Low self-esteem is one of the most common issues brought by people who get in touch with Birmingham Counselling Services. All of us have days when we feel bad about ourselves, but some of us feel bad about ourselves a lot of the time, which can encourage us to make ourselves as small and unobtrusive as possible. “If people don’t notice me they won’t realise how dull, how stupid, how unattractive, what a failure I am.” This is not how you were born. Have you ever known a baby who was reluctant to call attention to him/herself? And there is no such thing as a bad baby. Throughout our lives, from early childhood, we have taken in judgments and standards and negative comments from others, and we have believed them, whether or not they were appropriate or accurate for us then or now. They have undermined us, causing us to set ourselves unrealistic and unachievable aims and targets and standards and to beat ourselves up for not achieving them. This is not helpful to us nor to others with whom we have contact.
Perhaps you have woken up with low spirits. You overslept. The sun has not come out (NB This is not your responsibility). You missed the bus – perhaps you were late, but perhaps the bus was early. This could go on all day, as you find more and more reasons why you are a failure, a bad parent, a poor employee, a lousy friend, useless at everything. Written down like this the flaws in the reasoning are self-evident, but as the day progresses your poor opinion of yourself just grows, as you lose sight of the silver linings in some of those clouds. You missed the bus, but you caught another and your children got to school on time; you came up with a good idea at work which your line manager is taking forward on your behalf; you couldn’t manage coffee with a friend this morning (you were in work) but you have arranged to phone this evening. In fact, you have shown yourself to be adaptable, creative, understanding, more than competent.
Try some re-framing, some turning things around. Carry a little notebook and a pencil. Open the book at two clean pages. When you have a negative thought about yourself, write it down on the left. Then have a go at turning that thought around, at finding the positive aspect of it. There will be one. Record that positive on the right-hand page. You missed the bus so you walked to the next stage where several different services stop. You solved the problem and had some exercise at the same time. This is not negative. You were unable to promote your work idea yourself, but someone who can do that has taken it up. You were not being a bad friend because you couldn’t leave work mid-morning, you were being a good friend because you were able to come up with an alternative which suited you both.
Allow yourself 20 minutes to go for a brisk walk – take your lunch break. You will feel better. Think about the possibility of joining a regular exercise class. If you decide that this is not for you, (cost/location/timing) abandon the idea without feeling guilty. You will have used good judgment and made the right decision. And you can carry on going for walks.
Allow yourself to laugh. There will be something funny in the day, if you can look through the other end of the telescope. Laugh out loud at yourself, or at someone else (as long as they are not there to take offence). If you have done something you feel is silly, try sharing it with others, inviting them to laugh with you (not at you). You will not lower their opinion of you, and they might even share some of their own silliness, so that you know you are not alone.
If you can find 5 minutes on your own, find some music and dance to it. No-one will be looking. Have some exercise, relaxation, and perhaps a bit of silliness all in one activity. Smile. And if you find yourself singing along, that’s great.
What would be your greatest luxury? No, I’m not suggesting that you drop everything and take off to the South of France or a Caribbean island, or spend money you can’t afford on a ticket for a concert or an expensive garment you will never wear. But I am suggesting that you allow yourself a few minutes to remember your last luxury, or to dream about your next (or first), and perhaps to make some plans which have some reality, and . . .
. . . allow yourself a little luxury. Remind yourself that you matter to other people and to yourself. When things get difficult and you begin to feel that you can’t cope much longer, give yourself a reward for coping for so long. It doesn’t have to be a big reward, but a chocolate biscuit, a cup of tea, a quick call to a friend, can all lift your spirits.
Write down aims that you have achieved and look back at them when you are feeling low. Perhaps you were the first person in your family to go to sixth form college, to learn a foreign language, to win a race; perhaps you kept your temper in very trying circumstances; perhaps your garden looks good after all the work you have done; perhaps you have learnt to swim, or to knit; perhaps you have passed your driver’s test; perhaps you have managed not to put yourself down. Whatever your achievement, allow yourself a minute to remind yourself of your own worth. Don’t forget the family and friends who are on your side, who believe in you. You might even write “Congratulations on My Success” at the top and the bottom of your list of achievements.
Never be afraid to learn from your mistakes. You will make mistakes – we all make mistakes. Think how unsufferable we would be if we didn’t. As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Acknowledge what your mistake was and forgive yourself. The world has not ended. Think positively about how that mistake can be avoided in future. Constant nagging guilt will undermine your fragile self-esteem – guilt is a negative and destructive feeling. We don’t learn very much from getting everything right, so try to find the positive in a mistake – we can learn from it and move on. Think of mistakes as happy accidents, learning opportunities, ways of broadening your experience.
The theme running through this article is about learning to appreciate yourself, to see yourself in a positive light, to realize that you are an OK person (not a perfect one, thank goodness). There are things you can do well. There are people who like/love/appreciate you, and some of them have judgment you trust. You matter to your family, in your workplace, among your friends, and therefore in the world.
If this is too much for you to take in, you find it really hard to start believing just who you really are, why not consider working through the issue with one of the qualified and experienced counsellors at Birmingham Counselling Services. You can get in touch by telephoning 0121 314 9903 or via our website: www.BirminghamCounsellingServices.co.uk We will always be pleased to offer you support.