In my early twenties, I was certain the solution to increase my self esteem was to succeed, to win the holly grail of achievements. Once I would have a great job, a great partner, friends, a cool house and a cool life, then, my self esteem would be ok.
What a disappointment.
I sometimes hear people trying to explain the fleetingness of good feelings when reaching their goal. For me, even fleetingly, it did not happen: achievements never increased my self esteem, not for a minute. Nothing.
You will find a self esteem definition in a previous post. I have also tried to explain the meaning of a low self esteem in another. Here, let’s talk about how to increase our self esteem. (Hint: it is not by reaching goals.)
Solution 1 to increase our self esteem: psychotherapy
I know, it is easier said than done. I went there when I had exhausted all other possible avenues. Still, I believe it is the best solution if you can. Especially if your inner critic is a killer, you need qualified help to defeat it. And if you have lived through sexual trauma, chances are your self esteem is dangerously low.
Ironically, that’s precisely our low self esteem that can sometimes prevent us to see a therapist: the last thing we want to do is share our inner life with a stranger. We believe it is too dark, stupid, innapropriate, to share. We think our therapist will look at us with disgust, contempt, or think we are stupid.
Also standing in the way is our fear of being alone with a stranger. Understandably, some of us are not fans of the idea: we believe it can be a dangerous spot, especially if the therapist is of the same gender as our abuser. I certainly was in that space: I was feeling really uncomfortable left alone with a man, even if I did not understand why at the time.
The extent to which I was a stranger to myself is still painful to consider, really. Sometimes, I feel like reaching out to my former self and say : “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry”.
Anyway, if being alone with a stranger is too stressful, consider solution #2, or choose strategically the gender of your therapist, so that it does not trigger you.
What I can tell you after seeing several therapists is: some of them were inexperienced or downright incompetent, but none has been intrusive, judgemental, or had an innapropriate behavior.
We sometimes joke about therapists making us pay after they said absolutely nothing for an hour. It is exagerated, but there is a nugget of reassuring truth about it: they listen, they pay attention not to judge, not to intrude, and not to be threatening in any way.
That’s in their job description. Believe me: I have some reservations about my psychotherapist training, but not about this; therapists are good at empathy, and terrible at judging people. Your therapist will always be on your side. He, or she, may not fully understand you, but they will be on your team.
The truth is that a good therapist will not feel disapproval or contempt. Acceptance is part of their training, their basic attitude, in order to offer you a safe space to be yourself. Your therapist will find you a totally normal person, with a low self esteem, that’s all. And if all goes well, you will be a team working to increase your self esteem and solve other problems.
Solution 2 to increase our self esteem : join a recovery group
When my kids were preverbal, I did not like the idea of them being alone with a nany. Yes, I do realize it is a kind of post traumatic anxiety. I’ve put them in day care, and it worked for me, and for them – they enjoyed the company of other kids, and my anxitey left me alone.
The equivalent for us grown ups, if we fear being alone face to face with a therapist, is group work. It is basically the same as day care: it will not trigger anxiety (at least not that one), and you may enjoy the company of other healing grown ups.
It can be a group psychotherapy with no particular focus, or a recovery group for as specific issue – an addiction for example, or codependency, eating disorders, depression. Depending of where you live, you may even find a group for healing survivors of sexual violence. If you can participate in one, I’m sure it will be awesome.
A group will always have at least one moderator, who can be a qualified therapist, or an experienced recovery member. This person will explain and enforce the rules, launch discussion topics, and make sure all group members participate.
For someone with low esteem, sharing in front of a group can seem even more daunting than to one person. But there are also some good points: the attention is shared and never stays to long on us. And there is something really healing about hearing others telling their story : we realize we are not alone in our struggles. We feel less isolated. We may even end up feeling, you know, normal.
Solution 3 to increase our self esteem: pay attention to our inner critic
Do you remember Robert, my inner critic ? If we had met last century, I would not have talked about him. There was no Robert, back then: for me, this voice in my head was THE TRUTH.
Little by little, I have learned that Robert is only a part of me, and that I have other parts whithin me who have a very different opinion. Robert was the more vocal, which is different from being right. And I learned how to oppose him; that’s what allowed me to shrink him to a reasonable size.
Unfortunately, this journey can be a long one. That’s why you have to start now.
Inner critic management, beginner’s level : interview your Robert
Sometimes, inner critics are like Clara’s: you cannot miss them, all they do is talking. And they are loud.
