It wasn’t until I finally left that I realized I had been in a toxic relationship. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t sort out exactly what it was. It was only with some distance and in hindsight that I was able to see how I had changed. I didn’t realize my own standards had been eroding. It took perspective to learn that I had begun to accept things I would never have imagined accepting before. I had not known that being in a relationship with someone who was suffering from severe self-esteem issues would result in the decline of my own self-esteem.
See, when you are with someone that doesn’t love themself, they are incapable of loving you back. They wonder why you would even be with them. You have to adjust to make the emotional math work. If you can’t make them see their own self-worth, you eventually have to lower yours to square things up. In this sort of relationship, there is no give and take, it’s just take, take, take. You have three options, you can try and help them rebuild their fragile self-image, you can succumb to the downward pressure, or you can walk away.
I was not mature enough to understand why, at the time, but I knew I had to leave. I had to save myself. I couldn’t see how to repair things– I didn’t see that as an option. It was either adapt, or walk away.
So at 18, I walked away from my hometown. I realize now, though, that no relationship allows you to remain unchanged. You simply cannot be connected with someone or someWHERE without giving a piece of yourself to it. You may not think you have a relationship with your town– maybe you’re not really participating– but you are still in that relationship; it’s just unhealthy. Just as you couldn’t say, “I don’t participate in my marriage, so it doesn’t affect me,” when in fact is, the process of not participating in a relationship shapes you just as much, possibly even more.
We all have a relationship with our own local community. Some of them are healthy, many of them are not, and none of them are neutral. These relationships are defined by what takes place in the perceived borders of your specific community. What do they build there, what type of commerce is offered? What takes place amongst those people. How do they take care of their things? How does the population behave and treat one another? A relationship to your town is just like any other relationship. It can lift you up, make you whole, make you a better person. Or it can drag you down, it can make you feel empty, make you into someone you don’t want to be.
Beware of the city with no self-esteem. The city with no self-esteem makes poor decisions. The city with no self-esteem has such a low opinion of itself, that it talks shit on anyone that says something good. The city with no self-esteem is always cynical. The city with no self-esteem accepts things that other communities would never consider allowing. The city with no self-esteem generally accepts that its best days are behind them, and nothing positive should be expected in the future.
While I spent most of my 20’s moving around, overall, I have spent the majority of my life in three places, and each one taught me how community self-esteem operates. Every relationship offers us three options: adapt to how things are, change them to how you would like them to be, or remove yourself altogether. In the case of the relationship with my hometown of Lima, Ohio, I opted to walk away. My parents understood the risk of adapting, but I did not have the wherewithal to try and foster change, so I left. My first job out of school landed me in a town struggling with self-esteem, Lancaster, Ohio. At this point in my life, I had the ability to try and bring about change. Over the course of ten years, working with an incredible group of people that also understood this dynamic, we fought to restore the town’s sense of self-esteem, and it worked. The town changed, and it is a different place now. Its residents behave differently, the things that take place within its borders are different. I won’t say I solved anything, but I was put in a position to help it along the way. A few years ago, I moved to a place that had been very intentional about protecting its high sense of self-esteem, Mt Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Shifting to another phase in my life, I wanted to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor and understand what it felt like first hand, to live in a place that already loved itself. I have learned a lot from living in this neighborhood 6 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, but I have also started to see some cracks forming from the pressure to lower standards.
I count myself fortunate to have had the experience of living in a place with low self-esteem, a place fighting to rebuild its self-esteem and a place that maintained and fostered its self-esteem. I have learned so very much about how communities behave and how their self-esteem impacts the people that call them home. This has afforded me an understanding of how communities make decisions and why some are so much better at it than others.
