How To Improve Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence.

Get over yourself! How leading a life more ordinary can lead to the Extraordinary!

I was facilitating a therapy group the other day and one of the members talked about what she was learning from struggling academically with a very heavy postgraduate course. She described it as coming to terms with the fact of her ordinariness. By this she meant accepting that she was not special, more gifted or more able to by-pass the struggles that others faced academically. It meant acknowledging her averageness, that she was a fallible, little bit broken and imperfect human being like the other 6.4 billion wandering the earth.

This resonated with me. I thought back to when I failed my dissertation in the final year of my MA in Gestalt Therapy Theory Studies. Up until this point I had always passed assignments well enough to satisfy my ego’s expectations. When I failed my dissertation, with the blood, sweat and tears that went into it, my ego was dealt what felt like a severe and merciless blow. The pain I felt was as much from anticipating re-writing the whole damn dissertation as about the dent in my self-image.

The blow to my ego led to me growing up, and that meant adjusting my self-image by lowering and widening the lens through which I viewed myself. As a child, I was told - as many are, which is both a fortunate and unfortunate thing, that I could achieve anything. Failing was a punch in the face to that belief. It demanded that I accept my ordinariness.

If our self-esteem is based on achievements and praise it is like the little pigs' House of Straw. One puff and it is all blown down. What is missing is a robust and continuous sense of self-worth which is independent of our achievements whether they be glorious, embarrassing, admirable or downright disappointing.

Failing demands we unshackle our sense of self from our performance. It means we separate our sense of being a lovable and worthy human being from the sometime idiotic, regrettable acts we might commit as a fallible person. It means growing up and connecting with our innate sense of self- worth rather than viewing ourselves through the lens we think others see us through.

Accepting our ordinariness means…

·      we are less caught up in demanding perfection of ourselves

·      we are free to do and try without the pressure of having to be so amazing that we do not try at all

·      we feel less anxious and less depressed

·      we get more stuff done

·      we are more able to differentiate between the sometime disappointing and passing behaviours of others and their innate worthiness of our love and esteem.

·      we can incrementally accomplish extraordinary feats

Achieving the extraordinary means…

1)    Identifying and deleting ‘Basic Musts” thinking

Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy talks of the ‘Basic Musts’ which form part of the erroneous beliefs that lead to unhappiness. We take on these beliefs unconsciously because of past social conditioning, without analysing their validity or the evidence that they are based on. We believe them to be true. Without becoming aware of them and challenging them we go on blindly believing them with all the anxiety, depression, shame, rage and fear that they produce.

These ‘Basic Musts’ include 1) “I must do well and if I don’t then I’m a failure’, 2), ‘I must win the approval of others, if not I’m not worthy’, and 3) ‘life must go my way otherwise it is a catastrophe’. REBT challenges us to separate our actions and behaviours, which may or may not be successful, from our innate self-worth. It challenges us on whether it is possible to be approved of by everyone and asks us to accept that regardless of whether we are liked by some people or not, we are still beings worthy of love. It challenges us to accept that life is not fair and that sometimes shit happens and it sucks but it is always bearable. It is a more helpful way of thinking and provides a sense of inner space and relief.

2)    Practicing zero tolerance of ‘all or nothing’, ‘catastrophising’ and ‘I-can’t-bear-it’ thinking errors.

When I first failed my dissertation I (inwardly) threw a tantrum of distress and despair, telling myself that I wanted nothing more to do with study, that it was ‘all hopeless’. This is ‘All or Nothing’ thinking, one of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy ‘thinking errors’. Growing up is accepting that we do things and sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t work out but that doesn’t mean we are hopeless. It is also an example of ‘catastrophising’. In fact, failing wasn’t literally the end of the world. My life continued and the disappointment didn’t last. Lastly, even though I thought that I couldn’t bear it, I could.

Here’s how the “Basic Musts’ can negatively impact us. If we anticipate giving a public presentation we might erroneously think that we need to do a fabulous job, in order to get everyone’s approval and to validate our worthiness. We fear that we will mess it up and die of humiliation and embarrassment. In fact, if that were to happen we would bear it. I’m sure we can all think of situations like that when we did. Furthermore, it is highly likely that the thinking errors themselves lead to the heightened anxiety which lead us to messing up. The anticipation of doing a bad job and the fear of being condemned to a state of unworthiness and  'unbearable; shame and humiliation mean that we probably don’t even try giving the presentation. Or if we do get up on the podium we freeze with crippling fear. Allowing ourselves to do the presentation whilst accepting that we are fallible, imperfect and a little bit broken, and knowing that we are still innately worthy and lovable, takes the edge off and allows more space for the extraordinary to shine through.

3)    Identifying things you would like to do and start doing them!

Put yourself out there even if what you produce is ‘crap’ and allow yourself to achieve ordinary accomplishments. I did this with my final year dissertation which I passed the second time around. I just kept writing even if I didn’t think what I was writing was any good. Accepting my ordinariness also enabled me to reach out for support from experts as I was no longer so fearful about protecting my ego from ‘unbearable’ criticism.

Accepting my ordinariness also allowed me to build a successful career as a psychotherapist. I took the risk of sending my CV off to numerous private clinics and got an interview and job offer with one of them.

Accepting my ordinariness allowed me to apply for a competitive role as group facilitator on a university course when I thought I had no chance at all. When preparing for the interview I allowed myself to be ordinary and decided instead to enjoy the preparation process. I got the job!

As Arnold Beisser, who had a strong influence on Gestalt Therapy says,

 “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions.”

Arnold Beisser, MD.  

So I invite you to  get over, under, through, around and about yourself until you discover the Extraordinairyness that lies there sparkling and has been there all along!