This blog is part of a series exploring the seven assets of emotional health.
"You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate."
Many of us struggle with negative self beliefs and low self-esteem, which can hinder us within our daily lives. Recent surveys show that one fifth of UK employees don't feel good about themselves and 70% of teenage girls feel that they're not good enough.
People with positive self beliefs are more likely to have positive wellbeing, be more productive, and cope better with life's challenges. Conversely, low self-esteem is associated with poor mental health, and negative behaviours such as self-harm, bullying and disordered eating.
While our self beliefs will inevitably be affected by our relationships and experiences, we all have the capacity to challenge and improve our own self beliefs. We can work to cultivate positive habits of mind using the following strategies:
1. Practise self-compassion
Rather than berating ourselves for our circumstances, or for behaving in a certain way, we could practise self-compassion. Self-compassion is where we view ourselves with kind acceptance and understanding, rather than harsh criticism. Research suggests that practising self-compassion can improve our emotional wellbeing, reducing anxiety and depression.
2. Have appropriate expectations of ourselves
We also need to have appropriate expectations of ourselves as humans, acknowledging that we're not perfect, that we will make mistakes, encounter challenges, and that our life won't always go the way we want it to. We need to hold ourselves (and our 'ideal self') to realistic standards, realising that growing, learning and developing is an ongoing journey throughout life.
3. Practise retaining an authentic self
Having an 'authentic self' means that we're able to act in accordance with our true ideals and wishes. The first step to retaining an authentic self is to notice and affirm what our needs, values and wants are, linking with our self-awareness. How do we feel if we're acting in a way which goes against these? We can then practise clearly articulating and asserting our authentic self, and we can develop skills to manage situations whilst holding onto our own needs and values.
For example, a colleague at work is upset and complains "Paul is a rubbish manager. He doesn't care about any of us," but this contradicts your views. You could agree with your colleague's statement to maintain their approval. However, this would cause internal discomfort as it would contradict your authentic self.
Instead, in order to preserve your authentic self, you might choose to assert your true belief, that in your experience, Paul has been a good manager and does care. Alternatively, you could sidestep and choose a response which neither asserts or contradicts your authentic self. For example, focusing on empathizing with your colleague's difficult feelings and understanding their experience, ignoring the specifics of what they've said. The response we choose may depend on the situation and on our relationships with those involved.
It's important to recognise that our self-beliefs are incredibly complex. Nobody will ever have perfectly emotionally healthy beliefs, and the challenge of regulating our self beliefs in response to our experiences is an integral part of being human.