My husband and I have a problem that surfaces every once in a while. Usually it starts when I, for one reason or another, am feeling kind of low unappreciated or overlooked, like I have nothing to offer. He tells me I’m “great,” or that I’m a good person, or that I’m smart, funny, talented. Instead of helping me feel better, his words, as sincere and well-meaning they are, fall flat. I mean, he could be talking about anyone. Instead of feeling like I actually am great, or a good person, or smart, funny, and talented, I feel even more unappreciated and overlooked like I am completely interchangeable. And when he asks how he can help — really help I’m clueless. Most of the time being told I’m great is just what I want to hear, but when I’m feeling down, it just makes me feel worse.
Those thoughts lead to others that end up taking me on a downward spiral of negative self-talk and de-constructive criticism. Before too long I’ve reduced my life’s achievements to dumb luck and explained my best relationships to myself as a pity party, thrown just for me. And my husband is perplexed. I mean really, how on earth did that happen?
I’ve done the same things to others as well: tried to comfort them and build them up by telling them that I think they are awesome, amazing, a good friend, fun to be around. Which is all true, and I totally mean it. But even as I’m saying it, I can see their skepticism. They aren’t buying it. My words lack that something special that makes the message personal so they know it applies to them more than it applies to anyone else.
Because poor self-esteem can infect just about every facet of life from physical health to relationships, to work and play it’s pretty important to nurture it so that it grows and flourishes. Giving it a scanty bit of water in hard times may keep it alive, but it’s not going to turn it into a healthy, fruitful tree. And those general statements of “great”-ness are a scanty bit of water indeed.
So how do you boost self-esteem in authentic, positive, and lasting ways?
According to Dr. Guy Winch’s book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, the trick is to be specific. As specific as you can be. You may be a great friend, but unless you know how or why you are a great friend, it’s hard to own it and make it part of your self-image. You’re a great friend because you are dependable you always do what you say you’re are going to do and can be relied upon in a crisis. You don’t flake out on people. Not only that, but you are really good at making people feel comfortable. Whenever you see someone new at a gathering, you have no fear of introducing yourself and finding out more about them.
Take some time now today to make a list of specific traits you value in yourself. Write them down and flesh them out. Think of examples if you can, and how those things made you (or others) feel. Ask those close to you for ideas if you want to. And then put that list in a special place for safe keeping somewhere you go when you are feeling low. When those times come, take it out and read it. Out loud. To yourself.
Or read them on a daily basis. Put a sticky note on the mirror or the computer with one of those specific traits written out on it. Read it, memorize it, internalize it.
And don’t forget to pass the love onto those close to you: don’t shower them with empty, general praise. Think about what it is that makes them so great, then let them know in no uncertain terms, what that is. Specifically.
(And next time I’m feeling low I’ll know how to help my husband help me. Thank goodness!)