During one of the seemingly endless days of the third lockdown, I found myself in tears over a typo. The typo itself wasn't necessarily the biggest issue. The problem was that I'd missed it. Only a week before, I'd lost my job. And, as is the case for many young women, that job had become an essential part of my identity, something I could cling to during months of isolation.
As I wept over a spelling mistake, I couldn't help but think that the person I was before lockdown wouldn't have made this error. That during the endless days spent cooped up indoors, something very important to my sense of self had been forever misplaced. And I'm not alone. Our confidence is at an all-time low, with one recent survey suggesting that three in 10 women have low or less than average levels of self-esteem. Whether it's due to a lack of support, a job loss, or even a relationship breakdown, a quiet but growing group of us are finding the return to "normality" a tricky experience. So when yourself-esteem is at rock bottom during a time of intense change, is there anything you can do to get it back?
What is self-esteem?
When I think about what exactly self-esteem is, I realize that I'm not sure. It's easy to tie it up with confidence, but according to the NHS and a host of wellbeing experts, it's more than that. "When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves, and about life in general," explains Patrick Kwesiga, chief operating officer (clinical and operations) at the mental health charity Living Well. "But when our self-esteem is low, we feel less able to handle day-to-day challenges."
Kwesiga says that it's common to associate self-esteem with our bodies, but actually, it's far more related to self-respect. "To put it simply, self-esteem describes how much you appreciate and like yourself. It encompasses all the beliefs we hold about ourselves. It's also something that fluctuates, and it doesn't stay constant. It comes down to two things— our unconscious thoughts, which are the things we can't control, that are often rooted in our childhood or relationships, and our conscious thoughts."
Spotting the signs
While crying over tiny things was a clear sign that something had shifted in terms of how I viewed myself, at the time, I struggled to identify what exactly was wrong. Catching the signs of low self-esteem isn't always easy. For many, it can manifest as an identity crisis—a sense that we don't know who we are any more. "I haven't always been this way," sighs Charlotte, 23, who moved to Brighton in January 2020. "Moving to a new city just before COVID has been quite isolating. It's only me and my housemate, so I've had plenty of time in my own head. Before lockdown, I was really organized. Now, I don't know what's happened to me. My room's always a mess and I feel really chaotic. I look in the mirror and, you know, I don't even recognize the person I am now. Everything feels a lot harder. I just don't feel like me."
This isn't uncommon, as Holly Beedon, clinical lead at Living Well, explains. "We see many cases of young women feeling a little lost in their identity. Our comparison culture doesn't help. We often see others online celebrating success after success and we can feel like a failure by comparison, even when we're clearly not." Beedon says there are several signs that our self-esteem has taken a nosedive. You might experience negative self-talk, having thoughts such as "I don't deserve good things" or "I'm not good enough." As a result, you might find you need more reassurance than usual. While self-esteem affects our whole lives, there are three main areas in which it can impact us the most—how we feel about our bodies, work and relationships. The key to rebuilding it is identifying the area you feel is suffering most.
Feel like your silent phone is a sign no one wants to hang out with you? Yep, that's common. "I've cried a few times looking at my friends online," admits Nari,* 19, from Manchester. "I took a year out from uni, but I see them all with their new friends and I just feel so boring and useless. Why would anyone want to hang out with me?"
It's all too easy to withdraw and stop communicating altogether, but the best way to tackle this is to engage again. "Switch emails or texts for calls—they're proven to make us feel more connected to our pals," explains Beedon. "It can be hard to push yourself to do it, but it can make a big difference. Go for a walk with a friend and talk about your feelings—you'll be really surprised at how many of us feel the same."
Beedon also explains that when we get validation online—when someone likes our Instagram post, for example—we get a real rush of endorphins, and we end up chasing that high over and over again. "Limiting your time online can really reduce that pressure," she says. It can also help to reframe the language we use. For example, if you're struggling with nerves when seeing your friends again, try to reframe things. Rather than thinking "I have nothing to say any more," change it to "I'm really excited to talk to my friends again."
Feeling rotten about how we look can have a huge impact on our self-esteem. This is made even worse by the fact that many of us have been spending the majority of our time online, as well as the external pressures to look a certain way post-lockdown. "We're going into hot girl summer, and I just feel so ugly," says Nari. "Living with my parents means a lot of big family meals, and I've gained a lot of weight. The idea of sunbathing with my friends makes me feel sick." When we feel this way, a natural reaction is to try to change how we this won't help, explains Beedon. Instead, practicing affirmations in the mirror has been shown to have a big impact. Phrases such as "I can do anything" can give you an instant confidence boost.
"Even before lockdown, I'd struggled with low self-esteem," says 30-year-old Sophie, a graphic designer based in London. "But I had so much time with my own head. There were so few distractions, I found that all I could think about were things I didn't like about myself. I wasn't seeing my friends, and being furloughed made things worse. I saw other designers getting commission after commission and I just kept thinking, 'What’s wrong with me? I'm obviously really bad at my job.'" Beedon insists this isn't unusual. "Many of us link our career to our self-worth," she says. "COVID-19 has removed a lot of the small achievements in our careers that are really important to our sense of self. Most of us are alone all day, and work becomes all-consuming."
Chatting to Beedon, I realize that I too have craved the reassurance I used to get from working with others. After our conversation, I pick up the phone to an old colleague and we catch up for nearly two hours. And honestly? I'm surprised at how different I feel just saying the words "Am I actually really bad at my job?" Out loud, some issues that seem so real in my mind sound ridiculous. While our self-esteem can't be changed overnight, talking about how we feel is a great place to start.
How to improve your self-esteem
Talk to your friends, family or partner about how you're feeling. When we're lacking confidence, we can often feel isolated—talking to our loved ones can remind us that we're not alone. If you feel as though you need more support, reaching out to a healthcare professional such as a counsellor can also be really useful.
Taking the time to look after yourself is so important. We often tell ourselves that we don't deserve good things—treat yourself kindly instead.
SET SMALL GOALS
Setting achievable goals for yourself might help, as they can enable you to feel more in control of your anxiety.
BUILD POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Find that your group chat is bringing you down? It's totally fine to hit mute. Instead, focus on your relationships with people who make you feel good about yourself.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
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