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How to Talk Yourself Down From a Self-Esteem Spiral

Mirrors should not be battlefields.

07.12.16
How-to-Talk-Yourself-Down-from-a-Self-Esteem-Spiral-Man-Repeller-1

Confidence is an elusive thing, but style can help you fake it ’til you make it. 

I never feel more foolish than when a glance in the mirror drains all the positive energy from my body like it’s dirty dishwater. I feel emotionally bruised and also stupid when I wear my self-consciousness like an anchor around my neck that draws me under my comforter to escape the gaze of my peers as if it were poisonous. I tell myself it’s just skin. It’s just a body. It’s just surface. It’s nothing.

But of course it feels like everything.

They say it’s a sign of intelligence to hold two opposing ideas in your head at once, but when those thoughts are that I both want to look perfect and reject the notion of perfection I don’t feel very smart at all. Actually, I feel like I want to rip my hair out. I don’t believe beauty defines me and yet my volatile mood tells a different story. This internal contradiction of values is the perfect primer for a thick layer of shame.

It’s a special kind of meta-masochism, isn’t it, to loathe ourselves for loathing ourselves? And yet, these two things always seem to happen in nightmarish tandem. We agree that we’re not our beauty but rather we’re our intellect, our kindness, our strength — and that’s beautiful. Then we go home and berate ourselves for not looking our best, not trying hard enough to look our best or, worse, not looking like someone we aren’t. As if beauty and our pursuit of it makes us who we are. We’re sisters in our intellect and our empathy and our cognitive dissonance.

Lately, this swirly pool of love and contradiction has been stewing in my mind more regularly. Because the stress I introduced into my life by way of several parallel leaps — moving across the country, leaving friends and familiarity, changing careers, searching for a home — took a toll on my body.

My face looked permanently bloated, rounded where I was used to curves and dips. Acne spread across my chin like a rash. Five extra pounds settled onto my bones and inexplicably felt like 20. My hair and skin grew pallid like I was trapped in a hangover I didn’t deserve. I skipped two periods and my hormones were all over the place. My energy and mood and self-discipline were playing a game of hide-and-go-fuck-yourselfAt moments I didn’t recognize myself.

I felt betrayed and disoriented both by my body and the emotion it solicited in me. On the one hand, I wanted to fix it. Fast. You know: Cut the sodium! Change my skin regimenWalk more! Get a tan! Eat some kale! But on the other hand I knew that to tackle the physical self-care piece of the puzzle was just that: a piece.

I could do those things (and I did, at least kind of) and feel better (which I do, mostly) but what about the far more pressing issue (can I call it systemic?), which was that I was internalizing the idea that I was somehow lesser because of these changes?

How can I know that approving of my own reflection is a horrible foundation upon which to build my self-worth and then still do it? I will age. My body will go. I don’t want to be in a fight with the inevitable for the rest of my life. Can I live this knowledge instead of just intellectualize it?

It’s a question so many of us are attempting to answer and I’ve been asking myself a lot. So I’ve developed mental exercises that have turned into a daily practice. A sort of self-esteem meditation. Sometimes it feels like exhaling and other times it feel like jumping through hoops but ultimately it grounds me. It looks like this:

Look at a childhood photo of yourself: Imagine teaching that kid about the concept of self-loathing. It will inspire tender self-compassion.

Think of who you love and why you love them: The answer will have nothing to do with how well they present themselves and everything to do with how they make you feel.

Imagine how you want to make people feel: Do you want to inspire envy or make others feel worthy and at peace with themselves? Who are the people who do the second one for you? What are they like?

Turn over the benefits of looking your best: Physical self-care is important insofar that it’s an extension of self-love, but when it comes to petty critiques, task yourself with honestly examining why you think they matter.

Think of who you admire and why you admire them: Is it because of how they look or because they are some combination of smart and thoughtful and brave and funny and talented? Which parts of yourself do you want to cultivate? What example do you want to set?

Imagine the world you want to live in: If it’s one where women are not plagued by their appearance then ask yourself which role you’d rather play: a beacon of rebellion or conformity?

How do you pull yourself out of your spirals? Let’s be a sisterhood of rebels who dare to love the parts of ourselves we’re supposed to want to change.

