Low self-esteem, intimacy and group
by Mark Sorensen, Ph.D., CGP, FAGPA

Most of the patients in my groups have as their primary concerns feeling bad about themselves and difficulty in forming relationships that are close and intimate.  There is a connection between these two problems.  Low self-esteem is a result of accumulated experiences where one falls short of expectations.  When one doesn't "measure up" then shame is the painful negative emotion that is felt.  There are many areas in our lives where shame is likely to be felt including in matters of size, strength and ability, feeling independent, personal attractiveness, sexuality, feeling close to others, and competition.   Positive self-esteem comes when we feel pride or enjoyment when meeting or surpassing expectations in these areas. 

The problem with shame is that it is so very painful and it interferes with our ability to experience excitement and enjoyment.  Shame essentially "turns off" the positive emotions.   Shame is so painful that we tend to protect ourselves by using one or more of the following behaviors:
withdrawal:  we hide, avoid situations, become inhibited.
attack self:  we take control of the process of feeling shamed by putting ourselves down.
attack other:  by being critical and judgmental of others we raise ourselves up by putting others down.
disavowal:  we can deny we even feel bad if we can "get rid of" the feeling by abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating, compulsive sexuality, over-investing in work, fitness or a hobby, or any behavior that provides a "lift" to counteract the "down" that shame creates. 

So what does this have to do with intimacy?  Intimacy is a situation where people feel safe enough to reveal their innermost selves to the other person.  Shame makes us want to hide, pull away, push away or deny our feelings--all of which distances us from others.  Shame stifles intimacy.

It is around this conflict of how to connect to others when you are feeling unsure of yourself that group can be helpful.  Over time, you will begin to feel like you know the other group members well enough to begin to trust them with thoughts, feelings and information about yourself which may feel unacceptable.  In taking these risks, you will learn that you can tolerate the anxiety it creates and that what you imagine will happen often bears little resemblance to how others actually respond.  By learning to accept your feeling of being “not OK” and by trying new behaviors, you can begin to strengthen a more positive view of yourself. The group will support you in this by letting you know that your willingness to be genuine is much more important to them than the "flaws" you have been hiding. The experience of belonging when you are truly being yourself helps to "turn down the volume" on feelings of shame.