How to Get a Healthy Grip on Your Self-Esteem

My clients come to therapy for many different reasons: they may be unhappy with their careers, lack of perceived success, they may be struggling in relationships, feel overwhelmed by sadness or anxiety, have difficulty expressing themselves or showing up authentically in front of others. Many of my clients believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them: that they are damaged in some way, or not good enough, or wish that they were more like somebody else, or that they deserve to suffer because of the way that they are.

One common thread among my clients is that their low self-esteem can be traced back to childhood-- to a time when their self-worth was undermined by another person or group's words or actions. Children are vulnerable and often impacted by influential or critical voices (such as a parent, peer or teacher). Whether or not the criticism was overt or subtle — or was actually a misinterpretation — these voices can become internalized and play like a recording over and over again. Eventually, these voices can solidify into more concrete beliefs, gaining traction over time, embedding themselves into a person's core identity and psyche, and traveling with them through adulthood. Left unchallenged, these voices can become omnipotent and corrosive: running negative, self-defeating scripts over and over again -- impeding my clients from feeling at peace in their lives and moving towards authenticity and their potential.  

When I read articles about self-esteem, it is often linked to pubescent teenage girls or middle-aged women struggling with body image issues. While these are certainly examples, this narrow focus is limiting. In reality, self-esteem issues are present across all demographics -- culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomics. It is not simply a women's issue. Oftentimes, self-esteem is at the root of high-risk behaviors, such as various types of addictions, suicidal thoughts, self-harming behaviors, and abusive relationships. However, it also impacts people in more subtle ways in their daily lives, as they try to go about their business, but struggle internally.  People find ways to cope with their pain and do the best that they can in their circumstances. 

Some people may seek external validation from others in order to feel better (e.g. compliments, approval, romantic relationships)--because they struggle to accept themselves just as they are. This does not work in the long-term because it is disempowering: their self-worth hinges upon others' actions and beliefs. People will use alcohol, drugs, or risky behaviors to escape or quiet negative beliefs about self. These methods are ineffective (as well as dangerous) because they are temporary "fixes" and do not address the deeper issues.  

If you would like to feel better about yourself and more confident in who you are, you can start a practice to support these goals. However, as you will be addressing deep-seated feelings and beliefs, it will take some time and commitment. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Identify what makes you feel good about yourself: your unique strengths, hobbies, and support system. Create a personalized list and be sure to refer to it often. As an art therapist, I invite my clients to create an identity collage or vision board, which can act as a daily reminder of who you are, what you stand for, and what is important to you --which can help to boost your sense of self.

  2. Notice when your inner critic takes over. Be curious, but try to detach from it. It is not you.  Counter this voice with a compassionate reframe. For example: "There is something wrong with me" might become "I can be hard on myself, but it is important to remember that I am a good person and there is nothing wrong with me." This practice will start to chip away at your negative self-talk so that it no longer carries so much weight. 

  3. Carry around an object, photo, quotation, or letter, which reminds you of your self-worth in some way.  If you know you are about to enter a vulnerable situation, take a moment with this special object beforehand, to bolster your confidence.   

  4. Remember that you are not alone! Join a support group with like-minded people or talk to someone (it could be a friend, family or community member, or professional)-- the key is finding support in which you feel listened to, respected, and understood.

  5. Language is powerful.  Write your own story and share it with others. Out of vulnerability comes strength.

For more on self-esteem, I was interviewed for this article on PsychCentral:

https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-you-feel-absolutely-awful-about-yourself-regularly/ 

 

Clearing Out Mental Cobwebs

Spring is a good time for pausing and reflecting upon how you are doing.  Here are some questions worth exploring:

• Are you stuck in any negative emotional cycles? (e.g. angering quickly, feeling hopeless, blaming others, constantly worrying)?

• Have any unhealthy thought patterns developed? (e.g. are you being overly-critical of yourself...or of others or do you tend to be cynical about situations)?

• Are your relationships healthy or could they use some attention?

• Are you adequately taking care of yourself and meeting your needs to the best of your ability?

If you are not feeling balanced in some way, it can be helpful to get out your tool kit and do some "spring-cleaning." Instead of brushing the dust underneath the rug, instead, try taking some time to take it outside, air it out, shake it out, clean it, and then return it to its place.  When you take time to examine how you are going about your everyday life, there is a real opportunity to take responsibility, make different choices, and create conscious change.

