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By Elisa Cottarelli | Team MM

Mini challenge for you: tomorrow, go through your day and make a mental note of every time you think something negative about yourself. 

Most importantly, this isn’t about taking note of any big mental breakdowns but of noticing all the little times your brain whispers something negative. That passing, “Oh I’m so stupid” thought when you accidentally leave the soup on the hob for a bit too long, or that seemingly harmless, “My skin looks horribly dry today” when you look in the mirror in the morning are the exact kind of thoughts that you should watch out for. 

While this challenge is a particularly tough one, it’s so important to realise how many times in a day you criticise yourself. As we’ve discussed before, low self-esteem is a symptom of the menopause, but it doesn’t always present itself in the most obvious ways. It’s not always about spending a night in misery, overwhelmed by self-hate, thinking you’re the worst, the ugliest, or the least likeable. Of course, those nights can happen, but the subtler, less noticeable negative self-talk is the real killer. Without realising it, you might spend most of your time telling yourself you’ve messed up, that you’re flawed, that you aren’t worth much, and eventually, those thoughts will build up and they’ll become engrained beliefs that can seriously stop you from being happy, from doing what you love and from getting what you want.

The menopause will make you more vulnerable to low self-esteem, but your negative thoughts may originate from somewhere else.

Self-esteem isn’t improved by your environment, your friends, your partner, or your family. Yes, you can be proud of the friends you have, the household you’ve built, the love you have, the work you’ve done. But often, you can have all these amazing achievements and things to be proud of and still not feel happy with yourself. That’s because the way to fix self-esteem comes from within. Does that sound extremely cliché? Absolutely. But is it practical and achievable? Yes, yes, yes.

Again, the first step is to simply take note of your negative self-talk. It’s a tricky habit to get into, but the more you do it, the easier it’ll become. Even better, write it down. How many times have you called yourself awkward, stupid, ugly, flaky, or irresponsible today? This is important, because the next step is to analyse these thoughts to really understand the root cause. The menopause will make you more vulnerable to low self-esteem, but your negative thoughts may originate from somewhere else.

For example, you may realise that actually, you’re quite positive about yourself when it comes to your job. You might realise that in a normal day, you’ll often give yourself a pat on the back for that project you’re working on, or the deal you just closed. But you’ll beat yourself up about how last weekend, you cancelled plans with your friend, and how awkward you were making small talk with your colleague in the lift Or, you might be able to create a long list of things you like about yourself, but have a hard time believing anybody else can see those positive qualities. Having low self-esteem doesn’t mean you hate everything about yourself, or that you spend every minute feeling low. When you take a moment to identify what parts about your life you feel most inadequate (for example, your looks, how you socialise, how strangers see you, what the people close to you think about you, what kind of worker you are, what your morals are, etc.), you can better understand why you think these negative thoughts.

We can easily label ourselves a certain way because we overemphasise our bad habits or mistakes.

After figuring out what aspects about yourself you have particularly low self-esteem about, you need to reflect on why that is the case. Often times, negative thoughts come from a particular set of beliefs that are either fostered by society, by our culture, or by our parents when we were children. In other words, negative self-talk is often a result of not being or behaving in the way that we think we should. For example, if you constantly tell yourself that you’re “so awkward” with acquaintances or co-workers, understand that maybe it’s because you have a belief that attractive, likeable women should be witty and charming on command. As a result, that awkward small talk can make you feel like you’re flawed because you’re not living up to this image of what an attractive or likeable woman looks like. Or maybe you feel quite confident with your social skills, but you hate how long it takes you to finish a work task compared to your colleague, and you remember all the times you sent an email with a typo. Maybe you believe that a good, responsible worker must finish all their tasks ahead of time and have impeccable grammar because your parents raised you to think that a lack of timeliness and attention to detail makes you a failure. Throughout our lives, we’ve been given signals from our childhood, from society, from culture, from media (and more) about how a successful, caring, respectful woman, friend, mother, wife, and employee should be, and often times, if we don’t match up to this ideal, we can feel like we’ve failed somehow.

