OH, HI! What a week it has been. You know when you are so tired you feel like your eyes are only a few seconds away from falling out? It would be very dramatic for me to say that that was how I was feeling BUT I AM IN A DRAMATIC MOOD SO I AM JUST GOING TO COME OUT WITH IT. Somebody fetch me a bowl for my eyes. Take them away from here. Oh my god.
As part of my Very Busy And Tiring Week, I took part in a lil training course on self-confidence and self-esteem. Remember when I went on a similar thing about how to be assertive and then I came back and wrote up a slightly extensive guide and you guys said you found it useful? Well I am going to do the same thing all over again, except this time we are going to be focusing on THE ELUSIVE PAIN IN THE ASS THAT IS SELF-ESTEEM.
(Note: I think to experts there is probably a difference between self-confidence and self-esteem, but for our purposes I am going to use the phrases interchangeably, largely so I am not repeating the same two words all the time. I am not a communications officer for nothing okay.)
So let’s START AT THE START. First off, I am a strong believer that a lot of people, if not EVERY PERSON, struggle(s) with self-confidence/esteem/belief to some degree or another. The most confident people can be the crumbliest inside, you know? When I was younger I had a lot of issues in this area, and if you ever want proof I will lend you my 2001-2004 diaries, which I hope to one day turn into a teen comedy-drama on E4 (sort of joking but also sort of not). Now I generally do a lot better with self-confidence – I find it harder some days than others, but generally I like myself enough to deal with most of the stuff that comes my way.
That said, I don’t think anyone is ever really in a position to turn down a free course on how to boost self-esteem, just like I don’t think there is anyone in the world who wouldn’t benefit from a little bit of therapy or from watching The O.C. from start to finish. And I am lucky enough to work somewhere that offers stuff like this to its employees, so I picked up my notepad and along I went.
Promise miracles I cannot. I’m sorry. If you are in a situation where you’re feeling like your self-confidence is at rock bottom and you’re struggling to see how things might improve, Samaritans will be able to help you NOW (literally now, please call them) and suggest some ways that you could get support. But if you’re lookin’ for some general hintz ‘n’ tipz and a lot of unnecessary capital letters in an endearingly colloquial blog post, I am your gal. Ready? “Here we go!” said Sophie, realising JUST HOW LONG her introduction was. Hoorah!
What is low self-esteem?
Apologies for going all dictionary-definition-wedding-speech on you but it’s important to define what we’re talking about here, right? Low self-esteem is described (by my course tutor, anyway) as “having a generally negative overall opinion of yourself, judging or evaluating yourself negatively, and placing a general negative value on yourself as a person.”
How do low self-esteem and low self-confidence develop?
Apparently, a lot of this has to do with early life experiences. It could be stuff like:
- mistreatment as a kid;
- not being able to meet your family’s expectations;
- not fitting in at home or at school;
- being on the receiving end of other people’s stress/distress;
- an absence of positives (isn’t that the saddest phrase? It sounds like a book that Lucas from One Tree Hill would write).
There’s also the ‘late onset’ version of low self-esteem, which could be sparked by a significant or traumatic life event, like being made redundant or going through a divorce or something.
But long story short, your ideas about yourself have developed as a consequence of your experiences in life. I mean… if you think about this, it makes sense. No-one comes out of the womb like “DON’T LOOK AT ME! I AM HIDEOUS, MICHAEL!” or “I AM SO PATHETIC! NOBODY LIKES ME AND I AM READY TO DIE ALONE!” Sometimes I used to feel like I maybe did, but obviously I did not. I came out neutral, ready to be told stuff. And so did you.
I’m not telling you to take a lengthy hike down memory lane – it’s none of my business, and you might not want to. But given that we now have the knowledge above, it might be worth considering – what is it in your past that could have affected how you feel about yourself now? Was it a particular person? The way someone spoke to you? The way your family was treated by wider society? Bullying or discrimination? HAVE A THINK, if ya like.
How do people with low self-esteem think?
People who struggle with low self-esteem have a whole bunch of negative core beliefs, which are really deep-seated, ingrained, firmly-held thoughts.
- I am unimportant!
- I am worthless!
- I am unattractive!
- I am unlovable!
- I am boring!
- I am unintelligent!
- I am not good enough!
And if this wasn’t shitty enough, the worst part of it all is that people who think in this way tend to gather evidence that supports these negative core beliefs. You know like when someone says “Oh wow, I love your top! I would never have thought to wear it with those trousers…” and even though you’re like OOH THANKS BECKY out of habit and politeness, your initial thought is actually OH MY GOD BECKY JUST INSINUATED THAT MY TROUSER-AND-TOP COMBO IS REPULSIVE AND NOW I WANT TO GO HOME AND KICK A WALL.
Don’t get me wrong, Becky could just be a passive-aggressive little shit and if that is the case then whatever – maybe this is not the best example. But nine times out of ten, Becky probably means what she says (if she didn’t, why would she take the time to say it?) and yet here we are, rooting around for subtext and underlying awfulness and ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF WHY WE SUCK to add to our overstuffed mental filing cabinet.
Unhelpful rules for living
(‘Unhelpful Rules For Living’ — another Lucas Scott book, perhaps, or a mid-00s indie pop album. Who’s to say.)
You know those negative core beliefs we talked about earlier? They tend to be what lead us to start living by these rules. Here’s what I mean:
- I am stupid = It’s better to not try than to fail.
- I am worthless = No matter what I do, no-one is ever going to accept me.
- I am unattractive = My worth depends on what I look like.
