Much has been written about the topic of “self-esteem.” Sometimes the idea almost seems like one of those “buzz” words that doesn’t really mean anything. A significant amount of research points to the development of self-esteem as a key aspect of mental health. Self-esteem builds slowly and its foundation is the sense that we are loved and valued by others. Those who were psychologically or physically abused, or who were abandoned in significant ways as children, find it particularly hard to develop and preserve this attitude towards themselves.
The task is not impossible, and it can be addressed straightforwardly. There is nothing shameful about working to improve a healthy sense of love for oneself. A good deal of what makes psychotherapy successful is based on helping people to create positive ways of seeing themselves.
In our work with patients we often use “cognitive” psychotherapy approaches. Books like “Feeling Good” and “The Feeling Good Workbook” as well as “Mind Over Mood” are good places to get a sense of how one goes about changing the words we use to describe ourselves. It is our experience, though, that reading these books without someone as a partner or guide is usually not that helpful.
Talking to Yourself
We all talk to ourselves during the day. We think about what has happened, we try to figure out problems. Some people tend to talk to themselves in negative ways or tend to replay problems. Negative self talk appears to be a major factor predicting chronic depression.
Surprisingly, we can actually change the way that we think about ourselves. And people who fight off negative thoughts or who give in to them or try to find a “solution” to these thoughts outside of themselves.
The first step to finding a solution is listening to those voices or thoughts. Take a few days and deliberately attend to what you are saying to yourself. What kinds of things do you tend to pay attention to? Are there any themes?
Next, take another few days and write down a couple of those thoughts that seem negative. Ask yourself how realistic the thoughts are. Are things really that bad? Try to look at it objectively, consider alternative explanations for things that don’t turn out well. Then write down a revised more realistic appraisal.
If you take these two steps you should notice some improvement in your mood within a couple of weeks. Then, if you find this works for you consider buying the book “Mind over Mood” which is listed on our booklist.
Making and Keeping Commitments to Yourself
As you set out to find ways of helping yourself to achieve better mental health there are a few important considerations. We have already mentioned one of those: find support from others (a friend, family member, someone wrestling with similar problems, a professional therapist). A second thing to consider is start out with small steps. There are at least two reasons for this. First, whenever you are trying to make a change it is usually best to break down that change into smaller components. The other reason is that it is very important to not only make commitments to take action, but also to fulfill those commitments. The outcome of setting out to change and creating a grand plan and then not taking the actions required is inevitably negative. Start small, build confidence in yourself.