It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a toll on our collective mental health. Whether you’ve struggled with health anxiety surrounding the virus itself, dealt with feelings of loneliness as a result of lockdown restrictions or experienced increased stress due to blurred work/life boundaries while working from home, the last 14 months have placed a strain on us all.
It’s a fact I’ve noticed particularly as lockdown restrictions have eased and I’ve been able to see friends again; whereas before I might have gone into a social situation without a second thought, I’m now doubting everything I say, worrying about what other people think of me and generally feeling unsure about myself and the way I present to the world. It feels weird to admit, but spending time alone – and not being able to see myself through the eyes of other people – has messed with my sense of self.
Before the pandemic, I’d never quite released how important those regular interactions with my friends, work colleagues and peers were to how I see myself. Perhaps I didn’t want to admit it – when modern discourse frowns upon the idea that we might ‘need’ others to feel good about ourselves, it felt weirdly shameful to acknowledge how integral the presence of others is to how I see myself. Did I really need other people to feel happy and content in my own skin?
The answer, as it turns out, is yes – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You see while relying purely on external validation isn’t good for you, it’s completely normal to need some sense of feedback from those around you – in fact, it’s part of who we are as humans.
“We are social creatures – we almost see ourselves through others – so not having that continual feedback can leave us feeling quite insecure,” explains chartered psychologist and author Dr Meg Arroll. “If we think of confidence as on one end of the spectrum and insecurity on the other, without that feedback loop, we’re kind of being nudged into that place of insecurity and feeling quite uncertain in ourselves.”
While, Dr Arroll acknowledges, some people prefer to spend time alone, and may not need as much feedback from others to feel confident, most people will need some kind of reassurance from others. Indeed, it’s actually normal to have different social groups which give you confidence in different areas – all of which add up to give you a certain sense of ‘you’.
“For instance, I feel like a slightly different person with different groups of friends, and it brings different parts of my personality out,” Dr Arroll says. “So, without that, we can almost kind of forget who we are – we need that reflection from others to show us.”
What Dr Arroll is saying makes a lot of sense. For example, I feel completely comfortable chatting to my colleagues at the moment, because I’ve spoken to them day-in-day-out via Zoom throughout the pandemic. However, when I see friends IRL who I haven’t spoken to much (except over text) for the last year, that side of my personality is a little out of practice, so it’s only normal to feel a little uncomfortable and rusty as I slip back into it.
With this in mind, Dr Arroll suggests that, if you’ve found yourself struggling with your self-esteem and confidence as restrictions ease, one of the best things you can do is to practise a little bit of self-compassion and take ‘baby steps’ to get yourself used to socialising again.
“In different situations there will be different social norms, and because we haven’t been doing them every day, it’s going to take a little bit of time to build up that confidence of really knowing those norms and for them to become automatic again,” Dr Arroll explains.
“Try to understand and acknowledge that we are our own worst critics,” she adds. “In the instances where we’re doubting ourselves, 99.9% of the time other people won’t have noticed.”
To try and address the amount of self-criticism you’re feeding yourself and practise being more self-compassionate, one of the best things you can do is to deal with your inner critic.
“When I work with patients, I encourage them to replace their inner critic with an inner coach, because we need to really focus on replacing thought patterns, not just trying to extinguish them” Dr Arroll explains.
“A way to do this is to think about someone who makes you feel really positive – it could be a real person, a celebrity, an imagined character – but someone who makes you feel really good about yourself. Try to imagine their tone and the pitch of their voice, and then bring that voice to life in your head.”
She continues: “Now, whenever that inner critic is starting to say something negative, or questioning something you’ve done, replace it with this coach – you can even imagine a conversation between the critic and the coach, if you want. By doing this, you’re actively engaging in a more positive inner narrative.”
Finally, Dr Arroll suggests, one way to make yourself feel more secure in the moment is to use a have a ‘comfort item’ – something that can help you to feel more grounded when you’re feeling overwhelmed. This could be anything, from a comfy scarf to a good luck charm or even a picture on your phone.
“Whatever it is, have it so that, when you’re starting to feel uncomfortable or insecure, you have that visual reminder that you’re good enough and you’ve got this,” she adds.
So, there we have it. If like me, you’ve been feeling a little low on confidence since restrictions started easing, you’re certainly not the only one – and there are things you can do in the meantime to make that transition back to ‘normal’ that little bit easier.
The last 14 months have been a rollercoaster ride – and as we start to get back to the things we love, it’s important that we cut ourselves some slack for getting through it all.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for confidential support.