Whether you're trying to overcome an addiction or manage a mental health condition, you may sometimes fall for some myths about your ability to achieve a better life that hamper your progress.
It's not your fault. Often these myths are due to beliefs about yourself that have been embedded in your psyche for a long time. They may come from stories you've heard or ways you have been treated.
If you feed someone a message again and again, by either treating them badly or acting in a way that makes them feel bad, eventually that person will start to believe the message and end up repeating it to themselves. It will feel as if it is true, even if it is not. That belief will then colour their whole world view, many of their thoughts about themselves and their capabilities and potential.
For example, if you've been a violent relationship or someone has emotionally abused you for years, it might send you the message that you're worthless, and only good for beating physically or mentally. You might feel that no-one could really love you because of those worthless feelings. Actually, the problem is with the person who chose to treat you that way, not with you.
The Vicious Cycle of Low Self-Esteem
A lot of the time, low self-esteem is directly caused by experiences from the past. You might not have been aware of how it has developed, because it may have started when you were young, or the 'message' may have been repeated so often that it's hard to shake off. And so, you feel like you have always been this way, and you always will be.
And then, it can become a vicious cycle, leading to self-blame, shame and self-destructive behaviour rather than self-compassion, which is what you should have for yourself if you have been treated poorly.
But because you have been treated so badly, and now have those beliefs about being worthless or not good enough, you don't think you deserve your own compassion or love. Do you see the vicious cycle in action?
Finding Freedom From Negative Beliefs
What if you could detach yourself from these beliefs for a moment? Imagine your best friend or someone you admire or love had been through these traumatic things. Would you blame them and call them names? Would you think they are worthless? Would you believe they needed yet more beating down and cruel behaviour? Should they be destroyed or consigned to a miserable life?
No, you'd probably have compassion for them and want to comfort them. You'd want the best for them. You'd probably support them and try to help them feel good about themselves. You'd treat them kindly and encourage their efforts to heal.
Now imagine stepping outside of yourself and seeing yourself as if you were that person you love. What does that person in front of you need?
Can you see yourself differently when you realise that those negative beliefs are not facts, but beliefs caused by bad experiences? Can you treat yourself more kindly when you know that how you feel is not your fault, and neither is it true?
Your beliefs are not you. Your beliefs about yourself are not facts. Once you can see where your beliefs come from, and can see how skewed your view of yourself has become because of them, you can begin the process of healing.
Once you cast aside your most deeply-held negative beliefs about yourself, then all your other negative beliefs can topple like dominoes. You will no longer believe you are worthless. You will no longer believe you can't get better. You will start to see your genuinely positive qualities. You will start to believe in yourself and like yourself more. You will start to be free.
First Steps to Recovery From Low Self-Esteem
Get a pen and paper because we're going to make a couple of lists. Make up an imaginary person, or use someone you care about, depending on which feels most helpful for you. Imagine they have been through X Y and Z – with X Y and Z being traumatic things that have happened to you.
LIST 1: What negative beliefs might that person have picked up from going through X? How might Y have affected how they feel about themselves? How might having undergone Z have affected that person's view of themselves? What messages could they have been fed by being treated badly? Dig deeply to really understand how the compounded effect of X, Y and Z may have made them feel about themselves.
LIST 2: Now notice how your heart feels for that person after everything they have gone through. Make a list of all the things that you could do to help that person. Decide how you would treat that person to help them feel better and recover from their experiences.
Now it's time to step into that person's shoes and acknowledge how YOU have been affected by the things on List 1. And realise that all the things on list 2 are things you should be doing for yourself every day. All the compassion you had for that person should be directed to you.
You may need the help of a therapist to fully remove your negative beliefs, but if you can acknowledge regularly that the problem is not you, but the result of what you have gone through, that's a really good start. And if you do one thing from your second list for yourself every day, you can start to make break the vicious cycle of negativity and recover your self-esteem.
by Beth Burgess, Therapist and author of The Recovery Formula, The Happy Addict, and What Is Self-Esteem?