Does Your Partner Make You Feel Like a Loser

New research suggests how a competitive partner can undermine your self-esteem.

You think of yourself as a reasonably competent person who can handle life’s challenges, even when those challenges sometimes seem insurmountable. You often feel that the more life throws your way, the better you can actually rise to the occasion. Indeed, in dealing with all the stresses caused by living through the COVID-19 pandemic, your abilities are being put to more of a test than ever. Yet, you somehow manage to get through each day by digging deep into your own resources.

There’s only one problem in all of this day-to-day testing of your reserves. It’s your partner, who seems to ready to step in with advice no matter how small the problem. In fact, your partner doesn’t even wait for you to ask for help before proffering some unwelcome observations about how to do this or that. 

Perhaps you’re trying to put together a small stool that’s lost its legs. You know exactly how you plan to apply the glue and are just about ready to open the tube, when in walks your partner and scoffs at you for going about it entirely the wrong way (at least in your partner’s mind). Up until that moment, you were feeling pretty proud of yourself for having decided on a repair strategy, especially because you don’t normally go in for your own home repairs. With your partner’s derisive words ringing in your ears, you throw the whole thing away, your pride as broken as the stool.

What if the problem you’re trying to solve involves a deeper test of your abilities, knowledge, or maturity? Instead of your partner’s patronization of you becoming a small but potentially forgettable annoyance, you’ve now been questioned down to your core. According to a recent study by Jemma Hart and colleagues (2020) of Curtin University (Australia), seeing yourself as inadequate can form the root of a social comparison process that, in turn, can erode your mental health.  

The “social rank” theory of depression, as noted by Hart et al., proposes that people develop this disorder when they fear rejection or exclusion due to their own inferiority. As they submit to the person who seems to hold an advantage over them, they sink further into feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. At that point, questioning their basic abilities, they start to identify themselves as “losers.”

The competitiveness that a partner demonstrates toward you in trying to show how much smarter or more able they are is that much more damaging to your mental health if you already are high in the quality of self-criticism. What if you’re always thinking that you’re pretty inept and clumsy? Your partner’s unwanted observations would only tap into that stream of consciousness.

Turning to deeper-seated issues, what if you’re constantly focusing on the mistakes you’ve made in handling interpersonal situations? Maybe you don’t always say the right thing when you’re with family or friends. Even though you have the best of intentions, you might inadvertently let slip some remark that makes someone mad at you. Your partner, jumping on this situation, as in so many in the past, doesn’t fail to point out later just how dumb that remark was. “Let me handle it next time,” your partner announces, further deflating your confidence in your ability to iron out things out on your own.

In their social rank theory of depression, the Australian team added in another factor they believe can make an important difference. This is the idea of “fear of compassion.” You may think that people who are feeling down want more, not less, compassion from their partners. However, the Curtin University researchers believe that the feeling you need to rely on others could reinforce your own sense of inferiority. You might also, if your self-criticism is already on constant overdrive, feel that you’re not even worth having someone else's compassion. In this way, the more inferior and self-critical you are, the less you’ll expect or want compassion, and the more depressed you can become.

Hart and her coauthors tested the full model leading from self-criticism and inferiority to fear of compassion and, ultimately to depressive symptoms in an online study carried out over a 2-week period. At the first testing occasion, their sample of 93 adults (average 30 years old; 80% female) completed measures of feelings of inferiority (“insecure striving”), fear of compassion, and self-criticism. The self-criticism questionnaire tapped into the three subscales of “inadequate self” (personal inadequacies), “hated self” (self-loathing), and “reassured self” (the opposite- the ability to be kind to oneself). Two weeks later, participants completed a questionnaire rating of depression.

The use of a 2-week follow-up design allowed the research team to avoid the usual problems associated with a typical correlational study in which all questionnaires are completed at one time point. However, that 2-week period was perhaps shorter than ideal in order to watch the relationships among they study predictors play out over time.

With this limitation in mind and turning to the study’s findings, as the Australian researchers predicted, high fear of compassion compounded the likelihood of a person high in self-criticism receiving high depression scale scores. Moreover, participants high in fear of compassion and high in insecure striving also showed higher depression scale scores at the end of the 2-week period.

In interpreting these findings, beyond supporting the role of inferiority and fear of compassion in depression, the authors suggest that an additional factor to consider is that of shame. As the authors explain, people high in shame may go through this line of reasoning: “The more critical I am of myself the more I may project this into the minds of others and assume others will be critical of me too if I open up… In addition, the more anxious I am of being rejected, the more I need to strive and so the more I am frightened of rejection—the greater the fear, the more angry with myself I become, if I fail."

Returning to the issue of having a partner who constantly drives home the message that you’re inferior, the Hart et al. results suggest that what becomes so undermining about this process is the sense of shame it reinforces. You would like to feel proud and competent about your abilities, but when you’re made to feel inadequate, you not only doubt yourself but also feel less likely to seek help and understanding. Even if your partner weren’t just trying to show off with all this unsolicited help, this constant undermining will make you feel even less comfortable trying to come forward with your feelings.

It is possible, of course, that your partner isn’t trying to undercut you, but just happens to be the type of person who wants to “help.” If this is the case, then you may be able to appeal to that altruistic sense by sharing your feelings. If not, then the Hart et al. findings suggest that you try to find other ways to turn down the inner voices of self-criticism, as difficult as this might be.

You might also consider the role of fear of compassion in keeping you from letting your partner know exactly how you feel. If this person cares about you, despite appearing to try to make you feel small, it's possible that there may actually be more compassion in their emotional bank than you realize. If not, you may need to provide that compassion yourself to boost your own sense of competence and self-esteem.

To sum up, healthy competition can sometimes stimulate people to achieve their best. It's important to recognize, however, when that competition gets in the way of your personal fulfillment.

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