You can learn to catch yourself in the moment--whether it is a particular way of thinking or of responding to a situation--and recognize when a pattern is not serving you.  With this awareness, you can start to breathe light into old patterns and "stuck" energies: you can learn to soften, bring self-compassion or compassion towards others, connect with a moment of gratitude, see the bigger picture, and attend to your relationships in a meaningful way. Self-reflection and interrupting unhealthy patterns by bringing conscious awareness can empower you and give you hope regardless of life circumstances. Springtime is nature's inspiring reminder that change is possible. 

 

 

 

 

 

This Season, Strive for a Sense of Contentment

            Growing up on the east coast, I experienced a real sense of time passing because of the four distinct seasons.  Every fall, leaves changed into golden reds, yellows, and browns; every winter, snow covered the ground; every spring, there was an abundance of rain and new growth; and every summer, the heat and humidity soared.  Living in California, I sometimes forget about the seasonal transitions because they do not occur so dramatically out here.  As a result, time passes inconspicuously because fall, winter, spring, and summer all look and feel remarkably similar. 

             And yet there are real changes in both the world around us and within our bodies that occur at different times of the year.  In the fall/winter, the days shorten and we feel the effects both in the morning and in the evening (as darkness sets in earlier and lasts for a longer duration).  Our own circadian rhythms adjust to these environmental changes.  Have you noticed yourself getting tired earlier? Needing more sleep than usual? Wanting to eat more food or craving different types of food? Do you feel like you want to spend more time alone? Is your mind racing more than usual? As we move into fall and winter, our internal clocks recalibrate, and we often find that our needs and wants are different. 

            The truth is that, for many of us, it can be difficult to slow down, tune in and readjust when we are faced with our own daily demands.  We may be operating on "auto-pilot" while trying to ignore or resist these bodily changes...or we may feel pressure to keep moving at the same rate because we feel obligated to...or we gain a sense of personal satisfaction out of staying busy...or we may fear slowing down and tuning in because it might be painful.  However, by pushing ourselves too much, it can backfire, leaving us physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, ill, hopeless, helpless, anxious, or depressed. So how can we take care of ourselves at this busy time of the year, when stress is high--whether it be because your kids are back at school, you have deadlines at school or work, the holidays are approaching, or something else?

Here are 5 ways to help you stay grounded and feel content this fall/ winter:

1.  Reconnect with Your Sense of Awe

            Have you ever felt a long-lost spark rekindle inside of you unexpectedly? Perhaps while you are playing with a child or trying something new or staring out at a particular view? All of us adults were kids at one time.  Within each of us, there exists a sense of awe and wonder that connects us to our early childhoods.  

             Children's attunement to their senses and open-minded curiosity is universal.  Their brains are not fully developed, and this is actually quite a blessing.  Rather than analyze or apply logic, they make sense of the world by filtering it through their senses--what they see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. 

            Consider, for a moment, the way in which you experience the world on a daily basis.  Do you take in what is going on around you--for example, notice a spectacular sunset or hear birds chirping in a tree as you walk by (or is your mind elsewhere)? Do you approach strangers and new situations with open-minded curiosity (or with guarded hearts and judgment)? True, there is a naivete and lack of life experience that enables children to be the way that they are, but there is also a way in which adults can enrich their own lives by reconnecting with this profound sense of awe.

2.  Let Your Body Inform Your Mind

            In our culture, we tend to champion rational thinking above other ways of knowing.  The truth is that our bodies possess a good deal of wisdom.  Eastern cultures tend to recognize this. Many of us brush aside our intuitive impulses: we refer to "gut instincts" or "hunches."  Our minds can spin webs that lead us astray, entangle us in ambivalence, or generate anxiety.  When we tune into our bodies, we start to understand what is going on within ourselves on a deeper cellular level as well as on a vaster spiritual plane. Tuning into our bodies connects us to ourselves and, by becoming more present, we are also better able to connect with others and the world around us.