Illustrations by Anna Hegarty; follow her on Instagram @annahegarty

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  • Harling Ross

    Haley, Haley, Haley. I just reached for my phone to text you but decided to comment here instead: I’ve read so many think pieces and self-help doo-hickies about self-esteem, but this one hits home in a way that nothing has before. Maybe it’s because I know you, and I admire you with the exact distinction you indicated above–not for your perfectly textured hair or how g-dang good you look in vintage Levi’s–but for the way you string words together in a way that nudges the tender part of my brain with the back of a cold spoon. Soothing and zingy all at once. Your advice is so wise.

    • Haley Nahman

      My heart just disintegrated into 13 million pieces! Thank you & love you harling darling

  • Lovisa

    This soothed me immensely, especially the part about teaching your childhood self about self-loathing. Thank you.

    • Haley Nahman

      Love your little and big self!!!

  • Amelia Diamond

    I like this so much

    • Haley Nahman

      I like you so much

  • ella

    Haley! I can’t reiterate enough how incredibly moving this is. It’s so easy for people to distinguish that our self-loathing doesn’t define our self-worth, but it’s another thing to face that contradiction and take a step forward by acting upon it. Someone already mentioned this, but it especially hit home when you suggested the idea of teaching your younger self the concept of self-loathing. It was just so much easier back then to look at yourself and see your personality shining back at you rather than your insecurities.

    Thank you so much for this piece 🙂 and don’t stop writing!

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you so much Ella. This was wisely put: “It’s so easy for people to distinguish that our self-loathing doesn’t define our self-worth.” Being critical of our own appearance has become so culturally accepted when really it should break all of our hearts more often…or at least enough to want to change it, you know?

      • ella

        That’s exactly what it is. It should be more heartbreaking than culturally accepted, but in knowing that, making a change in perspective for the better 🙂

      • ella

        Oh and Haley, I just wanted to share that your piece inspired me to write my own 🙂 It’s called “Let’s Stop Apologizing For How We Look”. Thanks so much for the constant inspiration and never stop writing! http://www.literallydarling.com/blog/2016/07/15/dont-sorry-look-much/

        • Haley Nahman

          Thank you for sharing!! I loved it.

  • dreamboatannie

    I really needed this today, thank you.

    • Haley Nahman

      You are so welcome

  • Alison

    I can relate to everything!! And I agree with Harling– your advice is the best I’ve heard– it made me calm, it gave me hope, it made me ready for tomorrow. Thanks for sharing!!

    • Haley Nahman

      Me giving you hope is my new favorite thing

  • Natalie

    Haley, you’re always one of my favorite writers, but I can’t tell you how much I love love love this

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you thank you thank you for reading it

  • I think one of the hardest things to do is imagine how we make other people feel. Sometimes you just get so caught up in your own problems you forget about how it affects the people around you. Thanks for this xx

    • Senka

      So true!

  • aspiringsocialite

    Great post!

    xo,
    Vicky
    http://www.aspiringsocialite.com/

  • Lillian

    Whoa you’re my heart’s (and chin’s 🙁 ) twin. I just did all the stressful things you did and it’s so nice to read something familiar but also actionable! Thank you for the tips. The first two were especially surprising and sweet.

    • Haley Nahman

      Heart&chintwins4ever

  • Jess

    I really love the suggestion of looking at a childhood photo and imagining what you’d say to him/her. It’s such a tangible and singular act that really forces yourself to practice kindness that small bit of child that persists in each of us. Thanks!

    • Haley Nahman

      Of course, it’s a little heartbreaking but in the best way.

  • Sarah Eve

    Yes and yes

  • Claire

    Hi Haley! I want to say how much I love your articles on Man Repeller. Sounds stalker-ish but I first saw you on Chelsea’s YouTube videos. I read your blog and I was super happy for you when I heard you get to write for a living! I always read your articles and I actually had never been to MR before you joined the team. This article and many of your articles seem to articulate what I think/feel in a way I could never say myself. I’m so happy you’re here and living one of your dreams. Thanks for the great articles 🙂

    • Haley Nahman

      0% stalkerish 100% coolest. I’m so grateful and glad you followed me here and discovered MR! Thanks so much for doing that and then going through the trouble of leaving a nice comment. I really appreciate it. You seem like a treat and a half.