When I get frustrated by a community making decisions that go against their best interest, I try to remember that they are operating from a place of low self-esteem. Years of bad news and disappointment would lead any person or any place to have self-image issues. So many small towns have had nothing, but shit news for decades, so they are understandably not feeling great about themselves. A lack of self-esteem results in a lowering of standards and an inability to believe that others might like you. There are the towns that offer incentives to national chains, that feel validation in having a business that other towns have. These are the towns that also get preyed upon by national chains because they are able to take advantage of their insecurity. These are the same towns, when someone new arrives, people say “Why would you move here?” You know the town. Locals discourage other locals from starting businesses or fixing up buildings. These same towns toss out all design guidelines because they are convinced in lowering their standards, they will attract more investors. You also know the friend that is down on their luck, that has lowered their dating standards to go on more dates. This strategy doesn’t tend to pay off. Towns with low self-esteem only make their plight worse by operating in this fashion. Remember about relationship choices? Many residents will adapt to this town, plenty will just walk away, a few may try and change it.
Many towns are in the struggle. These cities are working to fight their work back and change their trajectory. Half of the residents may still feel like they don’t deserve better and continue to operate in that fashion, but a certain number of people are up for the fight. I give a big “hell yes” to the places fighting back. The people that understand this- you are in a relationship with your town whether you know it or not, so you better make it a good one. This is an uphill battle, but one that is unequivocally worth fighting. When you realize everyone in your community is shaped by your community, you begin to realize why the fight is so important. Through this process, the town begins to love itself again, people can understand why someone might get involved, why they might have moved here, why they might invest here. The decision making process improves and people start to develop a sense of affection. This relationship is begging to get healthier and standards are rising.
Finally, there is the town that has high self-esteem. Residents understand that their place is shaping them, and they are comfortable with that, they embrace it. This is a place that upholds high standards and can’t get bullied around by national chains or national real estate developers. These places have pride in themselves and totally get why people would relocate. They expect fellow residents to talk highly of their town and are proud when people decide to invest. They see how in maintaining high standards, they are keeping people proud. These towns ask a lot of their residents, but their residents respond in kind. These are the places where you feel like you should get dressed up just to walk down the street. These are the places that make you feel more confident just for being in them.
Everything we need to know about our towns, we can glean from what we know about people. You are in a relationship with your place, whether you know it or not. Think about all of your relationships and apply the same lessons. Some relationships are not worth maintaining, so you hightail it out of there. Some relationships, like those with family, you cannot just walk away from, you have to make a decision- do you accept it, or do you change it. If you’re in a relationship with a town with low self-esteem, you must fight to change it, lest it change you. You must fight back, for the sake of everyone in your community. Our places shape us and a place of low self-esteem will eventually create a populace of low self-esteem.
If you found yourself in a relationship with someone with low self-esteem and you weren’t willing to leave, how would you go about making them feel better about themselves? Love them, unconditionally. This doesn’t mean accept them as they are, but fight to help them change for the better. Building self confidence cannot be bestowed upon a person, it must be built up from within. This requires constant encouragement. It requires a helping hand. It requires leading by example. You can’t force someone to be better, you can only help nudge them along the path to self improvement. Your community behaves in exactly the same way. All those lessons can and should be applied.
If you find yourself living in a low self-esteem community, you should be nodding your head with a lot of things written above. While we all like to think of our towns as unique, they are not. There is nothing special about your town’s broken behavior. Dysfunction manifests itself in the same way every time. We keep approaching this problem with the same old tired strategies, but self-esteem isn’t affected by money, it doesn’t respond to plans, it doesn’t give a shit about what other people think. Self-esteem can only grow from within. So start small, do the incremental things. Take baby steps. There is no way to avoid all the cliches that come along with such recommendations. Simply, address the smallest things that are wrong. The chipping paint, the lack of connection with your neighbor, the weeds in front of city hall. Self-esteem only reacts to self-improvement.
So here is your plan, find everyone you know that is in an unhappy relationship with your town. Invite them over- for an intervention. Talk about the harm their town has done them. Discuss how this town has changed them. Admit, how their town has failed them. Then decide to do something different. Starting today, begin pursuing the relentless path to self-improvement. This is all it will take. You don’t need a convention center, you don’t need a parking deck and you sure as hell don’t need an arena. You need a committed group of residents committed to the relentless pursuit of self-improvement. Soon enough, you will find yourself in a relationship worthy of your affection.