Have you noticed yourself speak up less on work calls, doubting most decisions you make and feeling increasingly awkward at social get-togethers?
If this sounds all too familiar, you might be in the midst of a pandemic-fuelled confidence crisis. And it’s really no surprise people are feeling this way when you consider what we’ve all been through.
“The pandemic has shrunken the size of our comfort zones,” psychologist and author Anna Mathur tells HuffPost UK. “We have gone from living our lives in numerous contexts – the workplace, the home, our high streets, the homes of our friends and families – to living from one place.”
For many of us, working from home has morphed into living at work. We’ve felt the boundaries between the two blur until we’re opening laptops from our beds, eating dinner at our desks, and our sofas are no longer a place we go to rest, but more of a pop-up office. We’ve not hung out in person with many of our friends and colleagues for, well, ages, instead learning to adapt to all sorts of virtual social cues. Oh, and hugs have been totally off the menu.
Body image concerns have also taken root as we’ve scrutinised our faces day in day out on video calls. Psychologists have noted that repeatedly confronting our image has encouraged negative comparison. Women in particular have been impacted – a UK study on body image during the pandemic found women were more likely than men to report increasing struggles with regulating eating, preoccupation with food and worsening body image.
All of this change affects the way we think and feel – and the way we act. “Think about a healthy muscle. If you limit its movement with a cast or a brace, over time, it will shift to accommodate the new level – or reduction – of capacity required from it,” says Mathur, whose new book, Know Your Worth, tackles how to build self-esteem and confidence.
“It’s the same with us as humans. We are creatures of habit and we naturally find transition challenging.”
Signs your confidence has dwindled
Our comfort zone has shifted and we’re seriously out of practice in all things ‘life’, so is it any wonder some of us are facing a crisis of confidence right now?
One of the signs that yours has taken a knock is feeling anxious about social engagements and nervous about getting back out into the world. “You might find yourself approaching things with more trepidation than you may have before,” says Mathur. “That is because your comfort zone has shifted, and nudging it out that little bit further is going to provoke the feelings of apprehension that so often come with change and uncertainty.”
You may be avoiding trying new things or doing things you find challenging. While in the short-term this might make you feel safe and comforted, in the long-term it can reinforce your doubts and fears, turning you into a serial avoider. You stop going to gatherings, shy away from contributing in work meetings, and basically close up.
You might fear that your relationships have changed after a year apart, or find yourself worried about things you didn’t worry about before. Perhaps you find yourself overly preoccupied with what you’re saying, what you’re doing with your body, or how you’re being perceived, Mathur continues.
“Maybe you feel a desire to retreat back behind the safe walls of your home, or to avoid responding to invitations to meet up,” she says. “You may experience an increased amount of self-questioning or self-criticism as you navigate the shift in being able to be outside more than inside.”
All of these are “completely normal” human responses to the circumstances, Mathur notes. But it’s important to start tackling them head on. Living with low self-esteem isn’t great for your mental health, the NHS notes, and can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as unhelpful coping mechanisms.
So what can you do about it?
1. Allow yourself to pause
First up, says Anna Mathur, don’t be afraid to stop and take a breather before accepting invitations to socialise. “Delay your reply for a few hours by saying something like ‘let me check my diary’,” she advises. “This gives you the opportunity to consider the wider picture of your week and commitments. Whilst you may be free and able to attend, you might want to keep that space free to allow yourself to wind down and reground amidst a busy week.”
News flash: you can also say “no”. This can be really freeing if you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything. People with low self-esteem can often feel they have to say “yes” to others, which can lead to them becoming overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed.
You won’t be offending anyone if you do say RSVP “no” (as long as you do so kindly) – these next few weeks and months are all about taking baby steps.
2. Think positively about yourself
Self-doubt can be crippling and when you get into a negative spiral of thinking that you’re not good enough at your job, your ideas are rubbish, or people don’t enjoy your company, it can very quickly go downhill. If this resonates, the NHS advises a helpful tactic which is all about positive thinking.
This involves identifying the negative beliefs you have about yourself and then challenging them. So, if you have a negative thought, write it down and ask yourself when you first started to think it. Now, start to write some evidence that challenges that negative belief and – while you’re at it – jot down other positive remarks about yourself that either you think about yourself or others have said about you.
“Aim to have at least five positive things on your list and add to it regularly,” advises the NHS. “Then put your list somewhere you can see it.”
Spending a lot of time on your computer? Generate a ‘win’ folder and fill it with all the things you’ve done this past year that you’re proud of. When you feel your confidence start to slip, open that folder and prepare to remember how utterly badass and wonderful you are.
3. See the next few months as recovery time
If you’re struggling with confidence you’re not going to just bounce back into ‘normal’ life – whatever that even means. Mathur advises people to see the near future stage as a period of recovery, rehabilitation and easing back into life.
“Change is best approached over time, not overnight, and ripping off the social band aid and expecting yourself to leap in as confidently as before isn’t the gentle approach you may really need,” she says.
The same can be applied to work. If you’re still doing lots of meetings from home, think about incremental steps you can take to pitch in more so that if and when you do head back to the office IRL, you’re not totally overwhelmed when someone invites you to speak in a meeting. You might find it useful to look at other people who act assertively in meetings and borrow some approaches.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others
When you’re facing a crisis of confidence, comparison is absolutely not your friend. “Be careful not to compare how you are feeling and coping with how you perceive others to be feeling and coping,” says Mathur.
Remember: we all have different coping mechanisms, resources, support networks, experiences and tactics, and nobody will have come through the pandemic unchanged. Even those who appear to be bossing it socially or in meetings might be feeling fragile on the inside.
“When we compare our experiences with those of others, we are often seeking validation for how we feel,” she says. “Try and validate your own experiences for yourself, and speak to friends who’ve historically been kind and supportive. Note how you’re feeling, and follow it with ‘and that’s okay’.”
5. Be grateful, but don’t invalidate your feelings
Mathur says she has noticed a lot of emotional “invalidating” going on over the course of the past year. You might’ve uttered these words yourself: “I’m feeling so overwhelmed, but I must be grateful, because X has it so much harder.”
She wants to remind people that gratitude and overwhelm can sit beside one another with neither one devaluing the other. You can feel totally overwhelmed and be grateful for your health.
“Use gratitude to bring balance into your experience and feelings, but don’t use it to shame yourself for feeling very valid emotions,” she suggests. Being kind to yourself – and acknowledging your feelings are valid – are so important.
6. Set yourself a new challenge
Yes, ok, this past year has been one big challenge, but it might be time to set yourself a small manageable one that you can really sink your teeth into and feel good about once you’ve scrubbed it off your to-do list. Set yourself a goal: this could be as simple as joining the gym or going to a social occasion. Being able to say you did it will really help to boost your self-esteem.
7. Breathe, deeply
If you do find yourself feeling anxious or overthinking as lockdown eases and life returns to some semblance of normal, use a simple breathing technique to calm your body. “Inhale deeply for four, and then exhale slowly and steadily through your mouth to the count of six,” advises Mathur. “This settles your nervous system and enables you to access your rational brain.”
Likewise, if you’re stuck in work meeting and overthinking, count backwards from one hundred in threes to halt the cycle, she adds.
“If you are struggling in any way, you are deserving of support and help. Speak with your health care provider or doctor to discover the options available for you. Where there is help, there is hope.”
Know Your Worth: How to build your self-esteem, grow in confidence and worry less about what people think by Anna Mathur is published by Piatkus (£14.99).