Like a wounded animal hiding away while it heals, it can feel natural to pull back from the world until you feel better after a setback. But letting that continue for too long while you “work on yourself” can get you stuck. This article explains why healthy connection matters and gives some ways to get back in the swing of things if you have got in the habit of hiding away.
Why Healthy Connection Matters for Self Esteem
1 We need emotional nourishment
Healthy social connections nourish us. We are wired to live in community. When we are isolated, we suffer. Loneliness is a significant social problem.i
For many of us, modern living already cuts us off. We connect more through computer screens than in real life. Families are often scattered far and wide. Commuting times can eat into evenings.
Having healthy connections with others is a basic human need. Lack of it makes people vulnerable to problems. If you feel down about yourself, isolation is likely to make you feel worse.
2 It helps us look in a new mirror
Self worth doesn’t come from a vacuum.
When we’re younger, we largely decide our self worth based on how other people treat us. If we mostly get treated kindly and with respect, part of us decides we must be worthy of that kindness and respect. If people treat us badly, we decide that means there’s something “wrong” with us.
As adults, we can start to question those beliefs and select whose opinions matter and whose don’t. But no one is an island. If you tend to be too hard on yourself and especially if you have been knocked back by someone treating you badly, experiencing good people treating you with kindness and respect can start to rebalance how you feel.
If you have a habit of approval seeking, you need to be mindful not to slip back into that. But that doesn’t mean can’t enjoy the warmth and welcome of friends and acquaintances. Having more healthy connection in your life means you will be less likely to slip into chasing it in unhealthy ways.
3 It is sometimes good to be proved wrong
People who are down on themselves are usually very certain in their negative opinions about themselves. They bat away compliments and unconsciously spend time with people who also think they don’t matter or are useless. It becomes self reinforcing.
It is healthy to allow other people to help us question our beliefs.
There’s a reason why in fairy tales the crazy witch lives on her own in the middle of the forest. When we are isolated or stuck within a small social group, it can be like being in a social media echo chamber where everyone is re-confirming the same increasingly distorted theory to each other. We don’t get the different perspectives that anchor our self image in reality.
Spending time with new people who can see your strengths can start loosening stuck self criticism. One day you might wonder if they could be right…
And developing a variety of social networks means you won’t be overly influenced by just one. That way, if one group of people treats you harshly you will be able to see when that is down to them, not something inherent in you.
Rebuilding healthy connections
So how can you re-engage with the world without slipping back into old people pleasing habits or forcing yourself into situations that will just make you feel worse?
1 Think in a cycle, not a line
One reason people get stuck is because they are unknowingly following an unhelpful map of the way back to feeling better.
As I heard someone say recently, lot of self help seems to run along the lines of “Now go to your room and accept yourself!” 🙂 That is a funny thing to say because we intuitively feel the absurdity of it. And yet too often, it is precisely how people approach self help or therapy.
The unhelpful map goes something like.
|I feel bad about myself so I need to||Take some time away from people to work on myself||until I feel fine||Then I’ll be able to reconnect with friends and activities.|
They then end up stuck at “working on themselves” for years.
The “feel fine” part doesn’t materialise so they go even more intensely into “working on themselves.” It is the isolation and too much self focus that is stopping them from feeling better. Too much of the wrong kind of self help can drive you nuts!
If you’re feeling unworthy or that you don’t matter and you’ve cut yourself off from your social networks, a good therapist, book or course can help you loosen some negative thoughts and feelings. But you need to start re-forming healthy social connections as part of feeling better about yourself, not wait until some imagined time when you are “finished.”
So instead of a straight line where you can easily get stuck at “working on yourself”
|Feel bad||Work on myself||Feel fine again||Reconnect with friends & activities|
Imagine a positive cycle like this
Gradually rebuilding your engagement with the world is part of feeling better, not something that happens afterwards.
2 Notice which connections nourish you and which drain you
Sometimes we’re friends with people or in certain groups out of habit. So start noticing: Which connections nourish you and which drain you?
Pay attention to how you feel after spending time with different people. Do you feel uplifted and nourished or do you feel anxious and drained?
If you feel anxious or drained, maybe they’re not right for you at the moment.
If you have had a habit of being too nice, they might still be stuck in treating you that way. You might be able to change within that friendship, but if that’s not working, it’s OK to put those connections on the back burner for a while. There is no need for any big announcements or discussions. Just put a bit less effort into those relationships and put more effort into the ones that fill you up.
If you notice feel uplifted and nourished after being with a group or certain people, see if you can find ways to do more of that kind of thing. It could be with those same people or maybe with different people in a similar way.
Try keeping notes in two columns like this for a week or two.
How I could do more of this kind of thing?
Met Jane for coffee. It felt good to spend time just the two of us without too much pressure.
Watched football with Mike. It was nice to hang out without having to do too much talking.
