Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: pexels.com
How we feel about ourselves is a great barometer for our mental health, at least in my case it is. When I feel stressed or depressed, I get bombarded with insecure self-talk and find myself constantly doubting my abilities, my actions, my words and my body. Since I haven’t been in such a great place lately, I’ve noticed a lot more of these triggers pop up in a rather blatant way. It seems the right time to discuss some of them, because I know they will still be around in covert ways when we are not feeling as emotionally vulnerable. We may not be as aware of them then, but when added up they can still have an impact.
Obviously, there are more than three triggers to self-doubt and insecurity, but I’ve found the following three to have the biggest impact on myself and people around me.
There are two ways in which we compare ourselves to other people: we either come out on top or we come out on the bottom. In both cases, however, personal insecurity is part of the dynamic. When we find ourselves short, we feel insecure as a result. Yet the reason we often compare ourselves so that we come out favourably, is that we are already feeling insecure about something. So I could compare myself to a colleague who’s really able to entertain her class and question my own teaching ability. Or I could compare myself to someone making racist remarks thinking myself to be better. Either way, my urge to compare myself comes from my insecurity, and feeds it in return.
The way to deal with this is by looking at the insecurity that’s underneath. One of my insecurities is whether or not I’m a good teacher. If I realise that’s what’s underneath the comparison, I can choose to either fact-check my teaching abilities, look for recognition and feedback or to improve my skills in some way or another.
My self-doubt soars when there are numerous failures that seem to follow each other, or if I feel like I’m failing in many areas at the same time. The first Covid lockdown stands out especially as a time in which nothing seemed to go right: I couldn’t teach properly, I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be, couldn’t be the best partner and couldn’t connect to friends.
Failing in itself is not really the problem, I think, it’s the meaning we give to our failures. Rather than seeing that it’s the event or action that’s gone wrong, we seem to believe we are ‘wrong’ for having things go different from our expectations. We’re not often confronted with the failures of other people either, which would help disconnect it from our feelings of self-worth.
I think the key here lies in two areas: on the one hand we should shift our perspective to notice the successes we’re undoubtedly also having. On the other hand, we need to normalize failure as the brave attempt at something that just happened to go wrong. I try to take moments in which I ask my children ‘What did you try today that didn’t work out?’ and I congratulate them for trying. Obviously I join in as well… ‘Today I tried to write my blogpost before dinner but I didn’t finish on time.’ There’s no need to focus on the lesson behind the failure, though that is really tempting for many of us. The lesson is only that trying and failing is always better than not trying at all.
3. Lack of feedback
We all want and need to be recognised for who we are and what we do. Having our actions noticed by others helps us put them in perspective. By getting either positive or negative feedback from those around us, we learn how our actions impact the world around us. When there’s no feedback it’s no wonder we can end up feeling lost. Whether it’s from our family, friends, co-workers or students/clients, responses from others can create a framework in which we can feel more secure and sure of ourselves.
If there’s no feedback heading your way for a while, you check in with the people around you: ‘I feel like I’ve been stressed lately, have you noticed that in me? I think I really aced that project, what do you think?’
Of course, it is important to strike a healthy balance here. You could also make the error of asking the approval of everyone around you and forgetting about what you think yourself. We value our own individuality in this culture. It’s just that sometimes we value it so much that we forget we’re social creatures by nature, and need to connect to others to feel safe.
Self-doubt, insecurity and low self-esteem are tricky to get rid of once they’ve nestled in your brain, usually at an early age. It often takes years to change those ingrained thought and behaviour patterns (though it can also happen much quicker), and even when you think you’re making progress, there can be fallbacks (check!).
I am lucky in having a lot of people around me that give me the feedback I need, and I also know I am strong. I’ve been through these murky waters before. I know there’s a way out and that I haven’t always felt insecure and doubtful. In the mean time, it’ll just take the time it takes…