We all feel unlovable sometimes. Whether it’s because of a bad breakup, a disappointing date, or a lack of matches on dating apps, going through difficult times can make even the most confident person start to doubt themselves. So let’s talk about why we feel unlovable, and why it’s simply not true.
First, let’s take the feeling of “being unlovable” because it’s not actually an emotion. It’s a judgment. It’s a mental assessment of a situation. The emotions that we’re feeling are usually fear, sadness, and maybe some anger. When we can’t get the dating success that we want, whatever that goal is for you, if it feels out of reach, we start trying to understand why.
This is a well-intentioned but ultimately self-defeating process.
We want to understand why we aren’t getting the success we want so that we can fix it. And since dating often feels like presenting ourselves to the world, our first instinct is often to ask how we need to fix ourselves. We start thinking about how if we lost some weight, or bought new clothes, or took better photos, or knew how to be funnier in our messages… but these are usually rooted in our insecurities.
We assume the things we dislike about ourselves are the reasons that we struggle with dating.
And unfortunately, your brain is working against you on this one.
Studies have shown that in order for a person to feel happy overall, we need to have about three times as many positive experiences as negative ones. We feel negative experiences far more intensely, because our brains are hardwired to treat them as more important. In our evolutionary past, negative experiences were almost always life-threatening, and there was a strong survival incentive to pay attention to them.
Social rejection triggers many of the same areas of the brain as physical injury.
In our past, if an ancient human was ostracized from their family, tribe, or other group, they were as good as dead. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore, you can always find new connections and new groups to belong to, but our brains don’t know that. We still treat social failure as a potentially lethal threat. Facing this threat sends us into fight or flight mode, and we start trying to figure out either how to change ourselves to get romantic acceptance, or we declare that we’ll never date anyone and we’re perfectly happy alone.
Neither of these extremes is healthy.
Let’s talk more about the fear that comes up. When we think that we are “unlovable” we’re usually just scared that no one will give us the love we want. We may be scared that no one wants the love we have to give. Or some combination of those. You can combat this fear by doing some journaling, and writing down specifically what you want from a partner, and what good qualities you have to offer a partner. Take five minutes for each part and write down whatever comes to mind, no judgment.
Here’s an example that I did a few years ago when I was struggling with feeling not good enough for an amazing relationship.
The Love I Want:
Love and support me unconditionally
Facilitate my personal and professional success
Always take my side
Listen and make an effort to understand me
Put my feelings first sometimes
See my point of view
Trust me to do the right thing
What I Bring to a Relationship:
Love and kindness
Humor and joy
A commitment to positive change and improvement
The gift of noticing good things
Listening and holding space for my partner
Making her a priority when she needs it most
Now, as you read over these you might think some of them are silly or unreasonable. That’s okay. This is a starting point. From here, you can refine what you’re looking for. If the list of what you want is a lot longer than what you have to offer, you might be asking too much. If the list of what you have to offer is a lot longer than what you want, you might be self-sacrificing because you’re afraid to ask for what you really need.
Doing this exercise regularly will help you better understand your needs and your strengths, both of which are very important for finding the kind of relationship you really want.
So now that you have your list, how do you use it to push back against feeling unlovable? First, look at the list of things you want from a partner. Ask yourself, “Am I willing to give someone everything on this list?”
If the answer is no, your list may be unreasonable and your expectations need some adjustment. But most likely, your answer is yes, and you would be happy to give all of those things to someone else. Hold that feeling for a moment. Remember that our brains don’t internalize positive experiences as readily as negative ones, so make sure to sit for at least 30 seconds with the feeling of fulfillment and joy that you would get from making someone happy by giving them everything they want in a partner.
Now remind yourself that by opening up to receive all of that from a partner, you are letting them feel that same fulfillment and joy.
Psychological studies have shown that consistently focusing your attention on positive emotions and experiences contributes to higher levels of self-esteem and confidence over time.
Quite literally, this exercise will make you feel more confident and more lovable. So don’t skip it. If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t done it yet, go back and do it for yourself. Reading is just gathering information, taking action is how you change your life.
Done with the exercise? Great.
I’d like to talk a little more about unusual needs in a relationship. I have depression, and I mean the capital D, psychiatrist diagnosed kind. I’ve seen therapists for the last 10 years or so, and I’ve been on medication for it. Overall, I’m in a really good place these days because of a ton of hard work and persistence, but sometimes I have what I call depression days, and I need more from my partner.
Before we get any further, I want to say that if you’re living with mental illness or think that you might be, you should seek out qualified professionals to help. Therapy changed my life, I’m happier now than I could have ever imagined even just a few years ago.
Okay, so the real question is usually “Am I a burden?” I’ve often felt scared that my depression makes me a burden to my partners, and that given the choice, anyone would rather date someone who has the same strengths as I do… but doesn’t have depression in the mix. I’ve come at this from a lot of perspectives, and it took me a while to find one that actually reassured me.
If you’re familiar with the Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, you know that people like to give and receive love in different ways. If you aren’t familiar, that last sentence was a quick summary. The key part here is about giving. We like to express love in particular ways, consider the following ways of showing your significant other that you care:
- Buying them a personal gift.
- Giving them a back rub or a massage.
- Taking care of all the housework for the day.
- Planning a romantic evening for just the two of you.
- Writing a heartfelt letter detailing what you love most about them.
Chances are, as you read those five examples, one or two them probably stood out as something you would enjoy doing or receiving from a partner more than the other items on the list. Each of these examples corresponds to one of the following love languages:
- Gift giving
- Physical touch
- Acts of service
- Quality time
- Words of affirmation
Now, focus on the ones that would enjoy giving to a partner. Don’t worry about what you want in return right now, just explore how you feel about expressing your positive feelings for someone in one of these ways.
It feels nice, right? We like showing people we’re closest to that we care. We like making them happy, we like seeing their faces light up, and we like knowing that we did a good job picking the perfect thing to do for them.
So how does this relate to my experience with mental illness? It helped me to see that the days when I need extra care and support from my partner are an opportunity for them to find fulfillment in giving that care and support. For me, when I’m struggling what I need most is words of affirmation. So I need to find partners who enjoy giving words of affirmation, and then when I ask for more of that, they’ll be thrilled to provide it.
One of many reasons why talking to a professional is so important is that they can help you determine whether your needs for support from a partner are reasonable or not. You shouldn’t expect a partner to fix you or save you, but you can ask them for help. Therapists have a ton of experience with this stuff, and they can provide an authoritative voice for you to lean on when you feel like you’re asking for too much. If your therapist says your needs are valid and reasonable, take that to heart.
There are people out there who are excited and eager to love you in the ways you most want to be loved, and who want to receive the love you are most excited to give.
Hopefully reading through this helped you believe that at least a little bit, and if not, remember to keep doing the strengths and needs exercise, focus on positive emotions and experiences, and be kind to yourself. You deserve the same love you want to give to others.
If you’re struggling to find a way to talk about your mental illness on dates, consider booking a free session with me. I can share the ways I’ve learned to talk about my depression with potential partners without scaring them off or feeling like I have to hide something.