In my last post I wrote about what it was like to have sex with Dr. T. (A truly delightful subject!) Our sexual involvement spanned four and a half years and had a profound impact on me emotionally, physically, even spiritually. As much as I’d convinced myself that I was doing it for him, the sex was also filling a deep, unacknowledged need of my own.
When I had sex with Dr. T,
I felt wanted.
I felt needed.
I felt important.
I felt like I had worth and value.
I felt like I mattered to someone.
I felt like I had a sense of purpose.
I felt like the emptiness inside of me was being filled up.
Like so many people who suffer from low self-esteem, I believed, on some very deep level, that I was missing something essential and had a gaping hole inside me that I desperately needed filled in order to be “okay.” I feared that I had no real worth, no value. That I was “not enough.” I thought I needed someone else to give me what I lacked, endow me with a sense of worth and value, make me feel complete.
Having sex with Dr. T seemed to do just that—fill up those empty spaces inside of me and give me the sense of worth and validation I craved.
Even though he claimed that the sex was primarily for my benefit, clearly he was getting something out of it (!), and that made me feel good. I wanted to make him happy, and apparently I was doing a good job. I’d also taken to heart what he’d told me about our “union” potentially being of great spiritual benefit to him—in essence, that it could move him further along the path of realization. I wanted that for him. If I could support him in his own “spiritual development,” well, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Having sex with him became my act of service—a way for me to express my gratitude to him for his love and care and willingness to break all those rules for me. I felt honored to be his caretaker and the vessel for all that “spiritual energy” he was channeling—it gave me a sense of purpose. Finally, there was something I could offer of myself that would truly be appreciated and valued by someone I loved! At last, I would matter. And surely any sacrifices I made on his behalf would make me more worthy and deserving…
My ego became completely invested in our sexual relationship. I was happy to make this Faustian bargain: I would do whatever I could to take care of his sexual needs, which would make me feel like I was giving him something he valued, and he could “have his way” with me, which would make me feel wanted and appreciated. The more he “gave” to me, the more I’d feel “filled up.”
In theory, if I gave him what he needed, then he would give me what I needed.
My sense of inner lack and insufficiency fueled my feelings of longing for him. There were many times when we were having sex that I desperately wanted to be engulfed, consumed, taken over, incorporated into him. I imagined that through our union I would become part of him and therefore complete. Those empty spaces inside me would become irrelevant; they would no longer exist.
I wanted him to make me whole.
It didn’t matter how he treated me. Even though in the beginning I felt put off by his rather aggressive and objectifying preferences, which I had not previously encountered in a sexual relationship (and did not seem terribly spiritual…), my mind soon started translating this as “desire” and “need.” The more roughly he treated me, the more I felt he wanted me. His intensity felt validating. I was happy to lie back, surrender to my sense of “rapture,” and let him take me. He could do what he wanted with me, even if it happened to hurt my physical body. As I wrote in my last post, “In my mind it was as if by hurting me, he was taking possession of me, marking his territory—and I wanted that. I was happy if he left marks. It made me feel like I was his, that he had ‘claimed’ me.”
To a woman with abandonment issues and chronically low self-esteem, is there anything more validating than the desire of a powerful man? A man who’s willing to break the rules for her? If he needed something that I could give him, there was no way I would refuse him. His approval and validation of me meant too much. I was honored to offer myself in service of his needs and give him my loyalty and devotion.
And so it went on for over four years.
What I didn’t understand was that I was caught in a vicious cycle.
I believed that pleasing him would earn me his validation and love, which would then fill those holes inside me and allow me to feel worthy, valued, complete. But in my efforts to please him, I essentially gave myself away. I did things that didn’t feel all that good to me in order to make him happy, and I had to hide this knowledge from myself (and him) in order to maintain the fantasy of our relationship and ensure that I would be successful in pleasing him. I devalued myself in order to feel valued by him.
But it didn’t quite work. I wanted his love. And his sexual treatment of me was a constant reminder that I didn’t have it. If he truly cared for me, then wouldn’t he have been treating me more like a beloved partner and less like a….well…less like someone who provides sexual services for a living? So then I’d try harder to please him (doing all the same things as before), and the cycle would continue. The very things I was doing in an effort to win his love affirmed that I didn’t have it. And by giving myself away, I created more emptiness inside of me—with an even greater need for validation and approval.
I thought that having sex with him would fill me up and make me feel whole. But what I thought was filling me up was actually eating me up, destroying the sense of self and value that I had.
This incredibly destructive cycle was constantly perpetuating itself. I was completely stuck, unable to see the bigger picture of what was really going on. I needed some sort of jolt to the status quo to wake me up. Thank goodness I got it. Without that, the cycle might have continued indefinitely.
* * *
Many of us struggle with feelings of worthlessness. We’re so sure that we’re deficient—that we’ve got holes inside us that need to be filled up. We do all sorts of things trying to get some sense of validation so that we can feel better about ourselves—things like achieving, pleasing others, looking good, being “perfect”… Or we try to fill ourselves up so we don’t feel empty, by eating, shopping, drinking, gambling, having lots of sex, and so on. We may even use otherwise healthy habits like exercise and meditation to cover up our insufficiencies and help us feel more worthy and deserving. We become addicted to whatever seems to generate a sense of “enoughness” or numb us to the feelings of deficiency. We can’t afford to quit the addictive behavior because when we do, we start to feel once again that we’re “lacking” or undeserving. We have to keep doing, doing, doing, so that we can feel okay about ourselves and generate that sense of self-worth that would otherwise be missing.
Some of us also need to be careful that we don’t derive an identity or sense of purpose from our feelings of emptiness and lack. Those of us who have grown up with a belief that we are deficient, missing something essential, may become “seekers” and spend our lives looking for something that will fill those empty spaces and give us a sense of self-worth and fulfillment. This search may become our purpose, our mission in life. But when we continually approach our lives from the perspective that we are missing something, we can never be happy. We will always experience a space inside us that cannot be filled.
I think we can reclaim a sense of ourselves as whole. I say “reclaim” because we were always complete, we were never not whole. We just forgot our selves. And we looked to others to show us what we couldn’t see inside. Unfortunately, we assumed that how others treated us was a reflection of our value, and that what we did and did not have in our lives meant something about our worth. Our assumptions turned into beliefs, and then we put those beliefs out into the world and acted accordingly. But when we act like we’re “less than,” that’s what’s going to be reflected back to us; the more we deny or negate our value, the more likely it is that others will treat us poorly. If we say to the world, “I’m worthless!” hoping that we’ll be proven wrong and reassured of our value, we’re going to be very disappointed! It doesn’t work like that. What we put out there is generally what we get back.
When we try to get a sense of internal validation from other people—or from anything outside of us—we’re destined to fail.
The only way out of this is to stop what we’re doing. Stop trying to get these old emotional needs met through others’ validation, through constant doing, through trying to be something other than exactly who we are.
We are all already “enough”—there’s no such thing as being incomplete. Our value is inherent within us. It doesn’t come from outside. We can’t get it from others, and we can’t get it by doing. Self-worth isn’t something we can acquire or achieve. We don’t have to earn our worth. We have worth and value simply by existing.
We can reclaim ourselves and call our sense of self, power and value back from whomever we’ve sold them to. We can remember who we are, accept ourselves unconditionally, and choose to believe in our innate value. We don’t have to do anything. We just have to be ourselves, let everything else go, and give ourselves the love, care and compassion we absolutely deserve.