Dear Thelma, 

I am a slow learner and I have difficulty in handling certain chores. My parents often yell at me for not using common sense even though I am trying to do my best. This really tears me apart. I am often plagued by doubts.

When I was in university, I suffered low self-esteem and lacked confidence. People saw me as an easy target for bullying. This caused me to struggle even more with self-confidence.

When I was working part-time, I tried to act confident and cope as best as I could. Yet, I was often criticised. I began to think I was really not as capable as the other staff members.

I have been like this for many years and I am at my wit’s end. I would really appreciate your advice. – Defeated


Dear Defeated,

There is a saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unfortunately, this is rarely true as it is the hurtful words that people use which hurt the most.

Teasing, bullying, name calling, using harsh words when scolding – even if it’s meant for the other person’s “own good” – can be very damaging. Like you, many people suffer from low self-esteem and self-doubt as a result. Others become depressed and anxious, often driven by negative thoughts of themselves.

Some develop unrealistic expectations of themselves and become perfectionistic. This, while seemingly good, can be debilitating and often times lead people to become overwhelmed and anxious, resulting in them doing nothing. This results in an unhealthy cycle whereby the person becomes more convinced of their ineptness, thus increasing their need for perfection. Here is an anxiety attack waiting to happen.

Confidence, unfortunately, is not something you can act out. It is something you are, or you are not. Acting confident, therefore, is very different from being confident. Acting confident is a thin veneer for an underlying problem. It encourages defensiveness which results in an arrogant attitude, whereby the person acting confident cannot accept others’ feedback, however true or well intentioned.

The first thing you have to bear in mind is that what you are experiencing now is the result of many years of negativity from others. So it is not something that can be overcome in a short time. Also, it is not something that can be overcome by mere “positive thinking”. Believing that you are worth it and good has its value. But just telling yourself that is not going to be enough to help.

For one, you have to start looking at your positive points. You must take into consideration all that you are capable of and all that you have achieved in your life thus far.

You say you are a slow learner. Yet, you have managed to attend university. This is no small feat! How many unappreciated successes like this do you have in your life?

In people’s eagerness to be humble, we forget to stop and pat ourselves on the back when we do well. In our modesty, we play down our successes. There is a benefit to this, of course. Unchecked, too much back patting can lead one to become a little narcissistic. So it is important to strike a balance. Appreciating yourself and the good work you have done must be tempered with trying to understand how you can improve yourself in the future.

Every small success matters. Even a small improvement is an improvement. Take out a notebook and list all the successes – from small to very big – that you have had. Think hard. Try and remember from as far back in your life as you can. Make this list an ongoing one and jot down every success you have from now on.

Appreciate what you have. Gratitude is a very important trait to cultivate. Oftentimes, we feel down in the dumps because we are so focused on all that we don’t have. Spend a few minutes a day identifying and appreciating the things you have and are grateful for. These “things” are not limited to the material. Good health and abundance of food is something many people overlook.

Start appreciating the feedback that people give you. Do not see this as criticism. Instead, view these observations by others as a means for you to improve yourself. When people “criticise” you, ask them how you can make things better next time. Listen to what they are saying. Do not become defensive. Also, do not make excuses. You only know a certain aspect of yourself. They see a different one. View this as an opportunity to understand how they view you. It is an opportunity for self-improvement.

Adopt a more positive outlook. This does not mean one has to ignore the bad things that happen. It means accepting that the bad comes with the good. Accept that bad things happen to everyone. It is not about how bad it is that matters. It is about moving on and continuing despite these bad things. It is about understanding that bad things are not going to hold you back. Bad things make one stronger. It builds resilience. It helps us develop new skills and discover strengths we never knew we had.

This is not easy to do. We all need help at different points in our lives for different things. You may need help from a mental health professional. You may seek the services of a counsellor or a clinical psychologist. These can be found in the private sector, or in large government hospitals.

There is no shame in seeking help from a mental health professional. Just because you are seeing a counsellor or clinical psychologist does not mean you have a mental illness. A mental health professional is trained to help you deal with damaging negative thoughts and self-doubt. It helps provide new perspectives and enables us to develop an understanding of ourselves. It also helps us to grow and develop as a person. – Thelma


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