The Jaws of Certainty: How Our Low Self-Esteem Pushes Love Away

Evidence can be tricky. We often think of science as a purely objective endeavor, supported by the analysis of an unbiased observer. But, often overlooked is the inconvenient fact of human psychology, which constitutes our memories, values, feelings, and core beliefs about the world, others, and ourselves. Psychology and nature exist in a closed system in which both affect one another. Thus, evidence is information processed in the observer’s mind and interpreted in, sometimes, unpredictable ways.

When we’re certain of our inferiority, of the depth of our rooted deficiency, we tend to skew incoming information in ways that solidify our self-conceptions. We’re seeking out certainty, above all else. Certainty engenders a state of comfort that can even override the desire for love. Certainty equates with safety and those struggling with depression and anxiety, and a deteriorated sense of self, turn to it despite its malevolent effects.

The clients I’ve had who’ve struggled with trauma in some form, whether through abuse or neglect (or both), can’t make sense of their certainty of being irreversibly tainted and, at the same time, potentially lovable. The tension results from a biased perspective that has spent most of their lives assuring them through repetition. Speaking with them, one acquires a profound sense of their sorrow and fear. It’s as though conflicting evidence is akin to a wooden match which could set them ablaze if allowed to permeate into, and through, their psyches. The work begins with a tolerance of uncertainty, of helping them hold the validity of two antithetical sets of beliefs: on the one hand, they see themselves as awful, horrific human beings; but on the other, they’re loved.

The jaws of certainty swallow them, leaving behind soulless shells of individuals that could have been. Certainty, in their worlds, can only be eliminated by certainty; so they chase perfection, believe that they’re perfect, or cease their journeys altogether, sensing their vanity. In a black and white world, in which one is either terrible or good, safety supersedes fear. If the tension terrifies you, if you don’t want to feel stupid for having believed in your worth only to discover an egregious error (or to gain and then lose it), you’d probably pick the devil the know.

In that vein, any form of evidence will be interpreted in a way that fosters emotional equilibrium. Thus, if someone calls you attractive, they’re just being nice. If they tell you they love you, they’re being manipulative. If they call you smart, they might just be stupid themselves. Fundamentally, our minds can care more about our sanity than they do for the truth. Think about it like this: Imagine you’re afraid of seeing your test results. So, you try to avoid looking at them, pretending they don’t exist. For some time, until you decide to look, you’re in denial. And as long as you don’t observe them, they can’t hurt you. Similarly, we do the same with positive information pertaining to our worth: If I don’t acknowledge it, or explain it away, then I won’t have to fear potential rejection and disappointment.

Unless, somehow, you can be certain of your partner’s positive conception of you, or your own worth, you don’t allow yourself to entertain the possibility. Sometimes, we can accept our partner’s affection for us and devalue them, too. If I can’t fathom my worth, then it must be that my partner is just as unworthy as I am as she loves me; basically, she’s on my level. Again, this extreme conception (my partner is terrible) is formed to remedy our fears. (What if I’m lovable and I discover my error?) And, subsequently, we’d begin our journeys for love all over again in a vicious cycle of self-hatred, acceptance, and rejecting another.

Combating self-loathing begins with an assessment of others’ perspectives, accepting the reality of yours and theirs. And, this leads into an understanding of the dichotomous nature of traits (ex. Sometimes I’m courageous, and at others I’m not), which, in turn, evolves into the acceptance that you can be proud of yourself just for trying to improve. One of the most unnerving aspects of psychotherapy for those who struggle with black and white thinking is that pride doesn’t have to be linked to undiluted success; you can be proud of yourself for achieving some part of your goal. If you want to stand up to your boss, just questioning her perspectives in a non-challenging manner can help you feel proud of yourself for taking a major step toward assertiveness. Even walking up to a girl and talking to her, without asking her out on a date, can help mitigate your fear and engender a sense of pride for completing an important aspect of your task. The point is that goals can be divided and perceived through the lens of gradation: Success isn’t a straight path; it’s a climb upward.

I can be proud of myself for speaking with an attractive stranger and even more proud if I fully conquer my fear and land a date. But, to get anywhere, we’d have to discontinue rationalizing our attitudes and accept our fears of rejection and intimacy and the mental gymnastics we engage in to quell them.

3 Comments

  1. “Certainty equates with safety and those struggling with depression and anxiety, and a deteriorated sense of self, turn to it despite its malevolent effects”-I feel this on a deep level. Well said!

    Liked by 1 person

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