Today’s Shattering Stigmas post is going to be a bit personal, but I guess I can’t ask people to share their stories without doing so myself! I’ll talk about how self-esteem and mental health are related, and I also tried to come up with some book recs and tips to boost your self-esteem. Hope you enjoy!
I had low self-esteem as a teenager, but I didn’t realise it. I thought all teenagers are unhappy and feel like they don’t belong, because that’s the stereotype, right? Being stigmatised as lazy, undisciplined and undesirable due to being obese didn’t help. It took an event that made me feel particularly horrible to do some googling, and then I stumbled upon this post: I’m Not Good Enough – The World Through a Low Self-Esteem Lens. Reading it, I had a real lightbulb moment. The description fit me to a tee, and I suddenly felt so much better, because I realised what the issue was, and so I was able to work on it. Of course it wasn’t done in a day – in fact it’s still a work in progress – but I was able to improve my self-esteem a lot over the last few years.
It was only when my self-esteem got better that I was able to make healthier choices and to communicate my needs. I didn’t grow up in a household with open lines of communication, and it was always difficult for me to talk about my feelings, needs, and experiences. I felt ashamed to even address issues that I now speak about openly. Once my self-esteem got better, I also learned to work on communicating better and treating myself with respect. In a lot of ways, I’m not particularly shy, but I still have troubles talking about specific areas of my life. It takes constant work, but improving my self-esteem has helped a lot.
Before I could even think about getting healthier, I had to learn to accept and love myself for who I am instead of constantly putting myself down, as cheesy as it sounds. Being forgiving with and nice to myself is probably the most important thing I ever learned. It’s hard to improve yourself and treat yourself well when you berate yourself for every little setback instead of cheering yourself on to keep trying. My experience has been that once you learn to be kind to yourself, you also learn to forgive your mistakes and celebrate your successes.
How does this tie into mental health? While it may not be a diagnosable illness, low self-esteem can seriously impact everything about your life and daily interactions. If you’re meeting new people, your low self-esteem may lead you to believe that they don’t like you, couldn’t possibly like you, so you don’t interact with them to begin with even though they might have become your new best friends. If you’re having a shit day, you might not talk about it, because you don’t think your problems are worth anyone’s time.
Similarly, if you’re having a serious mental health issue, you may not speak up about it, because you don’t think you’re worth it. You may think that it’s not important enough to bother someone else, or you may feel ashamed that you’re having issues to begin with. Even if you already got help, low self-esteem could keep you from making the right choices to treat yourself in the best way possible in a million tiny ways. That is why it’s important to improve self-esteem when it is too low for anyone, but particularly for people with mental health issues. Of course it’s not a “cure” for anything, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. It may also be a lot harder when your energy is focused somewhere else, and different things work for different people. It’s a process rather than a quick fix (are there any of those?), but it’s worth it.
Tips and Tricks
I gave this post to Inge to read before I posted it, and she suggested I add some advice on how to boost your self-esteem. I didn’t have this in the post originally, because to be honest I haven’t really developed a lot of failsafe methods here. I thought it was a good point anyway, so here goes.
1. Inge mentioned writing a list of things you like about yourself or asking friends what they like about you and keeping that list at hand for bad self-esteem days. I know I’ve tried to do this in the past with various levels of success. I suggest giving it a try – don’t forget to write down the small things too! It’s great to write down you’re good at listening to your friends, but you can also write down that you don’t forget to water your plants (this is not me by the way, even cacti die in my vicinity), or that you’re great at cuddling your cat, or even that you’re trying your best.
2. One thing I have consistently tried to do with slightly better success over the last few years is to stop putting myself down. I never really considered how I was thinking about myself, but then I read somewhere that you shouldn’t talk to yourself any worse than your best friend (unless you have that kind of relationship with your friend where you’ll insult each other to show your love, in that case treat yourself better than your best friend). Before, I often thought bad things about myself, but I’ve really tried to work on this. Of course I slip up or don’t even notice that I’m doing it, but overall I think I got better at being nice to myself, and this has been one of the most important things I learned in this process.