3. See "Abundance" Instead of "Lack" 

            How often do you hear someone say: "It is not fair..." "I never get what I want..." "I can't afford it...." etc. These are only a few examples of expressions that perceive reality through a sense of lack.  It is common, habitual thinking, which clutters our minds. But this pattern of thinking can erode your sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, pride, and abundance.  Rather than seeing the glass as half-full, you are always worrying that it is half-empty...and then, if it is half empty, then what will you do about it?...Go to the store?...But what time does the store close?...Do you need to buy anything else?...Where is that list? The mind can go on and on.  When you see the glass as half-full, then you can go ahead and drink that milk, taste it fully, and savor every last drop (accepting that when it is done, it is done).  Appreciating what you already have and focusing on a sense of abundance brings happiness.

4.  Embrace Your Own Pace

            With the proliferation of the internet and smart phone apps, the world keeps getting faster and busier (and, let's face it, "faster" is sometimes equated to "better)." There is more multi-tasking, less "down-time," and "FOMO" (Fear Of Missing Out) if you are not keeping up with the buzz.  Just take the recent election and how rapidly stories generated and then fizzled out in the wake of newer stories.   It can be difficult to keep up with the current speed of life.  And a very important question to ask ourselves is: "do we even want to try?"  What do we gain from keeping up?

            When we keep up with the speed of our culture, we may feel more connected to others and to our communities, more informed, excited and inspired, or it may be helpful for our jobs, lives, families, etc.  So when does it become problematic? It becomes problematic if we allow ourselves to get swept up into the mayhem, and start experiencing negative effects.  When we do not respect our own boundaries, we risk losing our connection to ourselves.  We may feel any of the following:  1) flooded with emotions or a sense of "information overload" 2) triggered by traumatic stories 3) subject to habitual anxious thoughts 4) out-of-synch with our bodies.

            While it may not be a good idea to ignore what is going on in the world around you, it can be helpful to consciously tune in, observe your patterns, and establish a pace that feels comfortable and healthy for you.  Some people, by nature or practice, are very good at this.  They know themselves well, can tune into their needs in the moment and follow through.  For most of us, it takes practice and cultivation. Here are some practical tips how you can learn to set your own pace:

     •   Schedule daily or weekly time to "tune out" and "unplug."  (They have adult camps now devoted to this cause, but the benefits are free and accessible to you at any time).  Make a commitment to yourself and actually follow through!

     •   Don't buy into our cultural belief that productivity defines your identity and self-worth.  Consider the importance of taking care of yourself everyday--even if that means sleeping in or ignoring your to-do list.

      •   Embrace your pace! Do not compare yourself to others; we all have our own unique rhythms.

      •   Practice mindfulness throughout the day: walking, eating, breathing, listening, meditating, etc.

5.  Simplify

            As you may have noticed, books about Feng Shui and de-cluttering have recently become popular.  There are aesthetic trends towards minimalism as well--tiny houses, few possessions, multifunctional gadgets.  Just think for a moment about how easy it is to accumulate possessions in your home--mail, newspapers, magazines, receipts, free samples, new purchases.  If you don't stop to purge every once in awhile, it can feel as though you are drowning in all of it.  "Simplifying" may mean different things to different people: for some it means decreasing possessions, for others making fewer plans so that they have more free time, and for others it means getting more organized. Simplifying your life feels like a breath of fresh air.   

All of these tools are available to you right now at this very moment.  Whenever you are ready, and whatever season of life you are in, you can strive for contentment. 

 

 

The Resilience Factor

I believe that most of us have a story (or two, three or more) about a time in our lives that was a struggle in some respect or an obstacle that we had to overcome. There is no denying that life is full of challenges.  And it is normal to respond to adversity with intense, often mixed, emotions. But after that initial gut reaction, what do you do next? Do you mope, take out your frustration on somebody else, blame your partner, or try to forget about it? Many of us do these things, some of which are unhealthy and not very constructive.  By doing so, we hand power over to the obstacle and diminish our own sense of control.

When we feel stressed out, confused or upset, and we overly-identify with our emotions, we become vulnerable.  Emotions can cloud our judgment, making it difficult to think clearly. As humans, we have the ability to balance emotion and reason; this "sweet spot" has been dubbed "Wise Mind" by Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  When we tap into this place within ourselves, we may feel centered and peaceful because we are not, as the saying goes, getting "carried away by our emotions."  Wise Mind can be a powerful tool to help us cope with circumstances that are outside of our control; it can support our resilience by restoring our sense of equilibrium. For more on Wise Mind, please click here.

