Clients won’t always come out and say that they don’t like themselves in session. But they often give us clues. Your client may hint at low confidence in her abilities (an inner voice harshly questioning them or judging them), worry about being liked by others (basing these assumptions on her own low thoughts or opinions of not being good enough), or being really hard on herself or discouraged if she doesn’t do something well (an inner voice that lists the reasons why she isn’t good enough). These cognitive distortions are an indication that it would benefit your client to help strengthen her relationship with herself so that she can start seeing herself in a more positive light.
Other signs might be when our clients tell us that they don’t like being alone, or that they have trouble falling asleep at night. They may say that they are only happy when they are busy and have things to do. Many clients struggle with being alone or falling asleep at night because they no longer have a distraction from the inner voice that tells them all the reasons why they aren’t good enough. This can explain why many people are only happy when they are busy or engaged.
Sometimes low confidence shows up as a gaming addiction (or another addiction) as a way to stay busy enough to drown out that inner voice. Sometimes it is even over-performance in school or sports as a crutch upon which to base their self-worth to counter a negative inner voice (I am only good enough if…). While protocols like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help redirect some of these symptoms (finding more realistic, positive replacement thoughts, challenging cognitive distortions, etc.), it can be beneficial to talk directly about your client’s relationship with herself.
This conversation can take your counseling session to a deeper level, and can help your client address the problem at its roots rather than just treating the symptoms of avoiding the inner voice. It’s important to investigate with the client what her inner voice sounds like (how she feels about herself), and where the criticisms might be coming from. Talking through the inner voice with your client can empower her to challenge the critical inner voice’s messages and shift her relationship with herself to be more positive.
Cheryl Bradshaw is the author of How to Like Yourself, a practical guide to help teens overcome feelings of self-criticism, improve self-esteem, and be the true star in their lives.