Why I need to improve my mental health
Last year was rough. Don’t get me wrong: there were no great tragedies. I did, however, come very close to having a breakdown. My fragile mental state crept up on me throughout the year as I suffered a series of small mental injuries, most of which were work-related. Things came to a head in November when I crashed and burned at an interview for a prestigious job. I managed to limp through the remainder of the year welcoming an uncharacteristically long (for me) Christmas break.
Over the festive break, Steve and I sat down to write our goals. Although we came up with several exciting and challenging goals, I could not generate my usual enthusiasm. It became clear to me that I had one overriding goal for the year to come: to develop better mental health. I have had intermittent mental health issues since my early 20s, suffering from bouts of health anxiety and depression. I have finally come to the realisation that these problems are going to get more persistent and frequent unless I tackle them head on. With this in mind, I am going to make some changes, and am developing an action plan for my mental wellbeing over the next 12 months.
Draft action plan (subject to change!)
First, I am putting some small day-to-day changes in place including:
- Restricting my working week to 40 hours (something I haven’t done for over 10 years!)
- Taking a break to move around every hour (to prevent stiff legs and back, and the general malaise that comes from sitting for hours on end)
- Meditating every morning (to set the tone for the day)
- Saying no to work more often (or at least giving myself time to think about it before saying yes)
- Making sure I do vigorous exercise 4 times per week (to burn off any stress and boost my confidence).
- To listen more to other people (to reduce self-absorption in my own problems)
- Be kinder to self (especially when work doesn’t go as planned)
Second, I am going to develop a targeted program to improve key areas of my mental health, such as:
- Stress management
- Health Anxiety
To achieve this, I will follow defined exercises using online resources and popular self-development books. I will be posting details of my journey over the following weeks, so please feel free to check in regularly on my progress.
Step 1: Tackling my Low Self-Esteem
I am pretty sure that the roots of my mental health problems lie in low self-esteem which is a significant predictor of depression and anxiety.1 High self-esteem, on the other hand, positively affects several important life outcomes, including relationships, job satisfaction and health.2 Therefore, it is crucially important to foster high self-esteem. Consequently, I am going to tackle my low levels of self-esteem as a first step to improving my mental health. I have read many self-help books in the past and have chosen to follow the guidance in Nathaniel Branden’s classic book: Six Pillars of Self Esteem 3 This book provides a comprehensive explanation of what self-esteem is and why it is important. It also presents a series of sentence-completion exercises you can do each day to foster your own self-esteem.
What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is a complex phenomenon. Like most psychological concepts, it has a range of definitions which vary according to theoretical perspective. As early as 1890 the great William James emphasised the individual processes underpinning self-esteem. Goffman (1959), in contrast, stressed the importance of social influences on the development of self-esteem. More recent theories highlight the affective (i.e. emotional) component of self-esteem. From this viewpoint, high self-esteem ‘expresses the feeling that one is good enough.’ 4
According to Nathaniel Branden, self-esteem comprises two key elements:
- Self-efficacy: A belief in your ability to cope with life’s challenges.
- Self-respect: A belief that you are deserving of happiness, achievement, and love.
The act of building self-esteem is not quick and easy. It requires a commitment to following important internal practices, referred to in the book as the: Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:
- Living consciously
- Living purposefully
- Living with personal integrity
My aim over the next few months is to develop each of these key pillars.
Sentence Completion Exercises to Develop the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
The sentence completion exercises are a technique Branden developed to facilitate self-understanding and personal growth. You start with a ‘sentence stem’ and keep adding endings (between six and ten) to grammatically complete the sentence. For example:
“Living consciously to me means…”
…..being aware of my automatic thoughts.
…..being grateful for all I have, etc.
“If I brought 5% more awareness to my daily activities…”
…..I would enjoy things more.
…..I would be less wrapped up in my thoughts, etc.
Every week you take a block of four to six stems (relating to one of the 6 pillars). You complete these stems in the morning (before work) and at the end of your day (before dinner). Over the weekend you review your endings for the previous week. You complete these endings as quickly as possible without pausing for reflection; this is key if you are to avoid internal censorship (for example, rules and ideas you have adopted from your parents). The daily exercise of sentence completion may be viewed as a psychological exercise or spiritual practice. Over time it can facilitate insight, integration, and spontaneous behaviour change.
The First Pillar of Self-Esteem: Living Consciously
Living consciously involves paying attention to information and feedback about needs and goals, facing uncomfortable and threatening facts, or as Branden terms it: ‘refusing to wander through life in a self-induced fog.’
I have been doing the sentence completion exercises (for living more consciously) for two weeks now, and am starting to get the hang of it. I can honestly say I have noticed a change in how I think and feel: I am questioning my thoughts more. There have also been some small changes in how I behave (e.g. working shorter hours, committing to less work) – though it is too soon to say whether this will have lasting impact on my self-esteem. At this point I am still experiencing a fair bit of anxiety; I think I am possibly trying too hard to change quickly. The key part of this process will be maintaining the motivation to carry out the practice every day. It isn’t a lot to ask really – just 10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the evening. I am sure the rewards will far outweigh this investment.
1 Sowislo, J.F., & Orth, U. (2013). Does Low Self-Esteem Predict Depression and Anxiety? A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 1, 213-240.
2 Orth, U et al. (2012). Life-Span Development of Self-Esteem and Its Effects on Important Life Outcomes, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 6, 1271-1288.
3 Branden, N. (1994). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. US & Canada: Bantam Books.
4 Rosenberg, M. (1989). Society and adolescent self-image (rev. ed). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.