Each one of my clients has a unique story.  Some of my clients come from broken homes, suffered great losses, struggled with addiction, survived traumatic events, wrestled with questions of identity and self-worth, or struggled to stay afloat when faced with so many demands in their lives. Some of them lost segments of their childhood and innocence or were forced to abandon their dreams for a time due to various circumstances.  Throughout my work as a therapist, I have been inspired by my clients' resilience; by their ability to not just survive, but to persevere, grow and even succeed despite great difficulties and challenges.

While resilience may be easier to identify in more extreme cases, it is important to acknowledge its influence on a smaller scale.  You do not have to face extreme life circumstances in order to exercise resilience. For example, it is present in your everyday ability to spring back from setbacks and frustrations. I would argue that we all possess some degree of psychological resilience--even if we struggle to access it at times.  

By assuming responsibility for the way in which we experience our lives, we reclaim our capacities for choice and decision-making.  This means that, even when faced with adversity, we do not give up or resort to negative actions, but we use this as a springboard to rise above the situation and elicit greater hope for the future.  Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor/ psychiatrist/writer, credits his ability to survive the dismal conditions of a concentration camp to his ability to mentally reframe the situation so that, rather than focus on the bleakness of the situation and his status as a prisoner, he focused on preserving his spiritual freedom, exercising the small choices that he was able to, uplifting others' spirits, while preserving human dignity. As anyone would agree, this was no small feat.  And we can learn through others' stories about the way in which we wish to live our own lives.

Despite the odds, some of my clients managed to graduate from high school (as the first generation in their families), to take artistic risks, to redefine themselves and their roles, to not give up on their careers even if it meant changing direction or ignoring what others around them were saying. Again and again, my clients have picked themselves up off the ground and not given up on life.  I am not saying that the road was easy and that they did not struggle at times.  Much of what it came down to for them was reevaluating the core beliefs and assumptions that they held about themselves.  During hard times, they often felt small, struggled with turbulent emotions, or questioned their abilities.  By trying to shift their perspectives or reframe their situations, they were eventually able to experience reconnection, self-love, and relocate their strength and "sparkle."

How you view your situation, as Frankl suggests, is really what makes the difference. Do you view it as an insurmountable obstacle and grow rageful, hopeless, anxious, or depressed?  If so, you may find yourself caught up in the mind's emotional web and feel hopeless about your situation.  By giving yourself some time and space so that your mind can "refresh," by taking some deep breaths or going for a walk, you are flexing your resilience muscle.  You might even feel a sense of empowerment or gain spiritual clarity.

In The Artist's Way, a book filled with valuable life lessons that apply to more than artists, Julia Cameron writes about "gain disguised as loss" and encourages us to ask ourselves: "How can this loss serve me?" when we feel defeated.  She shares: "The trick is to metabolize pain as energy.  The key to doing that is to know, to trust, and to act as if a silver lining exists if you are only willing to look at the [world] differently or to walk through a different door."

Rather than spend your whole life pointing your finger in another direction, or shutting down, or exploding with anger or resentment, there exists a real possibility to both be at peace with yourself as well as to feel a sense of agency in the world around you.  The trick lies in perspective-shifting and the story that you create about your life and choose to tell yourself and others.  At any time, you can re-author your story and your experience of the world (even if the outcome remains the same).  As humans, we are not fixed, we are flexible.  We change and update and regress and progress and reinvent ourselves all of the time! Whatever your obstacle is--be it large or small--you have all that you need to turn it around and see things with fresh eyes.  There are many different healthy ways to do this: some people connect with others who inspire them, some find comfort in spirituality, some express themselves creatively, some travel, some push themselves through intense physical experiences (e.g. mountaineering or marathons), and yes, some find support by talking to a therapist or counselor. You have a right to access and know the incredible resilience that is your own--and that connects us with one another. As Cameron suggests, instead of asking yourself the question: "Why me?" try asking: "what next?"  

 

 

Sources Cited

Cameron, Julia.  (1992).  The Artist's Way.  New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

Frankl, Viktor E.  (1959).  Man's Search for Meaning.  Boston: Beacon Press.

   Wise Mind: Experiencing Intuition & Integration.  Retrieved in 2016 from http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/wise_mind.pdf