  • Sarah

    Thank you thank you thank you for this article. Not only has your advice really helped me, it feels really good to know I am not the only one who’s lacking in self esteem because of things that I know I shouldn’t care about!! Thank you so much for such a wonderful and insightful article.

  • Lauren

    I loved this piece Hayley, mainly because I have gone through similar stuff this past year. Moving to a different city, attempting to make new friends and just trying to constantly remind myself of who I am and why I am where I am today. It’s so reassuring to know that other people, especially writers I admire like yourself, go through times like this. It makes you feel a bit better about feeling so out of place and makes you remember that you’re there for a reason and there’s really nothing to panic about.

    • Haley Nahman

      A very serious thank you for providing me with an answer to: “Imagine how you want to make people feel”

  • Mariana

    That cognitive dissonance or what I call “the little angel and the little devil that live in my mind” can be a sign of intelligence but also a pain in the ass because it can paralyze ourselves, limite our choice making, make us feel physically ill. I still not found the answer to, efficiently and in the long term, prevent this to happen but I know for sure that is not comparing myself to others (how intelligent they are, how well dressed they are, how young-successfull-married-rich-30under30ish they are). Instead, I try to see what I have accomplished, even the small things and only compare myself to my younger version. When that doesn’t work (numerous times, because we are our own toughest critics) I think that friends, a song (“Baby, you’re a fiiiiireewooork!!” – instant feel good lol), an inspiring TED talk or a day at the beach (vitamin D = serotonin boost) can do the trick.

    • Haley Nahman

      Firework is such a moodbooster how could I forget!!!

  • Bree

    Haley, you are a literal angel! This is so thoughtful and tender. Thank you for sharing about this it is very generous and kind of you. Thank you!

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you for taking the time to write this comment because it’s going to help me sleep like a literal angel tonight <3 <3 <3

  • MEDICAL MARIJUANA DELIVERY
  • This is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time!!! I’ve struggled with an anxiety disorder for most of my life and it really can be so draining and so taxing to be your own worst enemy in contrast to your own biggest fan. I really appreciate this post and the fact that I can relate but not in a “let’s all suck together way”. I’m sharing this with my therapist and best friend and everyone I know because it’s just that good. Oh, I only wish you the very best, Haley. Thank youuu 🙂

    • Haley Nahman

      It’s possible I’m PMSing but you wishing me the best almost just made me cry????……….I wish YOU the best really really really.

  • Allison

    I’m saving this to read to my 4 month old niece when she’s old enough to understand. Or maybe before she understands, and then again and again. Yes to all of this and thank you.

    • Haley Nahman

      I’m saving this comment to read when I’m feeling down!!!

  • Maurissa Dahms

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of writing! I think I need to write your tips on Post-Its and leave them around my house or something because all of this is spot on for my life right now.
    Also, you seem like you would be such a sweet friend to have, very grateful for this MR sisterhood we all have going on!

    • Haley Nahman

      I NEED POST-ITS TOO. And I never knew it was so sweet to be called a sweet friend. I’m hugging you via comment right now.

  • Nat Vuk

    What I really appreciate about this piece, beside the fact that it so eloquently articulates so much of what I’ve experienced and continue to experience, is one of the questions you address, Haley: Can I live this knowledge instead of just intellectualize it? And my appreciation grows even more when I realize that the question is not purely rhetorical as you waste no time in proposing possible solutions that have worked for you. Recognizing that self-loathing is such a burden (especially when we start hating ourselves for hating ourselves) is definitely a vital step, but it’s not enough on its own. It’s far more difficult to apply that knowledge in order to combat that feeling (and the Captain Obvious award goes to, drum roll, please…). BUT what I’m trying to say is that baby steps, as I’ve learned, are key indeed! Number one reason why I often feel stuck is because my mind gets fixated on how far I am from getting to a certain point as opposed to how far I got and what the next realistic step is. With that being said, every and any of the above mentioned mental exercises would be a lovely step to start with in being at peace with ourselves. Thanks for sharing this post!!!