3. Accepting that failure is a good thing. While I was thinking about advice, I realized that another thing I’ve tried to internalise over the last few years is that I’m not worthless just because I failed at something. Everyone fails, but more importantly, failing means you’re trying. Yeah, maybe you sucked at approaching people on your first day of university, but you know what? You’ll be better at it on day five. A lot of the time failing just means practicing and practice makes perfect!
4. Stop comparing yourself! In school I was comparing myself to others constantly. That behaviour is really toxic, and I got a lot better at university, where I compared myself to others less. Of course it’s hard to turn this off entirely, but it’s important to realise that even if you wanted to compare yourself to others, it’s literally impossible. Everyone has different parameters to start with, so if you were doing a scientific experiment it would be doomed from the start. Maybe it looks like your friend is a lot better at being outgoing, but it’s possible that they worked on it really hard, or had parents who always encouraged them to talk to people, or they were in a theater group as a kid, or they just made more good experiences, or their brain is built in such a way that just makes it easier for them, or or or. If you want to compare yourself with someone, compare yourself with your past self. If you’ve made improvements, great! If you haven’t, try starting now.
5. Realize that you didn’t know any better. If you’re thinking about “mistakes” you made in the past, understand that you didn’t know any better at the time or you wouldn’t have acted the way you did. Maybe you didn’t speak up when you should have, or something embarrassing happened, or you’re responsible that someone else felt bad – if you had had the right tools, you would have acted better, but you didn’t. Instead you know better now, so great! Of course I’m not saying we shouldn’t take responsibility for our own actions – we absolutely should. But it’s possible to do that and to not agonise over every mistake we made and instead focus on doing it better in the future.
6. Focus on the positives. This may be easier said than done, but everyone can work on this. Pain needs to be felt and all that, but we don’t need to focus our energy on every little negative thing in our lives. Consciously try to focus on the positive aspects of life, even if it’s just something really small like seeing a nice flower or your breakfast tasting especially good today.
7. Take breaks. If there are things in your life that are lowering your self-esteem and you can, make yourself take a break. For example, I just finished my M.A., and I’m applying for jobs now – not gonna lie, it’s a bit of an excruciating process for me, because every rejection feels a bit like a “you’re not good enough”. Of course I intellectually know it’s not personal (and also they’re wrong and missing out, just sayin’), but it can be tough, so for me it’s important to step away and do fun things in between writing applications. This may not be a solution, but in times where you have to deal with things that put you down, it’s even more important to take time for self-care.
8. Take up hobbies! Okay, I realise that depends on time and energy, but taking time for yourself to do something you enjoy can really boost your self-esteem, because it’s something just for you that helps you get to know yourself and your skills better. Rediscover old hobbies. Take up new ones. Often you’ll develop or improve skills that make you feel more confident about yourself.
9. Make time for yourself. Spend some time dancing through your flat, reading a book, taking a hot bath by candlelight – whatever makes you feel good, spend time doing it, no excuses! If you don’t have time, make time. If you’re feeling good, everything else will be easier too. Even if it’s just meditating for five minutes or taking a walk through nature in your lunch break, make sure you don’t neglect yourself.
10. Get help. As always, if you feel like you can’t deal with it by yourself, please reach out – to your family, your friends, a therapist, or whoever else you feel comfortable reaching out to. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to deal with this by yourself. I’ve found that just talking about it and being open about low self-esteem, scary as it may be, can help to improve it, because you’re acknowledging it instead of feeling ashamed about it.
That’s all I can think of right now (guess I had some more tips than I realized), but please feel free to add to this in the comments. I’ll definitely be needing to take some of my own advice. Hope it helps!
I have to admit, I don’t have a lot here. I do read a lot of books with great protagonists, but they don’t usually specifically adress the issue of self-esteem, because I’m more a fantasy reader than a non-fiction person. I mostly go to the web for these things (honestly, if you looked at my google history you’d get a pretty accurate picture of my collective issues). Let me know if you have any good recommendations in the comments!
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown. I read this for a seminar focusing on happiness at university, and I thought it contained very good advice. It’s been a few years, but I remember enough to know I can recommend it.
Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven. In some ways this story was hard for me to read, but I still thought it was a good book. I especially liked how the author addressed the issue of therapy and made a point to stress that self-love and accepting yourself are the most important things when trying to make healthy choices.