…the solution isn’t to change these negative thoughts into positive ones, but to neutralise them.

Another common red flag to recognise are exaggerations. We can easily label ourselves a certain way because we overemphasise our bad habits or mistakes. You might think that you’re a bad friend or bad person because you, “always cancel plans last minute.” Society says that good friends are there for their friends, that it’s a good person’s duty to support their friends. But do you really always cancel plans, or have you only cancelled some plans? If you catch yourself thinking that you always do something you think is bad or never do something you think is good, then you’re very likely exaggerating your bad behaviour. 

But here’s the kicker: the solution isn’t to change these negative thoughts into positive ones, but to neutralise them. Let’s be realistic: if you’ve spent years (or even decades) hating your nose and are terribly shy, it’s not a plausible solution to start loving your imperfections and your quietness. Instead, neutralise the thoughts. If you catch yourself thinking “my nose is horrendous, I’m so ugly”, correct yourself to “my nose is bigger than average” and walk away from the negative thought. If it’s a fact that your nose is bigger than the average nose, so be it. But leave it as a fact, don’t add a layer of judgement.

Realise that the negative perception you have about your nose comes from a societal belief that a big nose isn’t beautiful. You don’t need to move mountains to change the societal concept of beauty, and you don’t need to start loving your nose. But you do need to stop telling yourself that you’re ugly. Stick to the facts and leave the judgement out. Or if you find yourself beating yourself up about how quiet you were at your office Christmas party, understand why you think that’s a bad thing and convert the negative talk to neutral talk. You’re not “always so awkward and quiet” – maybe your mother reprimanded you as a child for being too shy and not being welcoming enough when her friends came around for tea, so you believe that shy people are inherently awkward and unlikeable. Neutralise the thought: shyness is not inherently a bad thing and you kindly spoke to a few colleagues tonight before leaving early because you were tired and your feet hurt.

In short, remember these steps:

  1. Monitor your thoughts to catch the subtle negative self-talk
  2. Categorise your thoughts to understand what aspects of your life you feel lowest about 
  3. Analyse how these negatives thoughts are rooted in a belief that you hold about what it means to be a good and likeable woman, wife, mother, friend, or employee
  4. Neutralise your thoughts: you are not always or never something. Your appearance should be fact, not judgment. And finally, you do not actually know what someone else thinks about you.

As a final remark, it’s not wrong to want to be a good and likeable woman, wife, mother, friend or employee. A little bit of negative self-talk is important: if we aren’t doing well in work, if we haven’t been a supportive friend, if we’ve been selfish at home and not made an effort with our partner, there’s a certain amount of negative self-talk that can encourage us to make our relationships, our work, and our life better. Having morals is great, and of course it’s not wrong to strive to be the best version of ourselves. The problem comes in when our concept of an “ideal self” is unrealistic, or if we wrongly mislabel ourselves in someway based on concepts of right and wrong that we don’t even believe in. 

Remove the labels and learn to monitor and change your thoughts. The more you do, the more you can avoid the build-up of negative self-talk

Do you really believe that being too quiet or too loud makes a person insufferable and morally bad? Do you really believe that being a little bit late to work now and then makes a person a bad employee? Do you really believe a person is a bad friend if they cancel on one or two plans? Are these beliefs really your own, or what you’ve been taught by society or childhood? Striving to be better isn’t wrong, but you need to be forgiving and compassionate with yourself, just like you would be with someone you love. Remove the labels and learn to monitor and change your thoughts. The more you do, the more you can avoid the build-up of negative self-talk. Squash the voice in your brain that tells you that you’re inadequate by rejecting these thoughts. Your thoughts may seem like immediate reactions and uncontrollable, but you can learn to address every thought and alter it. Don’t let yourself be brought down and held back by misguided beliefs and being too self-critical.