Sometimes, they are more like an operating system: they do their thing in the background, and you cannot see them. But they pull the strings, and you can see their impact in the choices they make for you.
In all instances, if the level of our self esteem is not comfortable, the last thing we want to do is listen to them. We can even spend a lot of energy in order to never hear them, from addictions to running from one activity to the next. Everything, in order not to have a quiet moment in front of this damned inner critic.
Regardless of our discomfort, this is precisely what we need to do: take notes, ask questions, listen. You can even organize an interview, as if it were a local celebrity – because, in a way, it is. What do you really think about me ? What do you think about my response to this particular event? What are my strong points ? Do I have any ? Do you think I deserve to be happy ? to succeed ? Do you think someone can love me? What do you think I can do to make myself more acceptable ? (this last one is so satisfying for an inner critic: prepare youself for a long, long rant).
Why do we need this ? Because, as all wise people will tell you, we simply cannot change something we are not aware of. I will even go further: often, when we see a problem in our inner life, it is already on the verge of being solved. Awareness is the key.
With a bit of luck, what we will hear is such a nonsense, we start to realize that it may not be THE TRUTH, after all.
It happened to me the day Robert told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was not able to love someone. He told me this, I kid you not, when I was a young mother, totally submerged in unconditionnal love for my first baby, my son, my tiny blond, blue eyed love.
What a fool. This was a turning point: that’s the first time I understood Robert was uttering nonsense.
Inner critic management, intermediate level : distance yourself from your Robert
Your inner critic is not THE TRUTH. It is also not you. It’s even not what you really think of yourself. Your inner critic is a part of you who took it upon himself to represent the meanest people who had some importance in your life. If these people were narcissitic jerks, alas, this is what your inner critic will feel like. You need to create some space between your inner critic and you, in essence; to do this,take time to describe the critter:
- does your inner critic have a gender ? For some of us, it is clearly male, or female. In my case, Robert is gender fluid: depending on the insanity it will hurl, it can be male or female.
- What name would you give to your inner critic ? If a ridiculous names pops up, that’s really cool. If not, and what comes is Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, or Cruella, it’s also cool. Remember that these guys are powerful, but they loose in the end. And sometimes, the names that pops up is the name of a real person: welcome to aunt Lola.
- What does your inner critic look like ? A horrible spectral thing ? A dragon ? A snake ? Aunt Lola ? If you have some artistic ability, you can even draw, scuplt, or crochet the character. Give him, or her, a real body.
- Does your inner critic have favourite moments ? Is it when you claim some attention, or experience a success (“but really, who do you think you are ?”)? Is it when you step in front of a mirror ? When you are working ? Is it attacking your parenting skills ? Your intelligence ?
Sometimes, it seems like your inner critic is everywhere. But it is often possible to find spots where it is not present. In my case, Robert was overwhelming. But they were two areas where he/she was not: my body image, and my academic achievements. Later I added: my parenting skills. Robert had nothing to say on these things. Robert was too busy elsewhere in my life.
Inner critic management, confirmed level: confront your inner critic
If you start a psychotherapy, your therapist may ask you to imagine your inner critic is sitting in a chair in front of you, and start a dialog. If you feel ok with the idea, you can also do it on your own.
What you will see at first, is a very vocal, self assured inner critic, with a lot of energy, and a very submissive you: you will agree with everything your inner critic has to say.
If that’s the case, don’t worry. That’s totally normal. Nobody expects something different at the beginning of your recovery.
Give it time, and keep at it: you will start to see cracks. You will realize your inner critic sounds a lot like aunt Lola, who in the meantime you categorized as a painful mean lady. Or you may see clearly that what your inner critic says is stuck in the paleolitic era. Or you will see that your inner critic makes no sense whatsoever.
Another stratetegy, in doubt, is to take what your inner critic is saying, and to discuss it with someone you trust. No need to elaborate on your inner journey: I’m not sure it will go down well if you are talking with a crocheted dragon about your inner life, in front of your loved one; but you can definitely ask one very specific question, and see what comes back.
Dysfonctional inner critics, like any dysfonction created from violence, thrive on secrecy. They grow in the dark. I know that it’s the last thing you want to do. I’ve been there. Still, expose them to the light: discuss what they say. Share. Believe me, it’s possible. And it works. No matter what, don’t stay alone with these creatures.