    • Haley Nahman

      You’re so right, thank you understanding me so well!

  • This is one of the best, true-est, most realistic pieces ever written about self-acceptance. Love the tips you gave: especially the one of thinking of the people you admire and why you admire them. The people I do look up to are smart. talented, funny and represent the perfect cocktail to be lovely human beings and that’s why I love them. Thanks for this Wednesday cheer-me-up and self reflection moment!

    • Haley Nahman

      You’re beyond welcome, thank YOU for the cheer-me-up in comment form.

  • Jennifer

    Really glad I read this. I’m PMS-ing, stressed about like 5 different things and just generally down on myself these last few days. I’m in the mood to keep to myself and skim through pointless images on the web. But the title of this article grabbed at me when all I wanted to do was look at outfit pictures and not really have to “think or feel too much”. BUT I knew I would be doing myself a disservice if I clicked out of this page. Thanks for writing this piece Haley, I reallllyyyy need to TEACH myself how to practice self-compassion. It’s like a foreign notion to me, and yet I know I deserve it. Instead of going through my usual morning routine of blog rolls and news, I’m going to answer your questions at the end of the article on a Word doc and share it with my two sisters (and boyfriend). I hope that my vulnerability and intent to allow self-compassion will inspire them and bring love and appreciation into their own hearts and minds. THANK YOU for my morning assignment!

    • Haley Nahman

      I so know the feeling of wanting to be mindless when actually you probably need the opposite. I’m so glad you read and wrote to me! Me + me = same cloth. :*

  • Jill

    This couldn’t have been more timely for me. Same story with the 5 lbs that feels like 20, breakouts, social anxiety and ancient-feeling 28-year-old skin. As a previously confident person it has thrown me for a loop to have all this self loathing going on, so much so that I saw a therapist for the first time to talk it out! She was helpful but this is even more so. The baby photos — what a zinger. I would never speak about that sweet, funny, precocious, curious little girl the way I talk to myself now!

    Thank you so much. You are an excellent writer and are wise beyond your years.

    • Haley Nahman

      Jillllllll thanks so much. Let’s be ancient happy sacks 2gether.

  • Caro

    Ohhh, I so needed this…on my day off-my morning has been lazy and relaxing and then the 3 o’clock bewitching hour hit me. I quickly searched for remedies…painting? A ted talk? A walk? A nap? I figured I should probably not search for a quick fix and just feel the feelings as they will likely pass. But it still sucks.

    My mom gets mad at every time I say it but I am of the “life is hard” party. Everyone is having a hard time (maybe…or maybe they just handle different stressors and triggers differently). So, I often think about the easiest ways to make myself feel better, I like to simplify. Two routes- you can go the physical way or the mental way. Physical way for me is getting an iced coffee and sitting with it. Or putting lemon in my water (Lemons make just about EVERYTHING better). Also,I remember hating everything a couple years back, and it was always in class for some reasons, but I would sit in class and like give myself hugs or rub the side of my thighs like someone giving you a hug would. …I just try to slow down as much as possible. The mental way involves making a list of the things that ACTUALLY matter. My loved ones. My health- that I am hydrated and fed. And I like to imagine how I’m honoring myself, or how I’m honoring my desires. And even if it feels like I’m doing shit work or feeling stupid, there is a way I am honoring something within myself, you know?

    I had an old professor who, before every exam, would ask us to imagine the last time we succeeded at something. Sometimes I do that when I sense that spiral is coming.

    And, because this is the digital age, I have a couple of go-to websites. Any Dear Polly letter on nymag. Brainpickings, cup of jo, and truly, this site. And wouldn’t you know, on a day like today, I found this article 🙂 Thank you Haley!!

    Also, I love the picture of your little self. I have a theory that our little selves have all the answers and so to tap into them, or to imagine honoring them sometimes makes me feel better. And don’t you think if you’re little self met you she’d think, “Wow, this girl is so cool!”

