Man covering his face with his hand as he struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem.

The Impact Of Anxiety And Low Self-Esteem In Relationships (& What To Do About It)

Relationships, in their ideal, are as much about seeing and loving yourself as they are about seeing and loving your partner. They are also about growing and evolving – as individuals and as a committed entity of its own. But growth, let alone transformation, doesn’t happen without struggle. The impact of anxiety and low self-esteem in relationships, for example, can bring to the surface challenges that would otherwise hide behind denial and complacency.

In the Harry Potter series, the invisibility cloak is loaded with possibilities and protections. But, in a world outside magic and wizardry, it’s a conceptual fantasy at best.

And nowhere is that more true than in the context of a relationship. 

You may not always be able to put your finger on what lurks beneath the surface of another person.

You may not even be able to put your finger on what lurks beneath the surface of yourself.

The beauty of emotional intimacy is the reciprocal safety that allows what is hidden to be seen…and what is seen to be accepted and, when necessary, worked on and transformed.

And so it is with issues like anxiety and low self-esteem. 

In relationships, these negative currents can be cumulatively damning. 

But there is hope to evolve out of them, especially if true intimacy is your relationship goal and commitment.

If you visit this site often, you will recognize all the “self-” references and discussions. Self-worth, self-love, self-respect, self-esteem….

You will also probably be well versed by now in the importance of the “self” – in all its facets – and how it influences every aspect of a relationship. 

When we talk about self-esteem, we’re talking about your overall subjective sense of worth and value.

Itincludes elements like self-confidence, sense of belonging, identity, and feelings of security and confidence.

Self-esteem is often spoken of interchangeably with self-worth, which is actually a more global, stable form of self-esteem. 

While self-esteem can fluctuate based on moods, circumstances, and the approval of others, self-worth says, “I know who I am and what I am worth…regardless.”

(When in doubt, think of self-worth as internally driven and self-esteem as externally influenced. “You didn’t like my idea? OK. Thank you for your input. I’m still awesome.” vs. “You didn’t like my idea? Oh man, what’s wrong with me?”)

Anxiety, in and of itself, is actually a normal emotion in response to stress. It can forewarn you of potential dangers ahead and, in that regard, be a protective agent.

The problem that leads to anxiety disorders – and, in the context of this article, relationship anxiety – is when that anxiety is chronic, unfounded, and/or overwhelming.

So what is the relationship between anxiety and low self-esteem in relationships?

Compared to the overlap of all the “self-stuff,” anxiety may seem like an outlier. But it actually becomes a “messenger” of what’s missing or unhealthy in “self-(fill in the blank).”

Let’s take a look at how low self-esteem plays out, especially in relationships….

  • You don’t love yourself. And self-love is critical to a relationship’s success.
  • You don’t feel worthy of anything good.
  • You make bad decisions, often to sabotage yourself.
  • You compare yourself to everyone…and somehow always come up short.
  • You can’t/don’t/won’t trust people.
  • You’re suspicious and jealous – of people, relationships, kindness…everything.
  • You don’t share your thoughts, feelings, dreams, and talents with others because you’re covnvinced they’re stupid/worthless/laughable/silly/unachievable.
  • You don’t have healthy boundaries.
  • You don’t take care of yourself, even in basic ways like eating healthfully, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
  • You stop doing things you enjoy. You either feel unworthy or fear failure…or both.
  • You don’t seek help.

(Read here for an honest, first-hand discussion of what it means to love a man with low self-esteem.)

So let’s say you came into a relationship with low self-esteem. 

Perhaps you did a convincing job of hiding it, but now your deep-seeded self-doubt and fears are showing up in “odd” ways. You may not even realize your low self-esteem is showing.

But your anxiety is acting as a voice for your low self-esteem.And it’s slowly eroding your relationship.

How does relationship anxiety play out?

  • You have a fear of commitment and don’t let yourself be vulnerable with a partner. If you’ve been hurt in the past, that memory becomes your North Star.
  • You end relationships before they get too serious. “Better safe than sorry.”
  • You’re not only suspicious of others, but you act out your suspicions. You may follow your partner. You may insinuate or outright accuse him/her of cheating. 
  • You worry about the relationship and its ability to endure.
  • You ruminate and create dramatic scripts that have no basis in reality.
  • You can’t concentrate – on work, conversations, commitments, etc.
  • You constantly plant seeds of doubt, mistrust, fear, and suspicion, often to the point of sabotaging your relationship and driving your partner away. In other words, you create a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” There is an aberrant safety in “See, I knew it.”

As you can see, the invisibility cloak isn’t really so invisible. Even if others can’t “see” you, they can “feel” you.

In the end, you have a choice.

You can either continue letting that unsettled cauldron continue to boil deep within you, steaming and oozing out wherever it can find an opening.

Or you can take control of how the hurt escapes by channeling it in healthy ways.

Here are some guidelines for taking anxiety and low self-esteem out of the driver’s seat of your life and your relationship:

  • Work on setting healthy boundaries, even if it’s one little boundary at a time. “I can give you this amount of time, but I can’t give you the entire day.”

    Every boundary matters, even if it doesn’t involve your partner.
  • Start expressing your feelings – slowly, thoughtfully, responsibly, intentionally. Listen to yourself as you share what feels so vulnerable to share. Pay attention to the response(s) you get. And learn from them…and from yourself.
  • Develop rituals of play – by yourself, with your children, with your partner. Intentionally choose to learn and participate in activities that have no winners or losers…and no room for judgment.
  • Pay attention to how you feel when someone else expresses self-doubt and low self-esteem.
  • Focus on your core values and ways you can better live them – volunteering, helping someone else who is struggling to see his/her worth, etc.
  • Take one step of vulnerability at a time. Admit to your partner something you struggle with – jealousy, fear that your relationship will end, worry that you don’t have enough to offer, etc.
  • Observe practices and rituals of self-care. Start small until self-care feels natural. Give yourself time alone to journal, exercise, take a candlelit bath, plant flowers, visit a museum. Anything that stirs your sense of value, potential, creativity, and worth to the world.
  • Reach out for help – as an act of self-care, vulnerability, and value for your relationship.

Sometimes we don’t even recognize when we’re plagued by a lifetime of anxiety and low self-esteem. 

In relationships, however, everything gets laid on the table – if not now, then over time.

Recognizing the reflective relationship between you and your partner can be the first step to learning how to maintain your self-esteem in relationships.

It just means dropping the invisibility cloak and allowing yourself to be seen.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

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Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats