Opinion: a good and healthy start would be to accept who you are and treat yourself with kindness and respect 

By Rachel Mc HughLetterkenny Institute of Technology

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I once heard someone say "you talk to yourself more than anyone in the world. Make sure you are saying the right things." How true this is.

Our thoughts are made up on three bases: thoughts about our self, others and the world. When these thoughts are about our self, and they are negative or critical, this can feed into a cycle of anxiety and/or depression. This development can be explained by the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) model of self esteem developed by Melanie Fennell.

We start with our early experiences, which can be something as simple as a negative comment or insult that you received when you were young. Something that has stayed with you throughout your life. Or perhaps, you grew up in a house with very high standards to meet.

With something like this, we develop a bottom line. This bottom line may be that "I’m not good enough" or "I’m too stupid" or "I don’t deserve to be loved". This sticks, and we come up with rules for living, to avoid confirming this bottom line to us.

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These rules for living can be obsession with control, or lack of acceptance of no control. It can be taking on too much responsibility, where you are doing everything for everyone and burning yourself out. It can also be a need for approval and reassurance, when nothing is validated unless someone else tells you that it is good. Finally, perfectionism: everything must be perfect or it is not good enough.

We are able to float along living by these rules and continue our day to day lives until a trigger or a critical incident occurs. This is an event that shows us that our standards have not been met. This could be a criticism we receive, it could be that our partner leaves us or it could a failed exam or the loss of a job. This event activates our bottom line, and when it is activated, we constantly seek to confirm it and notice it everywhere. So we become very self-critical, which leads to depression. Or we become obsessed with perfection and control, which makes us anxious. We think that these behaviours are helping us validate that our bottom line is untrue when, in fact, we are highlighting it.

If something positive happens, we dismiss it. If something negative happens, we focus on it. If something neutral happens, we distort it to be negative. We are primed and on the lookout for negatives about ourselves, even though we don’t realise it, and we are creating things that are not there. When someone gives us a compliment, we dismiss it, but, we have to think that person said it to be nice and they meant it. We need to accept it and thank them, even if we disagree.

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We are maintaining our low self esteem by criticising ourselves and holding ourselves back, which is such a misuse of our imagination. We are making predictions that we will fail, so we don’t try, and then our predictions are confirmed. We avoid situations that show us the truth, and we set inflexible rules to protect ourselves, which are in fact stopping us from achieving our goals.

When we are in this habit and primed to see the negatives, we miss all of the positives. When you buy a new red car, you see red cars everywhere. When a woman is pregnant, she sees pregnant women everywhere, because we are so focused on something.

So how about you try to look out for the positives from now on? Instead of hanging your heads as you walk down the street in case someone is looking at you, look around and see how many people smile, wave and say hello. Log all of those positives: every compliment, every smile, every nice comment. Log them into your brain. Accept them. You will find that when you start priming yourself to look for the good things about you, you will see more of them – just like those red cars!

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We need to challenge our negative thoughts. We are so hard on ourselves, but what have we actually done that is so bad to be spoken to the way that we do? We would never talk to a loved one the way we criticise ourselves, so why is it OK to do it to ourselves? These negative beliefs are opinions, not facts. They have no evidence to back them up. What have you done that is good? What have you achieved? What are your good qualities?

When you think about your bottom line, whatever it is, what benefits have you obtained by thinking this way about yourself? Has it been helpful? What has it protected you from? Has it limited you? Has it impacted your life? Has it prevented you from experiencing anything? Has it downplayed your achievements? Has it negatively impacted your relationships or prevented you from achieving your goals?

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If the answer to any of these questions is yes…what could an alternative rule be?

It does not have to be that you are amazing, but a good and healthy start would be some self-acceptance, maybe that "I am doing my best, and that is enough". The main aim is to practice self-care. Try to accept who you are and treat yourself with the same kindness and respect that you would treat anyone else with. Try this and notice the change in how you feel.

Dr Rachel Mc Hugh is a Research Associate in Mental Health at Letterkenny Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