    • Haley Nahman

      Dear Polly is MECCA. Also the “3 o’clock bewitching hour” on a lazy day is such a thing!! With you with you with you

  • Maggie

    Just moments, words into this article I realized I had tears in my eyes. Such a hard emotion, mental state to describe and you nailed it. Not only did you nail it however, you have offered me (and others) some tips and exercises to defeat that mean girl in my head. Its hard to even say how much I appreciate your honesty and the truth in this article! Thank you so much.

    • Haley Nahman

      Maggie thank you for saying that — it’s a gift right back! DEFEAT THE MEAN GIRL

  • Elle

    but what about when ur self confidence is lacking not because of your physical insecurities, but your deeper insecurities that your personality just isn’t interesting, bold, overall good enough (“thoughtful and brave and funny and talented”, as you mentioned)? I find that much harder to reconcile than appearance-based worries but maybe at that point my self esteem is too shot to fix with cure-all tips

    • Haley Nahman

      You bring up the very important other side of the coin — something I definitely plan on writing about too. You’re self-esteem is not shot!! I think self-compassion is a good place to start!! http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/05/why-self-compassion-works-better-than-self-esteem/481473/

      • Elle

        Thank you so much for this, the article was powerful! The idea of accepting your flaws and failures as normal and okay rather than letting them make you feel super dejected is a great one, though hard to execute. I like that self-compassion is about being intrinsically kind to yourself and I will definitely try to channel that more!

    • Fran

      I’ve felt that way, too. The thing is you can help yourself become more interesting. I’ve noticed that the times when I feel like I’m not really an interesting person, are the times when I’m not reading much, when I’m not seeing my friends as often, basically when I’m not doing much else with my free time than scroll through Facebook and Instagram. The best cure? Grab a book you enjoy. When I’m reading, I really feel like I’m cultivating my personality. If you feel like it, go beyond and join a hobby club or start a hobby on your own. I still have to take that jump but I’m sure it’s gonna rock.
      You can always keep building your personality, so don’t lose hope and try to start working on it 🙂

  • Snezana Mahoney

    check mark check mark heart heart hand clap hand clap heart with lines

  • sparris

    I’m literally crying now.

  • Mercedes Ayala

    “They say it’s a sign of intelligence to hold two opposing ideas
    in your head at once, but when those thoughts are that I both want to
    look perfect and reject the notion of perfection I don’t feel very smart
    at all.”
    As always, great read. This is my favorite. Mostly because I know that it doesn’t feel smart whatsoever, it feels heart wrenching. Always at war with yourself.

  • Lilly Bozzone

    This post seriously resonated with me! First off, thank you writing it. Secondly, I went through a similar experience last year when I first moved to NYC and my body was like, “Nerp.” My hair started falling out, my skin broke out, I felt like a wreck. It was REALLY (is) hard not to let the physical effect my psyche. And on top of all that — I was/am working in fashion so it’s SO hard to not see these things as your identity. You touched on the dualistic problem of the mind and the body and how it’s extremely difficult to separate them from one another, even when we tell ourself, “Beauty doesn’t define me.” I do think, however, that beauty DOES define us and that’s why we innately pursue it — but I don’t mean in a superficial way of seeking a manifestation of perfection. I.e. perfect hair, a bikini bod, the perfect outfit, etc. I think as humans, we are deeply beautiful, simply in our nature — and that’s what we forget when we focus only on the material. Seeking beauty isn’t a bad thing, it’s not the enemy. We pursue beauty because beauty, at it’s core is intrinsically good and as humans, we naturally seek goodness. Our intellect and bodies are woven together in a completely magnificent way that allows us to physically express the internal. We want to reflect and celebrate the beauty we naturally possess. I think that’s why fashion is so important, it allows us to manifest our internal beauty in a physically beautiful way.
    When I was going through (and still do) periods of low self-esteem, I got to a point where I was miserable that I was forced to really look at where the self-worth of all people comes from. I realized that who I am as a whole person, mind and body is beautiful alone and that my beauty truly lies in the innate dignity I possess. Once I started to realize the dignity I have, for simply being, I began to feel my self-esteem improve and truly beautiful.

    Gah, sorry for the long comment. Your post was just really inspiring and honest. I really admire you.

  • Mim Plech

    Omg, this is really good.
    I feel like I see myself in every line.
    Thanks for writing this! <3

    http://www.mimiquices.com

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