CNM 028: Self-Love & Feeling Worthy – with Andrew Johnston LPC-I

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In this episode, I interview marriage counselor Andrew Johnston about how he works with clients who struggle with self-love.

He sheds lights on how Attachment Theory informs the way we view ourselves in intimate relationships, and how we can use relationship with others to heal from our wounds (but that doesn’t necessarily mean we must be in a relationship to heal).

He also addresses several questions about self-love and worthiness that our visitors have asked us.

So let’s get right to the interview!

Interview with Andrew Johnston, LPC-I

Brian: Andrew, welcome to the show today. We’re so glad that you’re here.

Andrew: Thank you.

Brian: I’ve actually done some recent, extensive surveying of the audience. I have over 6,000 responses from open-ended questions that we’ve asked our audience during the quiz that a lot of them take. I’ve been able to boil this down into several sub-categories.

And I’ve just recently surveyed on social media to see which one people are wanting information about most. I’ll quickly describe what that is, and then I thought we could have a conversation about that together. And I want to ask you several specific question that our visitors have asked me in our open-ended survey.

Question: So our topic at hand is Learning Self-Love and Feeling Worthy (so you can stop feeling inconsequential and afraid of being abandoned, and stop relying on others to make you feel happy). Those are some very specific words that our visitors have actually used. I have a few questions to ask about that, but generally speaking, where would you start if you were going to help somebody understand how to do that better?

Well, when somebody comes to me with an issue like that, there are a few things that neuroscience has come to help us understand about this, and has really shed a lot of light on these processes. We are discovering that there are really two levels of the brain, and a lot of these feelings – like self-worth, self-love, and reaching out for support and security when you need it – these things are programmed into the emotional centers of the brain like the limbic system.

We’re learning that’s really a closed system. It’s something that closes off; it’ll influence our behavior, but the things that we do in the top part of our brain (the cortex, the rational, thinking part of the brain) have a hard time penetrating that. These lower brain centers get set either through traumatic experiences or mostly through our childhood. They set these patterns in place of how we think about ourselves and others, and that’s what sets the operating system.

So we can do a lot of stuff on the top part of the brain, a lot of accomplishments, but as far as really accessing those deeper parts of the brain, were figuring out that’s where you change these deep patterns and it’s not easy to do. It’s something that requires feeling those emotions, accessing and opening up those parts of the brain.

There’s a place for learning coping mechanisms which come from that top part of the brain, but to really do the work of changing the self-love, changing your value to other people, that’s a very deep kind of work. It requires opening up those circuits, feeling, and working with the emotions which is really a new area in psychotherapy. We’re learning emotions aren’t something we just kind of put to the side so we can think about things. We have to understand emotional dynamics, and those are primarily relational.

Question: The exact words that people are using, “I feel insecure when my partner seems to pull back or ignore me… I struggle to feel like I’m worth the other person’s time and effort…” Are these sorts of thought and words coming from a place of not having a secure attachment, and is therapy the only way (or the best way) for them to overcome that?

Well, therapy is definitely one way. I think therapeutic interactions happen throughout our life. I will say that the most powerful way of changing these deep programs that get set about our worth and value is in relationship.

Throughout your life, if you think about the times when you were really impacted, it’s usually in relationship with somebody else who essentially disconfirms something that was programmed in like, ‘I’m not worthy of someone’s time’. And then this person you respect and care for gives you of their time, and that has an impact. So it begins to reprogram some of those messages.

To the first part of your question about where these things come from, there’s a multitude of factors for all this, but I will say that what we’re learning from attachment research and attachment theory is how big of an influence the relationships that we have as an infant or young child are on us.

We know that through neuroplasticity these things can be changed; they’re not a death sentence, like for the rest of your life you’re just going to have to learn lots of coping mechanisms to deal with this deficiency of self love, or this feeling of unworthiness. There are ways to actually access and change that.

But the impact of those early years can’t really be understated. I think a good way to get into that is to understand two things about attachment theory. Number one, that we as human beings are relational beings. So, to think of the common myth nowadays that independence is the goal, and if you’re dependent that means you’re a problem; you’re deficient in some way. You feel this pull for other people. I need affirmation, I need validation, I need nurturance, all that sort of things. That’s actually all hard-wired in the system. We’re actually relationship beings. The powerful, powerful need to have a connection with another person and trust another, that is hard-wired.

The people that we think don’t need anybody; the “Clint Eastwood model” of somebody who is self-sufficient – that doesn’t really exist. Those people are typically denying that they need that connection. But that’s what we’re learning now, this myth of independence, that it’s two completely independent people coming together that negotiate their relationship.

