being with her — and treating her wonderfully — despite the fact that she thinks she’s a loser is the best antidote to her thinking she’s a loser. I know you love her. I also know that when you give someone a compliment or present or whatever, it’s totally maddening to not watch their eyes light up and their gratitude gush forth. This — the lack of satisfying backatcha that’s a lovely byproduct of a compliment — is driving you nuts as much as her own private “cycle of self-abuse” is. But you’re engaged to her, warts and all, and this is a wart. Tell her it’s really really pretty, and don’t bank on a Thanks.