KNOW THYSELF Feeling comfortable in your our own skin means being less susceptible to criticism and praise.
The thing about self-esteem is that it’s often too easily affected by outside influences. A compliment here and it soars up to the sky. A criticism there and it plummets again. Like a rollercoaster, it goes up and down, up and down. We feel great, then we feel terrible, and round and round it goes. And herein lies the problem. When our self-esteem is easily swayed or changed by others, we are open to huge swings in how we feel about ourselves. This in turn affects the quality of our mental health.
The degrees to which people’s self-esteem rises and falls when they are appraised by others varies. Some people’s rollercoasters have less high points and less dips; others’ rollercoasters are constantly up and down, preventing them from having a true sense of themselves. We all need the straight bits, the in-between stages, the calm patches between the ups and downs. They let us catch our breath and build up a sense of ourselves. We then construct an identity that is not made up of what others think of us; an identity that is okay in its own skin – an identity that can weather a compliment or a criticism without it sending the rollercoaster hurtling up or down.
If you are open to being affected by other people’s estimation of you, try the following exercise to try to keep your self-esteem rollercoaster on a more-even path. It highlights where you are influenced by others’ opinions of you and where to change how you respond if you need to.
The next time someone pays you a compliment – we’ll use the example, ‘You are great at multi-tasking’ – ask yourself:
Is it true?
‘Yes, I’m good at multi-tasking’ or ‘No, I’m not good at multi-tasking’. You need to decide this, not them.
Does it affect how I feel about myself already?
‘No, I already know I’m good (or not good) at multi-tasking’ or ‘Yes, I feel great that someone thinks I’m good at multi-tasking’. There is no denying that it is always lovely to hear a compliment and it does sometimes highlight a good point in ourselves that we might not see on our own. But be wary of allowing a compliment or a criticism to define who you are or how you feel about yourself.
How am I going to respond?
You could find yourself denying the compliment whether it is true or not – ‘I’m a terrible multitasker’ – but secretly feel great inside. Even though you don’t show it on the outside, the compliment has affected you and your self-esteem.
However, by acknowledging the compliment honestly – ‘Thank you. Yes, I am good (or not good) at multitasking’ – you accept the compliment and you decide if you are good or not at multitasking. The effects on your self-esteem are minimal.
The same exercise can be applied to a criticism. The key here is to question. Always ask yourself whether what is being said about you reflects how you already feel about yourself. If not, ask yourself how you are going to let it affect you, if at all. We have a choice in how we want our self-esteem rollercoasters to be. They are ours to direct, not someone else’s.
> Jannah Walshe is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Castlebar and Westport. A fully accredited member of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, she can be contacted via www.jannahwalshe.ie, or at firstname.lastname@example.org or 085 1372528.