The greatest love of all is probably a mother’s love, but there is another one, one that will support you and help you for the rest of your life, the love you have for yourself. I’ve talked in past articles about how the self-esteem of people with eating disorders is deeply linked to their shape, weight and ability to control their eating. I thought it would be worth discussing self-esteem in more depth.
What’s Self-Esteem and what Causes It?
In simple terms, self-esteem is the opinion we have our ourselves. This opinion is not something that comes one day, as an epiphany, it is a system of feelings and thoughts about ourselves, our body, our minds, that is built piece by piece from an early age. The foundation for these ideas are formed through the prisms of our parent’s messages, as well as teachers’, siblings’, friends’ and even the media’s (see my article about social media and BED here). Some of these messages are positive and reinforce a healthy self-esteem and some of these messages are not so good. Sadly, the negative messages are the ones that take root the easier and play a big role into the image we form of ourselves.
Life, then, adds blocks to that foundation, reinforcing some of those positive ideas and some of those negative ideas too. Here again, age makes no difference on what sort of ideas stick the best. As Vivian said in Pretty Woman, ‘The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever noticed that?’ And that’s not only the bad stuff others tell us, it’s also the bad stuff we tell ourselves.
Negative thoughts are so ingrained in our everyday, I don’t think we even notice them anymore. ‘Gosh, I’m fat’ or ‘damn, how daft I am for making that mistake’ or ‘I only have bad luck in my life.’ Bad thoughts can be about anything, it can be about our bodies, our ability to do something, or ability to achieve something, or it can become anxiety about something that already happened. Negative thoughts come in many shapes, some of which are:
- Thinking something you’ve done well is not good enough. For example, I scored 74% on my exam for my last module and although that’s pretty good, I still think it could have been much better.
- Labelling yourself. ‘I’m a whale’, ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I’m stupid.’ We all do it.
- Depending on others’ approval. Believing your can read their minds and behaviours and invariably concluding they don’t like you or disapprove of you.
- Dwelling on past mistakes, on things you should have said differently, on moments that were painful to live through.
- Negativism itself! Thinking your life sucks, everything goes wrong for you, others have great luck and you always have bad luck.
The above types of negativism are probably some of the most common and can have a wide range of effects on a person, some of which, as we’ve seen before, are eating disorders, but of course there is more than that.
The Effects of Negative Thinking
As I said before, negative thinking triggers low self-esteem which, in turn, can trigger eating disorders, but they can also trigger many other mental health issues such as:
As well as other issues:
- Hindering change and self-improvement
- Low confidence levels
- Decreased health
- Limited social life
And many more, really, because it affects everybody in a different way, some of which we are not even aware of.
What if my Negative Thoughts are True?
First of all, are they?
Sometimes they are. My biggest negative thought has always been that I am fat. This triggered for me self-esteem issues that pivoted on what others thought about me. The fear of people being mean to me because of my weight is something that follows me to this day. The thing is, I am fat. I am, and I’ve recognized accepting that doesn’t hurt me. This is not to say I don’t still fear, in my head, that others might be cruel to me because of it, but at least I am not mean to myself about it. One of the reasons for it is that there is no evil in being fat.
If one thing has helped me with my own self-esteem issues is perspective. At the end of the day, except if you are robbing honest citizens from their life savings or any other sort of criminal activity, any self-deprecation exercised is undeserved.
That’s the tricky bit, really. How to improve something that you’ve spent a lifetime building? The thoughts and ideas we have incorporated from childhood are deeply rooted in our subconscious and, like rats hidden in the sewers, are difficult to eradicate for good.
There are a number of techniques you can use, some of them quite efficient and detailed (see Resources below) but one that has helped me a great deal was identifying my virtues. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.
On one of the exercises from therapy I was required to list twenty-five of my virtues. My therapist actually asked me to produce fifty. Let me tell you, I didn’t think I’d get more than five.
Of the top of my head, I don’t think I made it to ten. What I did was google a list of virtues and see which ones applied to me. I managed fifty and it was mind blowing! Never did I thought I would find even twenty, let alone fifty, virtues that I could comfortably said applied to me.
If you’re interested in trying this and, like me, you can’t imagine getting any more than four or five, see below. This list contains over a hundred and thirty virtues. Once you’ve finished with your own list, if you’re short, go through this one. Make a list with as many as you get and keep it, print it, frame it if necessary. I find myself returning to my list quite often when negative thoughts are setting siege to my psyche.
Whatever technique you choose, whether here, through therapy or through your own research, improving your self-esteem is not the work of one day. It takes a lifetime to build and a lifetime to change but the benefits of doing, even if only small changes, are enormous.
- NHS Mental Health – Self Esteem
- Cognitive Therapy Guide – Negative Thought Patterns
- Mind – How to Improve your Self Esteem