Our sense of self is the primary foundation for relationships with others. It informs what we need in our relationships, and whether we tend to see others as a threat, or an ally. It determines whether we are able to be interested in the lives and welfare of others, or relate to them only in terms of our own needs. This applies to close relationships, interactions with colleagues, and how we position those in the wider community.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people often developed new or stronger relationships in their neighbourhoods, and many volunteered to help others. This experience is likely to have changed not only how they perceive and connect with others, but also given them a more positive sense of self.
The two basic interrelated components are how we think about ourselves (self-concept), and how we feel about ourselves (self-esteem). There is also our ideal self – who we would like to become, and self-respect – the part of our self-concept that evaluates the extent to which we see ourselves as a good person. Those with a positive sense of self usually have values that enable them to behave with integrity, not being unduly swayed by what others say nor doing what is simply expedient. They have no need to tell others how wonderful they are.
Although childhood experiences impact significantly on how we think and feel about ourselves, there are things we can do to develop or maintain a healthy sense of self and self-acceptance. The positive psychology principles of awareness and attention, considered choices, and compassion underpin the suggestions below:
- Your inner dialogue determines how you think about yourself and other people. Some of these thoughts will be negative and unhelpful – can you engage with more positive thoughts, ones that are less judgmental, forgiving, and more hopeful?
- Optimistic thinking may mean re-positioning issues, focusing less on problems and more on identifying where you want to go, and the first step in that direction6. When you expect things to go well, they are more likely to – and the opposite is also true. Writing down three things you are grateful for every day helps you notice what is going well, and can change your outlook7.
- Being kind to yourself includes not blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong. Although you might have some responsibility, this will invariably be shared with circumstance, chance, and other people. Forgiving yourself is helped by appreciating that everyone makes mistakes, and no one is perfect.
- Mindfulness is being fully in the present moment, aware of feelings, thoughts, sensations, and the environment, without judgment. This allows you to put aside past and future anxieties, and relieves stress. It is both a natural disposition and a learned skill. There is good evidence for the benefits, especially against anxiety and depression.
- It is easy to use up valuable emotional energy on things that won’t matter much tomorrow or even next week. Getting things into perspective where possible enables you to ‘not sweat the small stuff’.
- A focus on strengths rather than deficits can make you feel better about yourself, as well as about others – not just strengths that are demonstrable today, but those in development. Beyond academic, sporting, or creative abilities, these include strengths of character, such as patience, determination, warmth, and humour.
- Having meaning in your life is a significant aspect of wellbeing: doing things that inspire and energise you, whether that is supporting a team, being with family, creating art, being an activist, or learning something new. You will like yourself more if you spend time in purposeful activity. Doing this with others can be especially valuable.
- Do those around you increase or drain your energy? Supportive people are warm, friendly, show interest in what is important to you, listen well and help you be the best of yourself, even if at times this means being a ‘critical friend’. When you nurture these relationships with reciprocity, they form the backbone of your wellbeing.
- Regular exercise, good nutrition, enough sleep and time to relax help to provide physical and mental resilience. If you feel well physically you have more resources to draw on.
People struggling with negative life experiences, and challenging mental health issues may need therapy, or other support to be able to do some of the things suggested above, and many cannot afford this, but some ideas cost nothing, or very little, and are worth a try if they help you to think well of yourself. This in return will help you maintain healthy, supportive relationships.
Extract taken from Creating the World We Want to Live In (Routledge) available now £19.99.
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