We fear our thoughts more so than reality. The cognitive model of psychotherapy posits that our ideas about ourselves, others, and the world around us underlie mental illness. Accordingly, if we’re feeling depressed, we’re interpreting our circumstances in a way that creates our symptoms. If we’re anxious, we’re predicting a painful outcome based on the immediate data. And, if we fear rejection, we’re afraid of the way we’ll treat ourselves after.
Rejection sensitivity, and resultant depression, stem from our core beliefs of inferiority, worthlessness, and an inability to be loved, which are then supported by the failure. We begin from a place of certainty, from knowing that we’re worthless, and carry a faint hope that our lives could be otherwise. If we receive positive feedback, we start to doubt those core beliefs, potentially allowing ourselves to explore the possibility of being loved. For those of us who struggle with rejection anxiety, in a clinically significant sense, doubt often clashes with our certainty, creating a tension between belief and disbelief. On the one hand, we know who we are; and, on the other, we wonder how it could be that another perceives us differently.
Those without the sensitivity begin with the core belief of their inherent lovability. They may doubt its certainty, but carry on despite their fears. So, if there are signs of cheating, they’re able to calmly explore them with their partner, attempting to make sense of the data with their conceptions of the relationship and themselves. If they discover that they’re right, they feel worthless and disappointed but then return to emotional stability in due time. Because, somewhere deep inside, they know that their partner’s actions don’t reflect their inherent value. They know that, sometimes, people cheat due to selfish reasons; that, sometimes, being good enough isn’t enough for someone who’s never satisfied.
Those two vantage points produce different outcomes, although the trajectories of rejection begin in similar ways. Most of us doubt our lovability, but few are certain of its antithesis. And, for them, the goal of cognitive therapy entails the restructuring, or the sliding, of their beliefs, to shift from the certainty of their worthlessness to a conception of their worth. Initially, the bigger bubble is one of worthlessness, with an associated smaller one of doubt. Whereas, for someone who doesn’t present with clinically relevant symptoms, their bubbles are reversed; the bigger one represents self-love and the smaller one symbolizes self-doubt. The overarching goal is to shift their sizes.
Unfortunately, when the tension intensifies, some resort to self-sabotage to mitigate anxiety and confusion, explaining away the hurt they cause others. If I know that my girlfriend can’t, and doesn’t, love me, pushing her away doesn’t really hurt her. Since we tend to struggle with confirmation bias, a distorted way of thinking through which we cherry-pick information that supports our initial beliefs, if we believe that we’re unlovable, we’ll convince ourselves that we aren’t loved.
Beliefs are incredibly powerful and are often overlooked as peripheral to our well-being. In our culture, happiness entails possessions, relationships, and a lofty place among our peers. But, what happens when we can’t accept reality, when we don’t actually believe that we’ve attained those milestones? What happens when the evidence for love is overwhelming, yet the recipient can’t see it? And what occurs to the partner who perpetually fails to prove their affection?
You can call it imposter syndrome, rejection sensitivity, delusional ideations, or distorted thinking; those who struggle with reality struggle with their relationships. They struggle with self-acceptance as their partners often attempt to fight for them in vain.
Transforming one bubble into another seems like a daunting, and even impossible, task, but it’s not as challenging as one may think. We aren’t really going from one extreme to another, as lovability is, in reality, a fusion of two halves. The misconception that people who struggle with rejection sensitivity have is that, somehow, their imperfections disqualify them globally. If I’m frequently angry, I’m unlovable. If I have an enlarged nose, I’m unlovable. If I can’t become a doctor or get into graduate school, then I’m worthless. For them, self-worth is hinged on a plethora of achievements and qualities that constitute perfection. And like Jenga, it all comes tumbling down with a missing piece.
Therapy begins with the tolerance of self-doubt and sitting with the discomfort of conflicting evidence. If we can, at the very least, get the client to acknowledge that others can view them differently than they perceive themselves, the work contains the possibility of the creation of nuanced thinking, which can then produce self-compassion.
The bubble of un-lovability is deflated through introspection, when we’re taught about our parents’ personalities and of the subsequent strategy of perfection. With narcissistic parenting, the child resorts to perfectionism as a way to cope with her anxiety. Criticism and/or neglect convince the child that she’s unworthy of her parent’s love and should, thus, attempt to fight for it. Love, then, is conceptualized as conditional; and, since her attempts are often futile, she believes that perfection is her only avenue. This is people-pleasing.
Moreover, perfectionism is linked to black and white thinking, where we believe we’re either perfect or worthless, with nothing in between. So, the bubble of lovability smashes the duality and is saturated with our wholeness. Being lovable doesn’t mean that I’m perfect; it means that I’m a mixture of good and bad and I’m trying my best to be a better person. The bubble of lovability encompasses my courage, as well as my anxiety; my selfishness and generosity; my compassion and my greed. The bubble symbolizes my humanity while imploring self-improvement. In essence, paradoxically, lovability is a combination of the traits that make you liked and those that repel others. It’s a fusion of the shadow and the light, embodying the contradiction of who we are. And, self-acceptance ought to be enough, because perfection is impossible, a wild-goose chase that life requires us to embark on, regardless.