Self-esteem, the perception we have of ourselves, can have a huge impact on how we feel emotionally, and on our ability to take actions. It can erode our confidence around others and in our skills in various aspects of life. Having low self-esteem can also put us at great risk of developing depression and/or anxiety. A significant factor in how we feel about ourselves is the way we respond when we make a mistake, or something does not go well for us. If we are low in self-esteem, then our natural response, especially if we have been criticised a lot or bullied growing up, is to be harsh with ourselves. Often we might think that this will motivate us to do better next time, but unfortunately, it usually has the opposite effect, and just makes us feel worse about ourselves and less able to succeed.
An alternative way to relate to ourselves, rather than berating, is to be compassionate. Sometimes people may have been taught to believe that compassion is weak. However, compassion is defined by Professor Paul Gilbert, who developed Compassion Focused Therapy, as ”a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it”. To be able to face suffering and do something about it takes courage. Offering ourselves compassion can soothe our distress when we are finding something difficult, and reduce the likelihood of our stress levels increasing or of our mood spiralling downwards.
One simple way to be more compassionate with ourselves when something goes wrong for us, is to ask ourselves what we would say to a friend in our situation. We are often so much harder on ourselves than we ever would be on anyone else and this approach can really change our perspective away from the negative self-evaluations that can be so damaging for self-esteem. First, we need to be able to recognise when we are being harsh on ourselves. Mindfulness can help us here, to become more aware of the thoughts that are going through our minds. Then we can imagine that we are speaking to a friend in our mind instead, considering the kinder words and more helpful things we might say to them. Tone of voice is also important here, so if you try this strategy bring a soft, gentle and encouraging tone. It can also be helpful to think what we’d like our friend to do for themselves which could be calming and soothing. Perhaps having a nice hot bath, talking to someone they know cares about them, or spending a few hours on a hobby. When we’re thinking negatively, we may feel like we don’t deserve to do these things for ourselves but this is the time when we need these sort of activities the most, to help comfort and support ourselves when life is challenging.
Developing self-compassion will take time and practice when it is an unfamiliar way of relating to ourselves, but gradually it will help to strengthen wellbeing and build resilience.