Trust me, I get it: feeling good about and being kind to yourself are much easier when things are going well — you’re hitting your goals, harvesting the fruits of your labour, and receiving positive feedback from others; it makes sense to reflect on yourself favourably and reward yourself every now and then.
But self-love is often a different story once things start to move out of your control. When you’re facing failures and losses, it suddenly becomes a tad difficult to indulge in acts of care and affection towards yourself. It’s also not uncommon for people to (consciously or unconsciously) inflict physical or mental punishments upon themselves during tough times, such as skipping meals or engaging in extremely harsh self-talk.
While these kinds of “tough love” can sometimes motivate us to change for the better, they often do more harm than good. For me, I noticed that I exhibited these “punishing” behaviours when I was struggling with school and extracurriculars, and frankly, they made things worse. Not showing enough appreciation for myself, when life is already hard, simply made me lose enthusiasm for my goals and feel constantly hopeless. With the help of my school counsellor, friends, and loved ones, I started taking deliberate steps to make sure I valued myself even in times when I didn’t want to, and to become my very own cheerleader.
Here are some ways I do it:
- Eat regular nutritious meals
Hear me out — you need to eat proper meals, even when you’re busy, when you didn’t leave the house all day, when you “feel fat”, or whatever other reason you come up with that stops you from sitting down and enjoying real food.
Cooking and eating good food have been super helpful gestures that made me feel better about life (and about myself). This doesn’t just mean munching on a bag of cheetos at dinnertime or replacing breakfast with coffee; even though it’s perfectly okay to do that occasionally, we still need a variety of nutrients that come from a range of foods. Add some vegetables to your plate. Snack on fruits from time to time. Try to eat at regular times every day.
These seemingly small acts sent a powerful message to my mind that I should be supported and cared for even on very bad days. And (surprise, surprise) looking after my physical health actually eases a lot of mental stress as well. After all, the last thing you need when going through a rough patch, is to have poor fuels during the journey.
- Gently guide yourself away from negative thinking
Negative thoughts, like “I’m not good enough” or “no one likes me”, are in themselves pretty common and normal, but it’s how we react to them that makes a difference. Ironically, in the pursuit of self-love and a “positive mindset”, people beat themselves up for having unhealthy thoughts, which only worsens the problem because now, not only are they dealing with the burden of negative thoughts, but also the humiliation of having such thoughts.
A better way to deal with negative thinking is to gently guide yourself away from it. This is a mental exercise that is different for everyone; for example, you can imagine yourself taking the hand of a child and lovingly leading it away from danger, or you can picture the thought as a cloud – among many other clouds – that has moved into your visual field but floats away soon after.
The point is to acknowledge the presence of the thought, without giving it any power. Fighting violently against it only makes you engage with it more, and any failure to suppress it can feel like a defeat. Instead, treat your negative thoughts with compassion and know that they don’t — and can’t – define you.
- Focus on the possible positive outcomes of a task
When you’ve hit a few walls in your career, studies, or even love life, it’s easy to tell yourself that things will always turn out bad. You might even think that you’re mentally preparing yourself for failure so you don’t suffer from the shock.
However, it’s one thing to be prepared for a bad outcome, and another thing to be constantly focusing on all that could go wrong and spiralling into self-doubt even before you start a task; the latter can paralyse you with fear and limit your willingness to give your best (after all, why put in effort if you’re “doomed to fail”?). It doesn’t hurt, then, to add a little more optimism to whatever you are doing: “Maybe I will learn valuable things from this project”, “I might come up with a good idea for my assignment”… bring your attention to the part(s) of the task that you can do well in, and try to stay in that encouraging zone to get the work done.
The cycle of self-loathing and inaction is easily perpetuated by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. This compromises your capability at the moment. So, what if you cheer yourself on instead? Focus on the present and embrace the possibility of a good outcome — you’ll be surprised at the power you can tap into.
- Connect with friends and loved ones
A healthy amount of solitude is good for self-discovery, but sometimes we may lose sight of our value as a person when we’ve been alone for too long. FaceTime your friend. Hit your classmate up for a chat. Check in with family members. Interacting with others and receiving love and support can ground us in terms of our relation to others, and help us rediscover our inherent worth.
You can also expand your network by joining new forums or interest groups, striking up a conversation with a friend-of-a-friend, or even making small talk with someone in your lecture who you don’t know. You don’t have to make best friends right away; the process of connecting simply forces you to shift away from incessant self-reflection and show up as a confident and amiable individual, which is good for when you feel “stuck” in low self-esteem.
- Help others
Last but not least, we can often rediscover our value when we help others. Whether it’s volunteering for your favourite cause, or offering assistance to a friend in need, extending kindness and graciousness to the world is a very direct way of making us feel better about ourselves. And while you’re at it, try to extend that kindness to yourself too.
Self-esteem is a vital part of our mindset and attitude, and therefore quality of life. While it’s shaped by external events and environments, it’s also dependent on how we make sense of each circumstance and judge ourselves. So even if you think you aren’t doing as well as you ought to, there’s no reason you shouldn’t continue working on your self-esteem. You need to be your own pillar of support — even when you don’t feel like it.