Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Self-Esteem: Infidelity's Biggest Trigger

Self-esteem and infidelity are like wind and fire. They both feed off each other.

Low self-esteem is often cited as a core issue within the unfaithful spouse in deciding/allowing an affair to take place. Makes sense, since a lot of the draw for affairs is that the affair partner makes the unfaithful spouse feel good about himself in ways either their spouse isn't or can't do.

Likewise the discovery of a spouse's affair leads to self-esteem issues of competency on both sides of the fence. The sinking of self-esteem by an affair often leads a hurt spouse to be embarrassed, as if its presence was a statement on his ability as a marriage partner to keep his spouse "happy." It leads the unfaithful spouse to avoid dealing with the fallout of the affair in a productive manner because being reminded of it is evidence of their failure and being a "bad" person.

Therefore, it is an important topic to explore in relation to healing infidelity, not only for the above reasons, but because so many people don't know the correct way to think about this issue, and so head down paths to deal with it that never fix it, only put a band-aid on it.

First, let's establish what we are talking about when we use the term self-esteem. It refers to the perception of worth an individual believes they have. There are two primary sources we tend to derive this perception: how we believe others perceive us and how competently we believe we have accomplished a given task. The two sources often overlap, as we may believe a person thinks we have done a good job or a bad job.

Often, the diagnosis is we have low self-esteem, and if we developed some high self-esteem, it would fix the problem. However, it doesn't tend to work that way. As long as our perception of our worth is based upon our belief of what others think and our accomplishments or lack thereof, our self-esteem will shoot up only to fall back down. We can always find someone who doesn't like us or thinks we don't know what we are doing. Most of us cover that up by acting like we don't care and/or putting on a "macho" attitude. But inside we are wilting.

The real solution to this problem isn't to work to make yourself feel better, but to base your self-esteem, your self-worth in reality, not on what others think or how well you can do something. It goes back to forming a foundation of your own belief in your worth as a person divorced from our perceptions.

The reality is most fameously enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...

The fact is no one person is inherently worth more or less than another. It is the belief that some are worth more than others that accounts for many of the ills in our society, past and present. It used to be a popular belief that the color of one's skin made a person worth less. Used to be women didn't have the right to vote; their voice was not worth as much as a man's. Still is if a woman doesn't have a particular set of dimensions to her body, she is not worth as much. Still if a man is not perceived to be manly enough, he is looked down on in some circles. Still is that certain sins are seen as making one less of a person.

Therefore, the goal of healthy self-esteem is not merely avoiding a low one, nor to raise one's self-esteem, but to get the self out of esteem.

That is realize and believe that our esteem is based on being a member of the human race and not on what we believe others think of us or what we succeed or fail at. It is not founded on the good or bad choices we make in life. In short, the route to healthy self-esteem is to take your focus off of "me" and put it on "us." When you are no longer the center of your worth as a person, your worth will be based upon the whole group of which no one is worth more or less than another.

You'll notice I said your self-esteem is based in this reality. It isn't that the other things won't affect one's self-esteem, but they won't serve as the foundation for it. Your worth as a person won't change with each failure or when the boss chews you out. No one likes those things and they make us feel bad, but it is a mistake to treat them as forming our worth as a person.

It is when those things form the foundation of our self-esteem that we can feel good about ourselves one day and bad the next. It creates the vulnerabilities to be swayed by someone treating you special, or want to run when not everything is sunshine and roses. It allows your self-esteem to go into the pits when your spouse has an affair because your first thought is, "What did I do wrong?" Especially if blame shifting goes into high gear. 

For those in Christianity, there is an added reality. Not only did God create us all as inherently worth the same, but the message that He came and died to redeem us says a lot about what we are worth to God. The core of the gospel message is that God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son to redeem us from death. For the Christian, that is the basis for our esteem.

I honestly think this mindset is the reason my self-esteem, while it did take a hit due to my wife's affair, wasn't severely wounded. Rather, I focused on the fact that my wife was in danger and how could I help her. Not on myself. Not on how this would look to others. I evaluated my failures as a husband without feeling less of a man or person, or accepting the blame for my wife's bad choice to cheat on me. Those things don't define my worth, as bad as they are.

The road to a healthy self-esteem is to take the self out of the esteem equation. How to do that? Next time we will look at an approach that at first may sound counter-intuitive: humility. "The Path to Self-Esteem." Trust me, it isn't what you think.

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