You’ve Been Asking Yourself The Wrong Question About Your Self-esteem
What research shows about why your self-esteem is plummeting and how to improve it.
Your thinking habits are causing your low self-esteem. Studies show that people who suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem are introspective.
You try to understand the cause of your thoughts to gain greater self-awareness. You figure that the more you know yourself the less pain you will experience. So, you focus on yourself, your feelings, your emotions, and your ideas. But reality hits harder than a truck. In response, you retract inward to reevaluate your self-image to correct what’s wrong with you.
Your tendency to self-analyze has become toxic to your emotional well-being. It’s high time to stop these thinking habits from ruining your self-esteem.
Don’t ask ‘Why’ — What Science says
You might think that you can change your thoughts if you know why they occur. If that’s you, it’s not your fault. School encourages this type of thinking. But, while that might work for your homework, it does not for your self-esteem.
Instead, you are confirming your existing beliefs when you ask why. It’s called confirmation bias. Here is a brilliant explanation of confirmation bias:
Once you’ve formed a view of the world, you embrace “information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.”
When you ask ‘why’, you find the most convenient answers and stop looking. Why am I embarrassed? Why can’t I express myself well? Why are people judging me?
You ask these questions in hopes of finding a solution. But your brain works against your self-esteem when you do that. You find reasons to justify your situation and become complacent.
In fact, this study shows that asking ‘why’ is damaging to your mental health.
Scientists induced a failure experience to participants then asked one of two questions. Either why they felt the way they felt or how they felt moment-by-moment. Those who self-reflected more experienced an increase “in negative mood 12h after the failure.”
In another study on introspection, self-focused individuals did not understand themselves well. Failure made them more defensive and depressed. Less self-focused individuals had greater self-awareness and dealt better with failure.
The key difference between the low self-focused individuals and high self-focused individuals was their attitude.
The high self-focused individuals wanted to be consistent with every aspect of the self. They wanted to reconcile their ideal self with their attitudes and actions. The low self-focused individuals were less concerned with their attitude. As a result, they experienced less stress, anxiety, and depression.
What not Why — What research shows
Self-aware individuals enjoy greater well-being, emotional resilience, stronger relationships, and happiness. They’re not afraid to say no when they need to or delay gratification.
Organizational psychologist, Tasha Eurich found that the key to gaining greater self-awareness is in asking yourself the right question.
“Why questions can draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.”
It was Tuesday evening around 11pm. Holed up in my dark office, I sat staring at a set of freshly analyzed data. A few…ideas.ted.com
Asking ‘why’ will draw you in a spiral of self-pity and stop you from correcting harmful thinking. Asking ‘what’ instead will help you gain a more accurate self-awareness. But you can’t improve when you’re still holding onto your old habits.
You need to let go of that image you created for yourself. You’ve married it, got attached, and now you can’t live without it. Stop or you will never be happy with yourself. You will continue to believe that there is a problem that needs fixing, all because you’re not perfect.
The truth is you’re not. You will never be perfect and you need to be okay with that. No one and nothing is perfect. You don’t need to please anyone but yourself. Start asking yourself what you need to do to improve your self-esteem. Don’t get bogged down with the minutia of your feelings.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to change for good. I dwelt on everything that was negative dealing with social anxiety. The anxiety is so overwhelming at times. The visceral reality of it is something you need to experience to understand. Your fears are irrational and you know that. But you can’t change them. So, you stop fighting and identify with them because it’s a lot less stressful that way.
You know what’s even less stressful? Going out knowing that nothing can take you down because you’re okay with yourself. Knowing that you may not be perfect, but neither are other people. You can stare at the outside world and with confidence tell them that “I’m okay with myself and I don’t need your approval.”
Put your feelings into words
You can reduce your negative emotional responses by putting your feelings in words. With anxiety, you tend to self-reflect a lot out of habit and fail to express how you feel. And, in fact, you don’t even know how because you’re so afraid of rejection.
Learning how is important to your self-esteem as this study shows. You experience less amygdala activity when you process an emotional event through words.
People with anxiety disorders tend to have an active amygdala — the emotion and survival processing area of the brain.
Psychol Sci. 2007 May;18(5):421-8. Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov'twww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
It’s important to realize the power of vulnerability and equip yourself with powerful words that express your emotions. They will help you gain greater self-awareness and beat your anxiety and low self-esteem.
Consider this scenario:
You fear talking to strangers because you’re afraid you might not sound coherent and embarrass yourself. Ask yourself these questions, and see which one(s) is more constructive:
Do I know how to speak English? If yes, check.
Do I talk to my parents, siblings, or friends in English? If yes, check.
Why is it any different with a stranger? Notice that the answer to that question will justify not talking to strangers.
What can I do to express myself better? Notice that this question is solution oriented. Instead of dwelling, you will find tools to help you express yourself better.
Don’t bottle up your failures, let them out.
By now, I hope you realize that it’s a terrible idea to try to improve your self-esteem by asking ‘why.’ You might be able to help your best friend feel better if you know ‘why’ she’s upset. But you can’t fix your self-esteem with the same process.
The reality is that you’re not ideal or perfect. But, there is success after every failure if you allow yourself to see it. So, give up that false image that’s only hurting you and deal with reality.
You’re alive right now. Your fears have only set you back, so don’t hide behind them. You will start living when you stop dwelling. Look forward to it because it’s right around the corner of What-not-Why street!
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