You do something well, and somebody congratulates you. “It was just luck, a fluke,” you say.
You try something else but it doesn’t work out. “Typical. I screwed up again. I’m always messing things up!” you tell yourself.
Your friend tries something, and it doesn’t work out for them. Do you say the same to them as you said to yourself?
I’m guessing you’re kinder to your friend than you are to yourself because you care about them and you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
I was diagnosed with dyspraxia near the end of my time at primary school. Having a diagnosis didn’t make life much easier for me as I went to a private school where the teachers had old-fashioned attitudes and made no provision or allowances for special educational needs. I had difficulties making friends and was painfully aware that I was falling behind my peers. I felt like the odd one out, like I didn’t fit in anywhere and I was surplus to everyone’s requirements.
I grew taller and older and my coordination improved, but that feeling of being looked down on, inadequate and unwanted and never part of the group, stayed with me. That feeling that I couldn’t do things fast enough or well enough and everyone was laughing at me or annoyed with me. I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder when I was 19. Over time I came to realise that I have a lot of anxiety about ensuring I turn up to the right place, at the right time, wearing the right clothing, carrying the necessary items and that I then say the right thing.
When I was 21 I was diagnosed with severe depression and put on antidepressants. I was too ill to work and suddenly had far too much time to think. My brain was adjusting to the medication and I was trying to adjust to life after university. I went back to my GP after a couple of months because I was still very depressed and getting really hopeless thoughts. She had been my GP since childhood and she was very experienced. I think she had a better insight into my problems than I did. She handed me a prescription for a book. I was initially sceptical and upset that the only thing the NHS could offer me was a book but I had a lot of free time so I went to the library.
The book was called Overcoming Low Self-Esteem: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques by Dr Melanie Fennell. It is part of the Books on Prescription scheme, were specially chosen self-help and reference books are available in local libraries. I remembered the phrase “low-self esteem” being used when I was first diagnosed with dyspraxia, but the impression I was given was that it was a symptom of dyspraxia, something inevitable. I didn’t properly understand what it was. I thought it manifested as shyness in social situations, something I’d seen some improvement in as I’d got older.
The book defines self-esteem as “your central beliefs about yourself” and low self-esteem as “negative beliefs about yourself”. I think dyspraxia led me to develop negative beliefs about myself, which I perceived as facts – or at least, as opinions held by other people. Always being the last one picked for sports, having red pen marked on my homework saying it’s not neat enough, kids arguing about who has to be stuck working with me, being laughed at or told off. I think we tend to hold ourselves to higher standards and be more self-critical. We also tend to remember the critical things others have said about us.
One exercise from the book that made a big difference in my life when I was depressed and not working was called Pleasure and Mastery. It involves writing down every activity you do and giving it a score for how enjoyable it was and how much effort it was. I learned to appreciate the effort I was putting into the most basic self-care tasks, like showering, brushing my teeth and feeding myself. I came to understand that I’d been spending so much time berating myself for what I wasn’t achieving that I wasn’t appreciating anything that I was achieving.
Look at it this way: There is an almost infinite number of things that you could do with a day, but there are only so many that it’s possible to do in a day. Therefore someone who you might think of as really successful can only do a certain number of things. Berating yourself for not managing to clean the windows today, even though you did the ironing and the food shopping, makes about as much sense as berating yourself for not swimming the English Channel today, or not climbing Mount Everest. Celebrate the things you do achieve. We live in a culture where it’s seen as big-headed to celebrate your own achievements, which is part of the problem. If you took a day to lie on the sofa with a duvet watching Netflix, that’s great, because it’s important to rest and to do things you enjoy.
Pay attention to what you say to yourself. If you catch yourself saying something to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend, gently correct yourself with something nicer. Be your own best friend. It takes some practice, but you can get there. I realised that I was putting a huge amount of pressure on myself and assuming that other people think I’m a failure. I know I’m not perfect, but I don’t need to be.