Actually, we’re finding that the strongest bond and the most satisfying connections people have is when they acknowledge their dependence on one another, and how valuable it can be when they’re distressed, that they can reach out to this other person who will be there to support them. That’s actually the natural human state.

Jim Kohn is a researcher who coined the phrase “social baseline”. When our brains sense that we don’t have someone to fall back on, we are in a state of primal panic. We are actually amped up looking for danger all the time. We’re naturally more nervous about our situation. We’re more afraid than if we feel like we have someone we can fall back back. We’re all vulnerable, we’re all weak, we all have that need.

If we have somebody who understands us that we can fall back on, then our brains tell us we’re in a safer place.

Question: If one person in that relationship is not feeling like they’re worth another person’s time and effort, or they’re feeling inconsequential or ignored, is it that person’s responsibility that they feel that way? Is there some distinction where you can know, ‘This is a personal problem I have, vs. perhaps I have a partner who damages my self-esteem and prevents me from loving myself.” How do we really determine what’s happening so that we can take the appropriate next step?

That’s where you really have to look at it with a systems perspective.

I work with a lot of couples, and when they come in, often times one person comes in with feelings of low self-worth and we start talking about how it’s been playing out in their relationship. Now, we find that typically these patterns got started in childhood because that’s where we form our patterns of behavior in an attachment relationship.

Typically, attachment relationships are relationships with parents or care-givers when you’re a child. And then when you get into an adult love relationship (an intimate relationship), you reach back and carry forward some of those patterns, and they begin to play out in your relationship there because that’s another attachment relationship. And that’s why people will say, “Oh, you changed when we got married.” Well, that’s because you shifted into an attachment relationship.

You developed this one other way to deal with friends and co-workers, etc. There’s a special set of programming, a special set of wiring that was set when you were young, when your parents were your care-givers; the value and the deficiencies and the whole mix that gets carried forward into the adult love relationship. The downside of this is that if you develop patterns of codependency in those relationships, they’re going to re-emerge in your marriage or with your partner. The good news is when those patterns re-emerge, then you have access to them and you can change them.

So, that can happen in a number of different ways really. Every now and then when an individual comes in and we talk about these patterns of codependency and self-love, there’s work we can do individually. There are coping mechanisms; you can put a container on it to really just get your feet on the ground so you can navigate it.

But the deepest potential, if the other party is interested and willing to take those steps, the most powerful work is done in the relationship. Because to have someone who has sacrificed themselves for the sake of the relationship for years ever since they were a child and figured out they had to sacrifice their own emotions for the sake of their parents’ relationship, because they’re either taking care of the parents emotionally, or they never got a response so they learned they own emotions weren’t important – whatever experience they had, when they bring those emotions forward into a new relationship, the other person has their own patterns and they start to trigger one another.

For example, your codependent tendencies will come out, and it will trigger something in the other person. They become frustrated and think, ‘Oh, now you’re needy and I need to get away’. So they withdraw further, maybe to alcohol or to silence. They turn away, and that sets off the panic in the person with the codependent or needy behaviors (if you want to call them that), and that just exacerbates it. It gets started in childhood, and typically it’s been exacerbated in the relationship they’re in.

So if you have a partner who is willing to try to break that pattern, if you can feel those panicky feelings about the relationship being in jeopardy, you can feel that you’re not acceptable, and then create a situation in your relationship where you turn to your partner and say, “I feel this kind of panic when you turn away from me”, and they understand and say, “I’m sorry, you ARE important to me”, that’s going to reprogram that stuff.

That’s going to be a basis for beginning to rebuild this sense of self-worth and self-love. To hear your partner say, “I turn away from you not because I don’t care, but because I get flooded since you’re actually so important to me, it sets off all my flight, fright or freeze, and the only way I have to deal with it is to walk away or shut down in order to calm down”. To hear that you’re that important begins to reprogram some of that wiring.

So, there’s a multitude of ways to take steps toward healing.

Question: As I listen to you, I’m imagining the audience. I’m sure there’s a section of people listening right now who know that they’re in a relationship with a supportive person, who got glimmers of hope thinking, “There’s something we can do about this together because my partner will support me.”

But there’s another group of people probably thinking, “I don’t feel really secure in my relationship because I don’t feel like my partner is that supportive.” So the question that came to my mind immediately while you were talking about that is, ‘What happens if I’m in a situation where my partner isn’t supportive like that? Can I make progress on my own, or is it necessary to have that other person help me heal? What’s going to be my future if I’m in that situation?’

