Oh, how easy it is for us to know the things we want to change about ourselves – and yet, how hard it can be to do it! Clients often come to their first sessions with me, ready to go for self-improvement with a list of negatives about themselves.
“I’d like to be more in control of my emotions – I’m all over the place right now.”
“I know I’m not doing everything I need to do.”
“I need to be a better partner.”
“I just need to learn how to be less anxious!”
We’re trained by culture and by our families to work harder, be better, always be striving for the next thing. We’re not thin enough to date quite yet. We’re not good enough at our jobs.
When it comes to self esteem, a good starting place is the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The serenity prayer, whether you interpret it to include a higher power or not, so beautifully sums up the three-pronged approach to improving your self-esteem:
- Accept: learn to see the ways in which you are already good enough, just the way you are;
- Change: Start to experiment with new ways of talking to yourself and about yourself;
- Wisdom: Understand where in your life you first started internalizing negative messages and self-talk in order to develop the ability to know the difference between a self-sabotaging behavior that needs changing and a character trait that needs accepting.
Our culture promotes that tough-love approach to change – berate yourself when you fall off your diet; punish yourself when you forget to go to the gym. But research doesn’t back this up as an effective motivator for lasting behavior change.
Instead, try just changing just one thing this week: try changing your language. Notice how often you use the word should toward yourself in a day. Try reframing it to “I would like to…”
Notice when you speak to yourself in a way that you would never speak to a friend, and try changing the language of the message into one you might direct toward a loved one, a soul mate.
Or maybe the message is the problem: notice when you are directing negativity toward yourself that is flat-out unkind. No matter how you’d reword that message, it’s just bullying!
Okay, one last suggestion. If you are unable to change your language for more than a few minutes at a time, don't should yourself on that one, too! Be kind to yourself. It sounds like there's some old pain and shame there for you that it might be good to look at if we're going to get you feeling better about yourself. Wisdom might be your first step here, not change.