Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Self-image and self-esteem


Maintaining a healthy self-image

Articles about gaining and maintaining a healthy image and regard for yourself.

Emotional language - happy or sad

How your emotional language causes or relieves stress

Imagine you are a caveperson living in a small group or tribe of 15 to 20 people. There are pests like fleas, and we need to keep our hair from getting too long or tangling. Then we have aches and pains that feel better when someone strokes us. Also, if people in our group or tribe take the time to do this and we feel good, we feel valued, we belong. If we were not included in grooming, it usually meant being sent to the edge of the group. This resulted in less food, less protection, and less attention, and so we were much less likely to survive.

Being groomed could mean the difference between life and death. Our brains release rewarding chemicals to make us want this type of touching more, like the hormone of bonding and romantic love, oxytocin, and also, endorphins and enkephalins.

Now imagine that your group or tribe is growing larger and larger. The average size of a human group is now around 150 people. Even if you live in a large city alongside millions of people you will still likely know about 150 of them, family, friends, colleagues and others. There are not enough hours in the day to physically groom everyone. We need another way to feel bonded and stroked.

It's thought that our complicated language developed as an adaptation to solve this problem. So we verbally groom (as well as using physical touch). Today, instead of the tribe, we rely on our mate, or we pay people to physically groom us, like massage therapists hairdressers, physiotherapists, and even sex workers.

But this complex language has become a double-edged sword. The words we use and the tone of voice we deliver them with can be extremely stressful. It's considered one of our most significant stressors.

Pensive woman thinking hard about something

All my top tips for self-communication

In our parents' and grandparents' day, talking to ourselves was considered a 'sign of madness'. As a consequence, we were also taught not to be show-offs or boastful. So the way we spoke to ourselves was, and most often still is, harsh and judgemental (here's more about our inner bully).

This only began to be addressed in the sixties with the advent of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and positive psychology, which taught how vital self-talk was to our emotional wellbeing.

We've learned that it's Important to speak positively to ourselves. This can be a difficult habit to cultivate and takes time. 'Mindful self-awareness' can help, as we monitor our inner conversations and learn to change the words we say to ourselves from negative to positive. There are other things we can do to better communicate with ourselves too, like body language and tone of voice. But first ...

My 10 rules for good communication with yourself and others

Tackling negative core beliefs

Tackling negative core beliefs

How many times do you not only actually say to yourself 'I'm not good enough', but demonstrably show it through shooting yourself in the foot; self-defeating behaviours and attitudes; self-sabotage or whatever else you would like to call it? Every time the cycle goes around, you feel worse about yourself.

Everyone does this just a little, but when it becomes a continuous destructive cycle that drags you down, ruins your life and keeps you away from happiness, it's time to act.

We're talking about the following things and they might seem a bit harsh (usually the kind of things you might complain about in other people), but if you admit any of these are a bit like you, good for you – it's time to start doing something about it:

  • Being overly responsible. "I'm responsible for everything and everyone feeling good and being okay. Oh, and they have to like and approve of me all of the time. Otherwise, it's terrible and awful."
  • Self-blaming and self-judgement. "It's all my fault", "I'm such a klutz", "I can never get it right."
  • Being overly defensive. Here are a few synonyms from Webster's Dictionary for defensive: aggressive, bellicose, belligerent, combative, contentious, in-your-face, militant, pugnacious, quarrelsome, scrappy, truculent, and warlike. Enough said?
  • Blaming. "It's not my fault, they did it. It had nothing to do with me."
  • Being passive/aggressive. Complaining about people to others, sending a snarky email or text and then avoiding the person, or relying on others to help you or stick up for you.

Nurse with a pill

How can I make myself feel better now? It's a question that's been suggested in therapy for eons. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and many other therapies are all variations on a simple recipe.

  • I accept that I feel bad.
  • I accept the feelings that go along with feeling bad.
  • In spite of feeling bad, I can cope.
  • But what can I do to make myself feel better now?

The last step is important. It's the action part of the formula. If we just accept feeling bad and then don't do anything about it, it prolongs our misery and disempowers us. Taking action though, can come in a variety of ways.

For example thinking differently; re-focusing the brain on something else (action and distraction); learning to regulate distress and negative emotions (the six-second breath is good for this); addressing poor relationships; and paying attention to sleep, diet and exercise.

Sometimes though, taking action might be to try something new. A new doctor who seems to understand us better, a new medication, or a new remedy we see on the internet. We want to try it and hope it will help, so we look it up, only to find there is no scientific basis behind the action, the substance or the medication. It's only a placebo, we're told. It doesn't really work, so we don't try it.

But is that true? That we shouldn't try things just because they're thought to be a placebo or science hasn't proven it?