Well, I think that’s a really important question. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about since I’ve gone through training to do the Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy which is based on attachment. There are a lot of people in that field who say, “We’re hardwired for connection.” And the way they talk about it, it sounds like you can’t do the healing without this connection; you can’t be satisfied without this relationship. We know that’s not true. There have been monastics for years who are perfectly content without relationship. There are people who grow up single and don’t get married who can be perfectly happy.

What I think attachment theory can speak to is that it can give you some context for this, because there’s a real tendency if you’re already dealing with these demons of self-worth or feeling scarred, attachment theory can say, ‘That powerful need to connect with somebody else is a natural process. It’s biological. It stems from the fact that we are social animals, and the idea of being away from the herd or being disconnected from somebody sets your brain into a state of panic.’ So it gives you a context.

This is not something that is somehow flawed at a fundamental level. There’s some wiring that’s out of whack that says, ‘You’re not worth reaching, or you’re not worth somebody’s time.’ The wiring gets defective that says, ‘If you reach out, somebody’s not going to be there for you. You don’t deserve to be loved.’ That’s a level of wiring, but if you get deeper than that, the fundamental need to connect is just a basic human need. I think it de-pathologizes it and makes it understandable.

So, somebody who’s in a relationship where they’re either being physically abused, or know that this partner is not going to be supportive and walk that healing journey with them, I would start by having them understand where these dynamics come from, and that this feeling of being unworthy doesn’t mean that they’re deficient, it just means they didn’t inherit secure attachment when they were a child. some people inherit it, and some people have to earn it.

They didn’t inherit it. They have survived in the best way they could up until now. They’ve survived with the tools they have. Let that sink in a little bit, let that fight back against that sense that, ‘I’m deficient, I’m not good enough, I should be able to make this work.’ When that voice gets spiraling, it just makes it worse.

You’ve survived up to this point as best you can. And every little step you take from now is tremendously important in terms of beginning to care for yourself. This is not something you should already be able to do. That’s a terrible thing to carry around. ‘Everybody else has great self-esteem and confidence.’ That’s not true, and that’s not valuable.

The fear that you have of settling away from a bad relationship is one of the deepest, deepest fears. If you want to see this fear in action, you can look up a study by Dr. Ed Tronick; something called the Still Face Experiment. It’s where they take the mother and she becomes emotionally unresponsive. She stops interacting in the normal way that mothers do; she just becomes completely still-faced. Within two minutes the child completely loses its mind. It is so tuned in to the mother and so dependent on the mother, it sets off this primal panic because infants cannot survive on their own. So that’s what you’re dealing with when you begin to take these steps away.

You should recognize that not anybody would be able to walk away from this. People who don’t experience that kind of primal panic don’t have the respect for it. So when you talk to friends and neighbors and they say, “Oh, he’s abusive, you should just walk away,” they don’t have an understanding of what kind of primal fears you’re having to deal with in order to do that. You’re having to go against millions of years of human biological history to step away from an attachment relationship. Even if it’s bad for you, your body will say, ‘Any attachment relationship is better than none at all.’

Question: By the way, one of the responses we got from our quiz says, “I would rather be unhappy in an unaided relationship than be alone.” So that just confirms what you said. To your response, I would then ask you back, but what about the person who’s in a relationship that’s not necessarily abusive; they’re in a relationship that’s challenging, and they have a partner who’s maybe more non-response, not necessarily  abusive. Therefore, perhaps they’re not looking to exit the relationship (maybe for religious reasons or other reasons). They’re not looking to get out, but their partner isn’t necessarily going to step in and be supportive in a therapeutic environment. What does the person do now?

(Laughs) You’re talking about somebody panicking and going into therapy. I have a lot of people where we just have to acknowledge that one partner has been looking to get into therapy for a long time, and for the other one, just walking in the door is a huge success. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with therapy before (especially men). The idea of walking into a small room where we’re going to talk about feelings and have conversations that have blown up in the past, no way! They’d rather have their toenails ripped off than do something like that. So that’s a really good question.

If you start by respecting where you are, that can just begin to give you some sense of self-respect. Find coping mechanisms, find avenues saying that ‘I do deserve a loving response.’ If you want to talk about how to heal this relationally without entering a therapy process, there’s a lot of really good literature and information coming out now.