How could I do less of this kind of thing?
Went to Jo’s party. I’m pleased with myself that I made the effort to go, but there was so much small talk I got bored and felt like I was faking having fun.
I always thought visiting David’s family was be nice, but I noticed his sister’s complaining really started to get me down.
Also notice how secure you feel. If you are feeling anxious, more structured activities like joining a craft circle or a conservation group will probably feel safer. Less structured activities like a freeform dance class or loud party could be fun but more of challenging.
You can come back to them later if you like, as long as you are actively doing something. It’s not a one-off event, you are setting up a positive cycle.
3 Find your stretch zone
If you’ve been feeling bad about yourself and withdrawn for a while, meeting people can feel scary. A few nerves can be a good sign. They’re showing you that you’re not letting your emotions hold you back. But don’t push yourself too hard either. Forcing yourself into situations that are overwhelming could set you back.
Instead, find your stretch zone. That’s the area between your Comfort Zone of what is easy but empty like staying at home watching Netflix, and your Overwhelm Zone of things that are too much for you right now.
People often focus on something ambitious like “I should be able to go to networking events or loud parties and enjoy them!” Then, because it feels too much, they don’t do anything.
Start smaller with something that’s a stretch but which you can manage. That starts the positive cycle going so you can build to bigger wins later on.
4 Don’t wait to ‘feel like it’ before you start
Don’t be too controlled by how you feel. You get the nourishment of healthy social connection after you’ve made it happen, not before. Don’t wait to ‘feel like it’ first.
You have probably had the experience of dreading going to a party and thinking of every excuse to avoid it, but then really enjoying it in the end. If you’re feeling bad about yourself, your emotions might not be a good guide. They are likely to tell you stories that aren’t necessarily true such as “It will be too stressful”, “No one wants me there anyway”, “I’ll feel stupid if I don’t know anyone”, “I’ll come back feeling worse than before.”
Instead of being controlled by them, start gently questioning your own stories and assumptions. Think back to times when your emotions told you not to join a group or event, but you went anyway and you were glad you did.
To practice some more, start comparing how you predict an activity will be with how you actually feel about it afterwards. e.g.
Going to a new group
I think I’ll feel really uncomfortable because I don’t know anyone, then I’ll start beating myself up for feeling uncomfortable.
I felt a bit anxious as I said hello everyone but I noticed the people who were most welcoming and then I settled down. I quite enjoyed it in the end.
Going to an exercise class
I’m expecting that I won’t know what to do, I’ll feel like the odd one out and hate it.
The teacher asked if anyone was new and made sure to explain what we did. Of course, I couldn’t do everything as well as people who have been lots of times, but I feel proud that I took the step and got a ‘win.’
5 Take the pressure off each individual event or relationship
You don’t have to have an amazing time or make the best new friends in the world every time you do something. And you don’t have to be at your most sparkling either. Putting too much pressure on one activity can make you anxious and set you up for disappointment if it doesn’t live up to your high expectations.
If you haven’t had enough healthy connection in your life, you can spend some time with balanced, kind people, quietly allow yourself to enjoy it, and have a nice time. That’s enough.
Think like a bee feeding from many flowers. No individual flower has to be filled with a bumper stock of nectar for all the flowers together to provide plenty of nutrition overall.
6 Open up appropriately
It is not only the quantity of social connection that matters, but also the quality. If you tend to be too nice, there is a good chance some of your better friends would really like to get to know you better.
If you put on a front too much, the emotional nourishment can’t reach you. Instead, your would-be friends’ warmth and welcome go to the fake you and you wind up still feeling empty. You have to be willing to be you.
Adult authenticity doesn’t mean blurting out your personal sensitivities anyone and everyone and it doesn’t mean being ruled by your emotions. Your local shopkeeper doesn’t need to know your life story. Adult authenticity means being you in a way that fits with other values. If it is not the right time to talk about yourself, it’s perfectly “authentic” to take that into account.
The stronger relationship you have with someone, the more “weight” it can bear and the more open you can be. Equally, opening up a bit can strengthen a relationship too if that is what both people want.
If you’ve been in the habit of putting on a front, try being a little bit more open and see how someone responds. If they brush it off or don’t seem interested, you can back off with no harm done. That means the relationship is at the right level for now. If you they want to talk about deeper things and it feels right, then allow yourself to open up a little bit more next time until you find the right level.
Start Small Soon!
If you’ve been isolated, don’t wait until you feel OK before you start rebuilding healthy connections. That’s like refusing to water a flower until it blooms. You have to do the watering first, then it blooms.
Start small soon. Get that positive cycle going, see how it goes, and adjust as you go.
i. For example, long term loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One in ten Britons report feeling lonely. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-loneliness-epidemic-more-connected-than-ever-but-feeling-more-alone-10143206.html