We’ve all been there on some level – feeling awkward, uncomfortable, incompetent or just overall feeling badly about ourselves. Even the most confident people on earth suffer from feeling inadequate sometimes, so it’s definitely normal.
But those with an anxiety disorder tend to also suffer from chronic and seriously low self-esteem. Anxiety is really good at twisting what’s actually happening into what it wants you to think as real. You may be an extraordinarily gifted artist, but your anxiety tricks you into thinking you’re terrible and no one will ever appreciate your work. You may be the funniest person in the room, but your anxiety works in overdrive to make sure you think no one would ever pay any attention to you.
People with anxiety and low self-esteem tend to be hypervigilant and hyper-aware of any kind of sign that might translate to inadequacy or rejection. Even when there are no signs, a person with anxiety might imagine that there is.
“I’ve branded myself an introvert, because that label excuses me from having to do certain things,” says Brenda, 32. “The truth is, if I just felt better about myself, I don’t think I’d be as much of a homebody as I am. I want to go out there and meet people. I want to be one of those girls who has a huge circle of friends and dresses up and goes out to dinner at 9 p.m. and goes to concerts, things like that.
“But I don’t. I’ve put on a lot of weight since high school and I’m not exactly a glamorous kind of girl who you’d picture living that kind of lifestyle. Who I am on the inside isn’t represented on what I look like on the outside, but no one knows that. And I always think that no one’s going to give me the time of day to share that with them, because, well, look at me.”
Brenda’s judgment of herself is harsh, and indicative of her anxiety and low self-esteem. She’s convinced people don’t like her at first glance, and even more convinced that she’s undeserving of positive attention and healthy relationships. Admittedly, Brenda says she participates in unhealthy behaviors – overeating, refusing to exercise, and excessive shopping – because it makes her “feel better.” This cycle of feeling badly and then behaving badly has Brenda going in circles – and it isn’t helping her escape the chains of her disorder.
Experts say, however, that Brenda’s behavior and attitude isn’t atypical of a person with anxiety and low self-esteem. It’s all tied together – if a person is anxious that a person doesn’t like them, they’re more likely to withdraw from people and allow people from getting to know them, so the isolation and loneliness convinces them they are indeed unlikeable. The more a person with anxiety believes they’re seen a certain way – awkward, shy, unlovable, difficult – the more those labels stick, because the person starts to actually believe that’s who they are.
But there’s good news here. It is absolutely possible to overcome low self-esteem. Read on for some techniques you can start using right now.
Stop listening to your inner critic. It’s lying to you. If you were to compile all the awful things you’ve said to yourself, and instead targeted and said them to a friend, can you imagine how that friend would feel? How would your friend feel if you said, “You’re stupid,” or “You’re worthless,” or “Just shut up. You’re a moron.” Chances are your friend would be upset, abhorred, and may never speak to you again. That’s because your friend probably isn’t stupid, definitely isn’t worthless, and most certainly not a moron. They’d have every right not to listen to you.
So why are you talking to yourself that way? More important, why you are listening?
For you to overcome your self-esteem challenges, you’ll have to challenge these negative thoughts you’ve mastered repeating to yourself. The most difficult thing is to recognize that this is how you’re talking to yourself – it’s probably something you’ve been doing for years and has become such a natural part of you that you’ve stopped noticing you’re abusing yourself.
The next time you’re starting to feel inadequate or low, sit back and think about why you’re feeling inadequate. On a piece of paper or in a journal, write down all the awful things you’re saying that are making you believe you’re inadequate. On the other side of the page, write down a kind, compassionate (and ultimately more realistic) response to those criticisms.
“You’re so fat and ugly,” could be replaced with “I have pretty eyes, clear skin and a straight, bright smile.”
“You’re so dumb. You don’t even have a degree,” could be replaced with “I’m a really good writer, a fantastic photographer, and I could go back to school anytime I wanted to. I know I’d do really well because I have life experience now too.”
When your inner critic wants to start annihilating you, stop it in its tracks. Challenging your inner critic’s cruel attacks by responding and standing up for yourself in a loving way will stop you from getting sucked into its hurricane of shame.
Practice self-compassion. Another way you can improve your self-esteem is by practicing self-compassion. This is the practice of treating yourself like the person you love most in the world. Self-compassion isn’t about judging or evaluating who you are; it simply means being kind and accepting yourself as you are.
It may not be easy at first, but it is simple, and it’s made up of only three steps.
The first is to acknowledge that you’re suffering. “I’m hurting. I’m in so much pain that I feel like I’m drowning in it.”
The second is to be kind and caring to yourself in response. “Okay. I’m hurting. It’s okay. I can take the time to hurt, and I can also take the time to find ways to feel better. If this was an open wound, I would clean it, bandage it, and protect it from further harm. I’m going to do the same with my pain.”
The third step is to remember that imperfection is just part of being human. “Everyone feels like this. I’m no less of a person because I hurt sometimes.”
Stop comparing yourself to other people. You can also improve your self-esteem when you stop using other people as a measuring stick for your own success. With the birth of Instagram and other social media sites, where people are constantly posting the highlight reels of their lives (which are often inauthentic and strategically produced – so they’re not even truly highlight reels), we’re all bound to feel like we’re less than, or that maybe we’re doing something wrong because we’re not living in marble houses and driving expensive luxury cars along the Italian coast. On a Tuesday.
Measuring or evaluating ourselves against other people – their achievements, their external possessions, their attractiveness and their successes – we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment, over and over again. Consider this: someone in your friend group has just purchased a beautiful SUV. You think to yourself, “Wow. That’s a mark of success. When I get an SUV like that, I’ll know I’m successful too.” A few months later you purchase a similar SUV for yourself, and you feel fantastic. You feel like you’ve made it.
Some time later, your friend purchases a breathtaking condo in an exclusive neighborhood. You’re shattered. Suddenly your SUV doesn’t seem so shiny anymore, and all you can think about is how you’re never going to be able to afford a place in your friend’s neighborhood, or anywhere close to it.
Notice the cycle? If you continue to compare yourself to other people, it will be a forever war. It might not be a material item – it could be that someone else has kids and you don’t, or that someone got a promotion and you didn’t, or that someone brought a dish to a potluck and got rave reviews while your lasagna didn’t.
Stop thinking about what other people have and that it has anything to do with your own success. Set goals for what you want to accomplish. Be who you are and who you want to be. Be you, not them.
Finally, do good things. Contribute to society, or perform random acts of kindness. When we do meaningful things, especially to better the lives of others, we naturally feel good about ourselves. It’s a fantastic way to build confidence and develop a healthy sense of self-esteem.
This doesn’t have to mean donating large sums of money or even taking hours of your week to volunteer at a single place. It could be opening a door for an elderly person, gathering your clothes you don’t use anymore and donating them to a shelter, or offering to take your neighbor’s dog for a walk. Anything you do that puts a smile on someone’s face is guaranteed to put one on yours too. Before you know it, your anxiety won’t be what’s peaking – it’ll be your sense of self-worth.
If you have anxiety and would like more tips on how to increase your self-confidence and self-esteem, visit us at www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.
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