Susan Johnson is a researcher and therapist. She founded Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy that has been so successful at accessing these emotions and changing the dance between people. She’s written a few books. Created For Connection is her latest one. It adds a Christian viewpoint into the conversation. Her book Hold Me Tight was her first one, and it has a lot of research and steps about how you begin to improve these emotional bonds in your relationship, so you can read that, get a sense of it, and begin to understand how your behaviors trigger your partner and how their behaviors trigger you. It’s a perpetual cycle that keeps itself alive. I’d recommend reading any of her books and looking at her TED Talks on YouTube. She’s becoming a lot more visible as this approach catches hold.

I think you should do anything you can to counteract that negative voice that usually attends codependency, like, ‘Why am I screwed up like this? What’s my problem?’; that shame voice and Inner Critic that beats you down. Give yourself relief from that, and give yourself a little credit for surviving this long in the relationship. Acknowledge that primal force that keeps you in a bad relationship, and recognize that it’s biological, not because you’re just stupid. That’s just accepting how powerful that force is.

Give yourself a little bit of a break, and as you start getting some sense of self-worth from that, it will begin to change the way that you can interact. Really what begins to happen, and what feeds a negative cycle where your triggering each other, is that sense of distress and panic. Those inner critical voices, those low self-worth feelings just feed that inner sense of distress.

Question: To tag along with that, I’ll mention a couple things that our visitors have stated verbatim, and you can address those. “Many of my friends have abandoned me, and most have down so without any explanation. I’ve currently been trying to accept some of those losses while also confronting some of the others.” “Being able to be confident enough to let them come to me. In other words not needing to re-assure that they want me either by asking them outright, pursuing them, or doing things that I feel are nice to make them want me.” ” I feel inconsequential. I feel ignored. I’m afraid I’m boring. I don’t feel I’m good enough. “ and again, “I would rather be unhappy in a one-sided relationship than be alone.” As you hear words like that, if these people were sitting in front of you and asking you for help, what would you tell them?

Well, if somebody came to my office and said the first scenario, where they feel like they’re beginning to have codependent tendencies, where they’re too needy with their friends, it’s similar in that it’s coming from that same place of distress; that same pattern of reaching out. It’s a little different because it’s outside of the attachment realm. But there’s something in common with that, and to recognize that those feelings of self-worth are programmed in relationship from early on (and probably exacerbated among your friends), if you walk back and make that examination, you can probably see where those patterns come from.

So that would be one thing we might do; create the story of these patterns, begin to recognize them and where they come from, and the emotions where they come from instead of just lumping them into my problem or something like that; how terrible I feel when my friends leave me. Begin to pull it apart from you.

Begin to recognize that this was a pattern that was learned. It’s a pattern that makes sense if you start looking at where it comes from. Then acknowledge that, (like in the attachment work) these feelings probably originated in the deep, deep sense of self worth that we get from our attachment relationships early on.

What I would tell people is, “Begin to get tuned in to places where you feel more desperate and places where you feel more secure. Being to develop that gauge. You can journal about it or keep track of it somehow.” And then begin to cultivate as often as you can those senses of safety, because that body sense of distress (or that sense of security) is what’s going to impact those behaviors ultimately. Coping mechanisms are really helpful to contain that and put some structures around it, but the longterm work is going to be accessing those deep emotions.

So, for example, if there’s somebody you’ve seen on a YouTube video who is a teacher and they hold weekend retreats (or something like that), if that works out for you, take that step and honor that need for a sense of security by being with that person. Honor that need to cultivate a deeper sense of safety, letting it sink in.

Rick Hanson is really valuable in this notion. He’s a researcher and author, and he talks about the value of allowing our moments of security, our happy moments to really sink in. Our brain is programmed to look for the negative, and so when there’s something positive we have to put some attention on, letting that sink in beyond just the thinking spot because our thinking level brain will see something that’s positive and say, ‘Oh, that’s an anomaly. That made me feel worthwhile but it’s probably not true. I’ll keep thinking about all the things that make me feel like I’m not worthy.’

But if you get an experience where you do feel valuable, or something that disconfirms some of those feelings of worthlessness, let them sink in. Write them down on a notecard and look at them over and over. Really try to cultivate that internal sense in your body of being valuable and being worthwhile. So that’s absolutely work you can do with or without a partner.

Question: There was an example you gave about going to a retreat, and being near other people who can accept you as you are and help you feel valued and loved. How important is that for people in this situation who feel like they don’t have value in the rest of the world’s eyes?

Back to the person who wrote, “I feel like many of my friends have abandoned me, and most have done so without any explanation…” So maybe that person had some pretty crappy friends, but how do we know when we’re fooling ourselves and irrationally decreasing our self-worth vs. when we’re just hanging around the wrong crowed? And how important is it to be around people whom you can trust to tell that you’re having a self-esteem issue, let them into that, and allow them to help support you in that?