- I am unlovable = Unless I do absolutely everything that everyone expects of me, I will be rejected.
And, as you might have guessed, all this winds up in a sad and predictable vicious circle – your negative core beliefs create unhelpful rules for living, and believing in our rules means we behave in unhelpful ways, and that doesn’t help our self-confidence ONE DAMN BIT. Everything we thought in the first place feels even more real and terrible, and it all begins again.
Breaking the cycle
The good news is that THE CYCLE IS BREAKABLE! Nobody has a time machine (sadly, because I would LOVE to return to 2003 and roll some heads) and we can’t change the past, but we can change the here and now – it is totally doable. Essentially, it’s all about listening to the low-self-esteem-voice and being like UM, WHAT? Challenging, and then changing. CHIPPIN’ AWAY at those negative core beliefs.
A lot of it comes down to distorted thinking – or rather: ditching your distorted thinking. Here are a few examples:
- Mental filter
Do you dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives? Next time that happens, ask yourself: “Am I only noticing the bad stuff? Am I filtering out the good stuff and choosing to ignore it?” and – most importantly – “What would be more realistic?”
I do this sometimes – it’s when you think that people are responding to you negatively when in reality you have ZERO EVIDENCE that this is the case. Ask yourself: “Am I assuming I know what they’re thinking? What’s the evidence? Are these potentially my own thoughts, rather than the other person’s? Is there another, more balanced way of looking at this?”
Oh, hey Mystic Meg. You are going to a party and you have predicted that you will look disgusting, nobody will talk to you and that you will probably have gone home in tears by 9pm. Ask yourself: “Why am I trying to foresee the future? Why do I think that the worst is going to happen? How likely is it that the worst is REALLY going to happen?”
- Do a survey
Not like, a whole SurveyMonkey thing on your Facebook page, but take five minutes to ask people you’re close to if they think your self-deprecating thoughts and attitudes are realistic. Chances are they’ll say NUH-UH WE LOVE YOU AND YOU’RE SWELL, but dig a little deeper – why do they disagree with you? What examples and evidence can they offer? See what they come back with.
- Apply the double standard technique
Would you ever speak to your friend in the same way you speak to yourself? I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that you wouldn’t. I’m not saying it’s easy to stop badmouthing yourself, but if you think about it, even the TERM ‘badmouthing yourself’ feels like it should be an oxymoron.
I have genuinely tried this double standard technique and it works: if my friend was struggling to do their eyeliner flicks at 6.50am, I would not berate them for being a wobbly-handed idiot. I would be like “Don’t even stress about it Libby, YA LOOK GREAT.” Test it.
- Use words that are less emotionally charged
What’s gonna be better for your self-esteem: “I don’t feel I did a great job on that presentation yesterday but I’ve had some positive feedback on it from several people and I can learn from it for next time. Maybe I could ask Jim for some pointers…” or “I did TERRIBLY on that presentation! I knew it was going to go wrong and now it has. I don’t even know why they hired me. I’m a mess and a waste of space and people only ever give me compliments because they feel sorry for me…”? That was a rhetorical question because you know the answer already, we all do.
- Consider what the worst that could happen is
Most of the time, the worst thing isn’t even that bad, or conversely it’s SO FREAKING TERRIBLE AND RIDICULOUS AND UNLIKELY TO EVER HAPPEN that even thinking about it makes you do a little inner laugh, because the logical side of you knows that there’s a 99.9999% chance you’re going to be absolutely fine.
If it helps, grab a piece of paper or your phone or whatever else and jot down a) what you’re worried about, b) why you’re worried about it, c) what the chances of it happening are, and d) what a more realistic outcome might be. Sometimes even the act of writing it down and getting it out of your head can help to balance things.
- Stop comparing yourself to others
You know who has amazing hair? Becky (HER AGAIN). You know who also has amazing hair? YOU. And that is that. You can’t do and be and look like everything. It just can’t work. I know ‘STOP COMPARING YOURSELF’ is dumb advice, a bit like ‘LOVE YOUR BODY!!!’ but just… please try. I am gonna try too so we can compare notes.
- Take a step back
In my training course we actually touched really briefly on narcissism, which I found super-interesting. Have you ever considered that in caring SO, SO DEEPLY about how others perceive you and being so utterly “I am awful”, you are kind of sort of almost flattering yourself by assuming people GIVE a tiny rat’s ass?
I’m not saying this to offend you – and some people have very serious, dehabilitating mental health issues which are ABSOLUTELY NOT what I am talking about here. What I am talking about is when you’re getting ready to go out and you hear that voice in your head that’s like “YOU LOOK LIKE SHIT, AND EVERYONE IS GONNA NOTICE!” Well, THAT is the time to be like: really? Will they ACTUALLY notice? Or am I being a little self-absorbed? I say this because I AM THE MOST SELF-ABSORBED. I am Seth Cohen on a bad day, and I am trying not to be. Let’s let it go a little and remember that everyone is too busy worrying about their own body to worry about ours.
We know that if we have low self-esteem, we automatically look for reasons to back our negatives beliefs up. So by that logic, the better our self-esteem gets, the more we will look out for positives – friendly comments, backhanded compliments, actions that mean more than we would have realised a while ago. I want you to take the useful bits of this and scrunch them up and stuff them into your brain – metaphorically, of course – and come back to me in a few months to tell me how you’re getting on. Fill yourself up with kinder words and try to remember that all we’re doing here is CHALLENGING what we already think (retraining our brains!), which is new and scary and overwhelming and weirdly exciting, but most of all totally possible. Good luck good luck! You got this, and everything else.