Experiencing a crisis in your life—the discovery your spouse has been having an affair, a cancer diagnosis, job loss, divorce, death of a loved one—can change everything. Any of these examples can cause you to feel frightened, alone, hopeless, and ultimately affect your sense of self-worth.
Significant life changes can bring about a tidal wave of uncertainty that swamps the brain with fear: “How will I cope?” “Who am I now?” “What about all our future plans?” “What did I do wrong?” “I’ll never feel love again.” For some, this can trigger feelings of failure, rejection, guilt, anger, and worthlessness.
Our measure of self-worth is an integral part of our mental health. The value we place on ourselves may determine the quality of our relationships, careers, the measure of our confidence, motivation, as well as our overall happiness. And yet, self-worth is a construct of our own minds.
We are all born with a clean “self-esteem slate.” Matthew McKay, PhD and Patrick Fanning, in their book Self-Esteem (2016), discuss the scenarios that influence a person’s self-esteem. They report that how children are parented during their first three or four years of life sets the foundation of self-esteem. As we age and our roles and life experiences expand, it becomes more complicated to determine whether the circumstances in our lives alter our self-esteem or, instead, self-esteem alters our circumstances.
The one variable that’s a consistent factor in influencing our self-esteem is our thoughts (McKay and Fanning, 2016). What you tell yourself influences how you perceive everything. For example, if you looked in the mirror and said, “My hair is horrible and I am ugly,” your self-esteem would plummet. If, instead, you said, “I’m going to try this new look today and see if I like it,” you would still feel satisfied with yourself and consequently your self-esteem would be preserved. The event did not change, but how you interpreted it did.
Whether you consider your self-esteem to be healthy or acknowledge it needs some work, any significant life change has the potential to be emotionally charged and cause extreme reactions. As a human being, you can expect to feel psychological (and at times physical) pain when life turns you upside down. However, when this pain becomes an internal attack on who you are, it’s time to stop and become more aware of how this is affecting your self-worth, prohibiting you from managing the crisis and moving forward.
If a significant life event has chipped away at your sense of self-worth, it is never too late to work on rebuilding, or improving, who you are. Consider the following suggestions that may help you on that journey.
Quash Your Inner Critic
We all experience an internal voice, or “self-talk,” in our heads. For some, it runs in the background of our thoughts and we may not take notice of it. For others, the voice is inescapable—harsh and critical, reminding us of our errors, shortcomings, mistakes, and inabilities. Paying attention to this inner critic is a form of mental punishment, setting off feelings of shame and worthlessness as well as the erosion of self-esteem.
Sometimes it is hard to control these negative thoughts and our instincts tell us to do whatever it takes to silence the attack. For some, striving to do everything perfectly helps counterbalance the negative messages. Others use drugs and alcohol to numb the voice. This proves to be not only a temporary solution but a dangerous one, as it may further damage a person’s mental and physical health.
Attacks on our self-esteem are best managed by taking notice of the inner critical voice instead of pushing it away. Pay attention to each negative thought and recognize how it is distorted, unrealistic, or has no bearing from your history. Create new messages, on paper or in your mind, that can refute the negative script. Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, author of The Self-Esteem Workbook (2001), suggests using “even though/nevertheless” statements, as this helps us acknowledge the reality of what is occurring and reinforces a positive and compassionate sense of self-regard.
Some examples of this might be:
- Even though I’m feeling unsure of what’s to come, nevertheless I will get through this by taking one day at a time.
- Even though I’m feeling unsure of who I am now, nevertheless I am looking forward to learning something new about myself.
- Even though the marriage failed to continue, nevertheless I am not a failure.
The more control you have in challenging your negative thoughts, the less power they have. The result can be a more realistic perspective of your life as well as a more thoughtful and caring view of yourself.
Remember: How You Feel Isn’t Who You Are
Often when in the center of an emotional storm, the lines are blurred between how we feel and how we see ourselves; they quickly become one and the same. It is important to pause and differentiate the event and your emotional reaction to it, and the person you know yourself to be.
Losing a job can feel humiliating and shameful, for example, but this event is not evidence you are a bad person. Experiencing a divorce may cause you to feel like you’ve failed, but to take that on as your identity is unreasonable. Interpreting who you are by how you feel often produces distorted and inaccurate ways of thinking that further weaken your self-worth.
Change Your Script to Counter Fear
The more we can see value in ourselves, the more we can recognize our strengths and capabilities, sit in uncertainty, face our fears, challenge negative self-talk, and feel better equipped to navigate rough times and endure change.
Fear is a message that starts in the brain and can be felt throughout the body, which is why it has such an impact on us. When we don’t believe we are of value, we tend to believe we are incapable. When we believe we are incapable, we tend to rely less on our internal strengths and resources to cope and search outside of ourselves to feel better.
Perhaps you haven’t taken a good look lately at your abilities without judgment to notice how you have managed until now. Reflect on how you have solved issues in your past. What did it take for you to resolve them? Fear has less power when you know you can withstand it. Write down your fears along with the messages you are telling yourself and then decide on a new message that is more realistic. As described above, changing your internal script to one that is more empowering may help diffuse your fears as well as strengthen your self-esteem.
Experiencing a significant life change can ignite extreme emotional responses such as sadness and fear, and has the potential to weaken feelings of self-worth. Reaching out for support from a professional counselor can be helpful as you work through these emotions and your meaning of self-esteem. The more we can see value in ourselves, the more we can recognize our strengths and capabilities, sit in uncertainty, face our fears, challenge negative self-talk, and feel better equipped to navigate rough times and endure change. Self-esteem gives us the courage to throw ourselves into the world, take chances, connect with others, and live fully.
- McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
- Schiraldi, G. R. (2001). The self-esteem workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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