I always think it’s best to go with the resources that you have.

If you have a relationship with somebody who will enter a therapeutic process or will begin to restructure the attachment relationship for healing – great, use that! Take the risks and jump in.

If you don’t have that, and you have friends who will support you, who you can be with, who can begin to fill up that sense of self-worth – great, absolutely use that!

If you don’t have anything or anybody, find some books or whatever resources are available to you. I would say that is a very valuable way of doing it; having friends or surrounding yourself with a community that values you. That is an absolutely important way of giving you that bodily sense of security, ease and worth.

The way I’ve simplified this for myself when I’m working with people, is that it really comes back to that internal sense of distress. It really comes down to this sense of, ‘Do I feel safe right now?’ Because when you feel safe, that’s a biological process where you can be open, engaging with the world, you can take risks, you have a greater sense of well-being. When you talk about a greater sense of body distress, that’s where you get different symptoms and mental issues; it’s all related to the body sense of distress.

So if I were to tell people how I work with clients that are struggling with something like this, I really focus on figuring out how we can first of all reduce that body sense of distress, and then figure out what kind of mental programming sets that off. Because that can be through attachment relationship. You can have patterns that set that off, and that’s a big one because the brain still triggers danger in an attachment relationship the same way you would as an infant. If you watch that Still Face experiement and see that infant lose it’s mind and panic, that’s what your brain is doing when your partner turns away from or criticizes you.

Then we go through the places where their attachment relationship can set that off or heal off, the way their friend set can set that off or heal it. Failure at work for a lot of guys can be a huge source of distress, but there are also ways where you can disconfirm that. You can look at your work situation and say, ‘What about this‘, where your ideas were actually valuable and you found success. And then people usually say, ‘Yeah, whatever, that doesn’t count’.

No, let’s sit with that. Can you go back to that moment and really let that in?

That’s the key for me. That’s what I track for people. That bodily sense of distress. How can we allow that bodily sense of distress to be reduced and how can we access and acknowledge the mental programs that create that sense of distress. That can be through attachment relationships. It can be anatomical, like going to the gym more frequently, getting the endorphins back can beginning to restructure your internal sense of self-worth. It can be through your affiliation with groups and communities. It can be through your achievements at work. All these things related back to this sense of security.

So, in attachment we’re talking about the relationship piece, but all these other pieces are available as well. I’d also tell people who come into my office, “Let’s do an assessment of what resources you have with the goal of validating your worth, feeling that sense deep down inside that you’re valuable. Where does that happen now? If you don’t see where it happens, let’s explore because I’ll bet there are messages that you’re valuable coming form somewhere, and you’re just avoiding them or dismissing them for some reason or another because you were programmed to look for the messages that you’re not valuable.”

Question: If you were going to give your best piece of advice to someone who’s feeling this problem with codependency, what’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give them?

My biggest piece of advice for someone who’s struggling with codependency is this is not something that means that you’re fundamentally screwed up. This means that you’re acting out of one of the strongest desires, possibly the strongest desire in a human being, which is being safely connected and attached to another care-giving person. So don’t feel bad that that is your motivating force. Look at how it comes out. Begin to understand how it manifests. But don’t try to fight against that powerful need to love someone, to care for someone, to be with someone. You have to acknowledge that that is just a biological necessity. If you need to leave, understand how heroic that is to be able to have the courage to go against this huge biological training.

I think the first advice I would give somebody who’s struggling with that is to acknowledge that these things are created in relationship; these emotions and feeling deep inside are created in relationship. They can be healed, and this is not some strange deficiency that you were just born with. This is something that, through neuro-plasticity, can be healed. Keep going on your search to figure these things out; don’t lose help. And acknowledge the progress that you’ve been able to make so far.

Question: I understand you have a full practice at the moment and most of your counseling is done face-to-face. However, if somebody wanted to look you up or see what you’re all about, is there a place they can go to do that. Do you want to share any information along those lines?

Sure. if they wanted to look at my website, it’s www.greenvillemarriagecounseling.com.

If they have a partner who would be open to going to therapy to restructure their emotional bonds through EFT, the website is www.iceeft.com. There are therapists all over the world that are trained in this approach, and it’s a very rigorous process for getting in that directory.

Brian: Thank you so much for coming on the show. We appreciate all the expertise you’ve provided.

Andrew: Thanks Brian. It’s a really important topic and it’s so good to have a place where people can get their foot in the door, and get some sense of what to do about this, and connect with other people who are going through the same thing.

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