Do you feel like you're not good enough? Are you a perfectionist? Do you have impostor syndrome? OK, pull up a chair and make a cuppa. This is a long post, and it's especially meant for YOU.
A while ago I was at a conference with 150 psychologists. The presenter asked those who had good self-esteem to raise their hand. I was near the front, so when my hand shot up it took me a moment to look around and realise that, of 150 psychologists, fewer than a dozen had raised their hand!
What conclusions do we draw from this? Well, two obvious ones are these:
1) If you don't have good self-esteem, you're far from alone. It's surprisingly common; and,
2) Even those who are supposed to know about this stuff often struggle with it.
SO, WHAT'S TO BE DONE?
Congratulations: you've already done the first thing, which is to recognise that there's an issue. (Very, very few people with excessively high self-esteem ever get as far as to admit it!)
Now what? Well, here are three things you can do:
1) So you missed a class. Cut yourself a break
Think of good self-esteem as a skill that you need to work on - not a 'fact' about your personality. There's a big difference. If it's a 'fact,' then you can't change it, just as you can't change the colour of your eyes or, pretty much, how tall you are. Instead, this is more like riding a bike or doing cryptic crosswords: you can change that about yourself, if it's important enough to you. It'll take some work, but it can be done.
Think of it like this: what if you just happened to miss school the day self-esteem got taught, and you just never caught up? Of course, it's not literally a class at school (though it jolly well ought to be), and even if it was it's not one that can be taught in a day. But it is a skill, like knowing how to be interesting at parties (short version: don't try and be interesting. Just be interested) or how to put a fitted sheet on a bed (all you need to know: the label goes bottom left or top right).
Instead, what do people with poor self-esteem tend to do? It's obvious, isn't it: they beat themselves up for it. 'Why am I so rubbish?' they might say. 'Why am I never good enough?' That's the poor self-esteem script. And then, to make matters worse, they may beat themselves up for beating themselves up: 'Why am I so rubbish at being confident? I'm so rubbish! Stop being rubbish, me! Jeez I really am rubbish...'
2) So I missed a class. What do I do about it?
So, OK Mr Smartypants, you might well say to me: how do I be kind to myself when I'm so hard on myself? I'm glad you asked me that question, because it's a good one and I have a good answer. It's this: just give yourself a good talking to.
Now by a good talking to, I don't mean the one you're already always giving yourself, which is the same 'Why am I so rubbish? I can't do anything' routine I described above. That's a bad talking to. No, I'm talking about a good talking to.
Here's what I mean. Find yourself a quiet space and a little time. Now, invite your inner voice to start up with the nonsense. That's right - invite yourself to give yourself a hard time. (If pushing doesn't work, try pulling.) And just listen. What exactly does your inner critic say? Whose voice is it? (Your mum's? That horrible teacher from school?)
And then have a good old conversation with that inner voice. The dialogue might go a bit like this:
Your inner voice: 'I'm too fat.'
You: 'For what?'
Your inner voice: 'For anyone to like me.'
You: 'How do you know that?'
Your inner voice: 'It's obvious, isn't it? Everyone knows it.'
You: 'Do they? How do you know that? Come on, I really, really want to know.'
Your inner voice: 'Well there was that time so-and-so said that nasty thing.'
You: 'Oh him? Is he someone whose opinion you value and trust?'
Your inner voice: 'Well not exactly, no. But he was certainly telling the truth that time, wasn't he?'
You: 'Was he?'
Your inner voice: 'Yes, of course he was.'
You: 'Of course? How do you know?'
Your inner voice: 'Everyone knows.'
Your inner voice: 'Well, most people.'
You: 'Which people?'
Your inner voice: 'Well, I know it anyway.'
You: 'How, exactly?'
Now this may feel a little weird, and that's because it is. But it's weird in a good way. Can you see what I'm suggesting? I'm suggesting that you really, really listen hard to what your inner critic is saying (and what she's not saying, too); and then you following through for more information. Instead of trying to shut up that voice, or shout it down, or argue with it, I'm suggesting the opposite: take it seriously, and hold it to account. If your friend told you she was feeling sad, you'd know what questions to ask to find out more, wouldn't you? You wouldn't dream of telling her she didn't really feel sad, or that she was wrong to feel sad, would you? (I hope not.) So be a good friend to yourself, listen sympathetically but don't just take your inner voice's word for it, just as, if your friend says she's feeling sad, you'd want to know more about it. 'Oh, right,' really doesn't cut it, either when your inner voice is giving you hell or when your friend is feeling sad.
How does this help? Well, that inner voice isn't logical. In fact, she probably developed this whole routine when she was a little girl (boys: when I say 'she' think 'he.' If that feels uncomfortable, now you know a little bit of how girls feel). And as you can imagine, a child doesn't have a great deal of logical equipment to work things through. That's why children end up blaming themselves for their parents rowing.
And you're just getting that inner voice to come up with some information for you, that's all. I once had a great session with a client when all I was doing was asking him, 'So? And what then? And so...?' Eventually he realised that there was no 'so what.' It was just an assumption he had going on in his head. He was mistaking something that didn't matter for something that did.
What you're also doing with this exercise is to stand outside it and not get swallowed up by its nonsense. If someone wants to tell you you're rubbish, you can either accept it at face level ('You're right! I am!'), or ask for evidence.: 'What makes you say that?'
3) You'll never know why. Get used to it
If I were to offer you a choice between knowing why you had poor self-esteem ('tell me about your childhood') and giving you a way to fix it, and you could only choose one, which would it be? You'd want it fixed, of course!
A lot of psychology is concerned with trying to work out why something went wrong. There's at least three problems with this: the first is, it takes a helluva long time to explore someone's trauma. The second problem is that there's nothing to say you've actually got to the bottom of it when you get there. (How would you know?) And the third problem is this: so what? So what if we've finally found out that you beat yourself up because daddy didn't love you/your mum was emotionally distant or whatever? OK, so that happened. Now what? It's like discovering that you broke your leg by getting run over by a car. How does that help? Your leg still needs fixing, and although it can be comforting to know that you're not a screw up all by yourself, and that someone else should have been better at looking after you when you were a kid, it still leaves you with the big job of fixing it up. So let's cut to the chase. Let's work on the present and the future, which is where you're going to be living the rest of your life.
4) Be prepared for some hard work
Right at the beginning, I said developing self-esteem was like riding a bike. Actually it may be more like learning to drive a car. It takes patience and persistence to learn this skill, but it's an important life-skill that is well worth the investment of time. After all, you've been doing this beating-yourself-up thing for, what, years? Decades? And you've got very, very good at it (though to be honest you're probably not world class. There are others who are miles better than you at being rubbish). So turning that around and getting better at being kind and forgiving to yourself is going to take a while. If you'd like some help getting started, book a free call with me and we can discuss it.