Do you ever have dips in self-esteem and self confidence? Most of us do, and sometimes it can seem like a pit that’s hard to climb out of. Usually when we experience the very real lows that come with poor self-esteem we’ve hit a temporary problem with what we believe about ourselves. The good news is that we can change what we believe.
A client came to see a few years ago for support with these issues, we’ll call her Lucy. Her view of herself was pretty wretched: 'I feel as if I've never succeeded at anything' she told me, repeatedly, 'I can't think of a single thing that I've achieved'. Lucy was an attractive woman who kept herself quite fit. 'What about how you look', I suggested hopefully, ‘Surely you feel proud of how you've looked after yourself’? Lucy shrugged, 'I feel dumpy and untidy' she said.
It can be hard to support clients feeling like this to lift themselves up - it's almost as if they have told themselves the negative story so long that it's a kind of life-raft that they depend on, even if it's keeping them in dark muddy water they don't like much.
I asked Lucy if she had any close friends or relatives. Her face lit up a bit, yes she said, she did have one really good friend, she was lovely...then she spoiled it by saying 'I don't know why she bothers with someone like me though.'
‘And are you a good friend to her’? I asked. Lucy nodded,’Yes, I think I am. I try to be. She's someone I really care about.’
I asked Lucy what she would do if her friend, that she cared about so much, was sitting beside her talking about herself like she was now, saying she was a failure who'd never achieved anything, saying she was unattractive and not worth bothering about, what would she say to her?
There was no hesitation. Lucy said, 'I'd tell her to stop being so hard on herself, that she was attractive, everyone thinks so. I'd remind her of how well she's brought her kids up and looked after her Mum...I'd tell her what a great friend she was and how I couldn't do without her. Lucy laughed…’I'd tell her she was mad to be saying such horrible things about herself.’
Lucy acknowledged that she needed to be her own supportive best friend. We discussed how she couldn't possibly feel good about herself with constant self-abuse and undermining thoughts.
We then did an exercise where we imagined that Lucy had a best friend called Lucy, exactly the same as her, whom she cared about very much and knew really well. I asked Lucy to tell me the qualities she admired in this 'other' self.
Hesitantly at first, Lucy said, ‘Well...I guess she has quite nice hair…’ We both laughed. She relaxed a bit and said, 'She’s quite clever especially at maths’.
What else? I asked ‘She’s good at cooking, gardening...she can run quite a long way...she’s got a lot of stamina..’ There was a space as Lucy reflected for a while. ‘Actually’, she said suddenly, and with a lot more strength in her voice,’ I think I am quite a kind person, I never hurt anyone, I like to think I’m always there for people, I'm quite proud of that.’
I drew a rough’ treasure chest’ on a piece of paper and began to write some of these qualities inside the sketch of the chest. Nice hair. Kind, Good runner/gardener/cook. Good at maths. Lucy read the words as I wrote them down and began to give me instructions - she had switched from saying 'she' to 'I'. I can be quite funny' she said. ‘And creative.. And I think I'm a good friend, a good mother.’ I gave Lucy the pen and asked her to write three more things herself. It took her no time to write loyal, professional (at work) and caring.
We reviewed the drawing of the now impressively-full treasure chest. 'That's some friend you've got there Lucy' I said, 'you need to take better care of her'.
Lucy said she felt amazed. ‘I would never have thought I could have come up with all those things. When I sit on my own it feels as if there is nothing.’
We all need to do this 'best friend' exercise sometimes when self-esteem drops. It's so easy to be under the thumb, even the tyranny, of our inner critic whose voice can drown out all the things, large and small that we have achieved and proved during our lives.
We can allow minor dissatisfactions to become huge unnattractive features in our minds and we can fail to see what our friends and loved ones see in us. Some of us practice, over and over, a story of worthlessness and failure, and refuse to let go of it, not because we like it, but because we are used to it. We become afraid to let go of the habit.
Imagine you are your own best friend. Imagine that together you are filling that treasure chest with all your good qualities, skills, abilities and achievements - however small or insignificant they might feel, they all belong in there. Draw your own treasure chest (or box/basket/ bag, it doesn't matter) and write down everything you have identified.
Now resolve to keep adding to that treasure chest, and remember always to be your own beloved best friend.