Self-esteem. Insecurity. Doubt. Just the mention of these words can make us think of a very specific time in our life. Perhaps the teenage years or young adulthood – when how you feel about yourself and your place in the world can be so uncertain. But as time goes on and you settle into your adult life, self-esteem may not seem so important, and it’s not something you may have paid much attention to. In other words, if it’s not great, it’s at least good enough.
It’s also not something you hear spoken about in grief. And yet significant loss can completely drain and deplete any self-esteem you may have, making it feel impossible to move forward in a healthy or purposeful way.
So why does confidence take such a hit after loss, and how do we begin to improve this invisible symptom of grief?
Before we talk about why it’s so common to lose self-esteem in grief, perhaps it’s a good idea to explore why it’s important, and how it serves us in life.
Most of us think of self-esteem as just a set of (hopefully) good feelings that we have about ourselves. It can be confidence in a skill, talent, career, or perhaps the role we play in the lives of the people around us. We know that self-esteem should probably come from within. But it’s most likely to be raised by compliments from others, or lowered if we think someone doubts our character or abilities. It could be tempting to write off self-esteem as no more than shallow window-dressing, but the truth is it serves a much greater purpose than that.
Self-esteem is a motivator.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are quite regularly monitoring our own self-worth. Whatever conclusion we come to is going to determine the actions and steps we take. Before we embark on a task we’re deciding, can I do it? Will I succeed? Will it turn out okay? The less confident we feel, the less motivated we become.
So where does self-esteem come in and how does grief take it away?
Signs & Symptoms of Grief
For starters, let’s talk about the symptoms of grief. Loss of focus. Feeling exhausted. Feeling scattered. There’s so many changes that can happen after we’ve had a loss. When we add them all up we can be left thinking, “what happened to me? I used to have it so together”. While I talk about the individual signs and symptoms of grief quite a bit, it is the accumulation of these changes that leads to such a deep and significant dip in self-esteem. After all, we’re talking about a loss of almost every good adjective we would have used to describe ourselves in the past. Organized, motivated, optimistic. Our resume of emotional health may not seem to have a lot to offer anymore and a sudden dip in confidence can be attributed directly to it.
Who We Lost
This one may be easier to see. First, let’s think about the loss of our parents. The people who loved us unconditionally. Or the spouse or partner who had a way of making everything feel okay. Who loved us physically, intellectually, and provided a safe and intimate sense of security. Who am I without these people to tell me I’m good? Or beautiful? Or smart? Did I ever really believe it in the first place or did I just like the way I looked when reflected in their eyes? The level of confidence our loved ones may provide us isn’t something we necessarily recognize as acutely when they’re here. But there’s no doubt it’s something that we can feel the sharp and painful absence of when they’re not.
Most of our routine gets thrown off balance in the wake of loss, but the simple act of eating brings with it unseen complications. In loss a lot of grievers find they struggle to eat anything of substance. After all, they’ll say, “It’s just me”. Recently a widow I spoke with put it a little differently. “I just feel that I’m not really worth it”. I can’t tell you how much this statement surprised me. In the most matter-of-fact way, she simply stated that she just didn’t see the point. Cooking and eating well was worth it when her husband was alive. But now that it was “just” her, eating wasn’t a priority. She didn’t feel that she, or the actions it would take to nourish herself, were worth it.
EVERYTHING feels like a decision after loss, and often we’ve lost the person who helped us make them. Add to that the fact that we are feeling forgetful and scattered in grief. Can I really trust myself to be making the right decision? And what if I’ve made a mistake already like forgetting to pay a bill, or missing an important appointment? Suddenly we don’t trust ourselves the way we used to, and that can create a cycle of fear, indecision, and uncertainty that sends our confidence spiraling even further.
So how do we break the cycle of low self-esteem and insecurity in grief?
First (and this is my answer for a lot of things if I’m being honest) – by recognizing it. Recognize that on the very long list of things that have been lessened, depleted or stolen in grief, self-esteem needs to be added. And not only does it need to be recognized for the hit it’s taken, we need to realize that it’s worth bringing back. As I mentioned before, I am often educating people on the signs & symptoms of acute grief as I strongly believe it’s the validation that helps. To know that you’re not crazy. That you’re not alone. Your thoughts, feelings, and responses to this grief are “normal”, common, and to be expected.
Expectations count for a lot.
When expectations are too high, we get impatient, frustrated, and restless. When they’re too low, we feel hopeless, helpless and useless. It’s a terrible cycle to find yourself in and it will only cause self-esteem to be negatively impacted further.
Understanding and validating the experience of grief allows us to manage our expectations better. While the losses we face are permanent, the changes we see in ourselves don’t have to be.
Take a step back and re-enter this grief, ready to define the way you see yourself in a whole new way.
Grief is exhausting. There is so much mental energy used to process loss and a griever can become immobilized by it. We can accomplish so much less than we’re used to, and still feel more tired than ever. Quite simply, you’re not lazy: you’re grieving.
Our memory has one very important requirement in order for it to work well: focus. If we want to remember something, we have to be able to focus and concentrate on it in the first place. Grief, and especially “new” grief takes all of our focus. As one griever once said to me, “focus isn’t my problem. The problem is I can ONLY focus on the person I lost”. That’s going to make it hard to be paying attention to (and therefore committing to memory) anything else.
Feeling like you’ve slipped in another important role in your life?
Let’s say you’ve lost your spouse, and no longer feel that you’re able to be the parent you want to be. Or someone who has lost a parent, who is struggling to be upbeat, or engaged with your spouse or kids. Or anyone who has a job or family or friends who has had a loss and feels they have nothing left to give to the work, life, and people who are still here. I really could go on and on. There’s just too many changes and we’re just too hard on ourselves to realize that we are expecting to be everything to everyone… even when everything has changed.
In the end, it’s not about excuses, it’s about forgiveness and altering our expectations of how we should be feeling, or how soon we should be getting better.
Raising self-esteem in grief can be as “simple” as being able to validate that GRIEF IS HARD.
We’ve never done this before, there’s no manual to get through it, and every day we’re trying to do just that: get through it. I often say that in grief, we are operating in crisis mode. And the rules are very different in crisis. For example – if someone is ever critically injured and brought to the emergency room, the nurses and doctors may use scissors to cut through their clothing to try and save them. No one cares about a piece of clothing in the middle of crisis. Getting this person better is the only thing that matters in that moment. But if we go to the doctor for our regular check up, we would be stunned and outraged if they pulled out a pair of scissors to cut through our shirt!
Our expectations for “normal” life are very different then they are in times of high stress and trauma. And I think every griever can agree that nothing feels normal after loss. Our expectations need to change to reflect that.
The rules of crisis are very different.
Allowing yourself to understand that should also help you know that the expectations should be different too. What we have to do to get through, get by and survive, especially in early grief – should not be an indication of who we are right now and it certainly doesn’t have to define us in the long term.
Be gentle to yourself. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the small victories (like mowing the lawn for the first time or cooking a meal) by realizing that they’re not small at all. Congratulate yourself for every single thing you accomplish in grief, and forgive the times when you feel you’re not accomplishing enough.
The hope is to eventually string enough victories and good feelings together to restore and rebuild your spirit. And hopefully along with it…your self-esteem.
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