Ah, January. Traditionally the time of ‘new year, new you!’ headlines, diet books and extreme exercise plans. But I think I speak for all of us when I say: no, not this January. After the year we’ve had, nobody should be considering self-inflicted deprivation or a punishing regime right now. Having said that, many of us are finding our self-esteem at an all-time low. We’re seeing a lot of our own faces on endless video calls, which can lead to obsessing over perceived flaws (known as ‘zoom face’), and lockdown comfort eating has proved the ‘corona stone’ is real.
If your less-healthy habits are taking over, know that you are not alone. ‘Many of us have a toolkit of strategies for things like stress, boredom and anxiety,’ explains Shahroo Izadi, author of The Last Diet. ‘If your toolkit usually includes going to the gym near work and connecting with colleagues, as well as wine and junk food, it’s understandable that the most accessible strategies would be on heavier rotation right now.’
But it becomes a vicious circle because, the less confident you feel, the less inclined you are to make healthy choices. Dr Rangan Chatterjee, whose new book Feel Great Lose Weight is out this month, says we need to flip it around and think about how to make ourselves feel good. ‘If we focus on the number on the scales, we miss the big picture,’ he says. ‘I want people to have a better understanding of themselves so that they can make changes to improve their self-esteem.’ Right, so, where to start?
Research has found that 45% of us eat more in response to stress. Add those of us who overeat in response to boredom, anxiety and loneliness, and that’s most of us our lockdown feelings covered. This is why traditional diets simply don’t work. ‘Do people need to be told that eating chocolate on the sofa while watching Netflix every night is not going to help them? No. It’s condescending,’ says Rangan Chatterjee. ‘For most of our evolution we’ve eaten to fill a hole in our stomachs. Now, we eat to fill a hole in our hearts.’ He suggests bringing awareness to your eating and working out what the feeling is behind it. Once you know: ‘I want to eat chocolate because I’m stressed,’ then you can predict that will happen again, and have a plan of action. It might be a walk around the block, a bath, calling a friend, or even a kitchen disco. ‘If you turn up the Spice Girls and dance for 10 minutes, you might not feel the need for chocolate because you’ve burned off that stress,’ says Rangan.
Shahroo Izadi agrees that, rather than focusing on weight, we should be challenging the unwanted behaviours that detrimentally affect our overall wellbeing. ‘What kind things do you intend to do for yourself once you’ve lost weight?’ she asks. ‘Start practicing them now. This reminds us that we are worthy of taking care of ourselves regardless of our weight.’
Moving much of our lives online has meant a huge spike in screen time, whether that’s examining your roots during a video call, or comparing your lockdown life to the person on Instagram with crafting skills and a kitchen island. ‘Perfectionist presentation is this idea that we present our best picture online,’ says Rangan. ‘We’re comparing the face that we see on Zoom every day to people’s best versions of themselves. Our subconscious doesn’t know the difference.’ The answer, again, is awareness. ‘Think about why you’re doing it,’ says Rangan. ‘If you get off your work laptop and straight onto your phone and, three hours later, you’re feeling bad about yourself on Instagram, ask yourself why. Were you bored, frustrated, tired, or did you not get outside that day? It all plays in together.’
As many of us struggled to acclimatise to working from home, one of the biggest challenges for introverted people has been making themselves visible in a virtual world. First of all, don’t panic. ‘Quietness can be powerful,’ says Annie Ridout, author of Shy: How Being Quiet Can Lead to Success. ‘We can be shy and quiet but also confident. Because confidence isn’t just about walking into a room and being able to talk loudly in front of a group of people. Confidence can also mean believing that you’re good at your job, or feeling that you’re succeeding in certain parts of your life.’
Chloe Brotheridge, author of The Confidence Solution, agrees. ‘Self-esteem has to do with our belief in ourselves,’ she says. ‘But, when our world gets smaller, we have fewer chances to challenge ourselves and remind ourselves of our abilities. Self-esteem can also be linked to our belief that we’re worthy and good enough. If you’ve suffered a career setback, such as redundancy, this can take a hit too.’ She suggests finding new ways to challenge yourself, and even the smallest effort will pay off: ‘It could be attending an online workshop or simply getting outside and walking somewhere new. My aim is to keep expanding, even if it seems as though my world is shrinking.’
Having said that, don’t try to be someone you’re not. Who cares if you’re not the chattiest person in the virtual meeting room? ‘Shyness makes you more observant and empathic, and can give you an inner determination,’ says Annie. ‘If you’re shy, embrace it. There’s an attractive mysteriousness around shy people.’
This much-maligned phrase has been used to flog everything from candles to tea, but taking care of yourself is vital for self-esteem, because you’re letting your body know that you’re worth taking care of. First, Chloe Brotheridge advises you to set some boundaries. ‘That might mean telling your manager that, even though you’re WFH, you’re not checking emails after 7pm,’ says Chloe. ‘Boundaries help to protect your energy and stop you from feeling resentful.’ Of course, this is not always easy, but make the choice that your emotional wellbeing is worth it. One tip we’ve heard a million times is to speak to ourselves as we would a friend. ‘I’ve found that we need this reminder again and again,’ laughs Chloe. ‘If you’re struggling, imagine what you would say to a friend in your position. Being kind to yourself cushions you against setbacks, and gives you resilience to move forwards with confidence.’
Another simple thing that can make a big difference is dressing comfortably. ‘My main value in life is comfort,’ admits Annie Ridout. ‘I’ve found that, when I wear comfortable clothes, I exude confidence. Dressing comfortably means you won’t be fiddling with a too-tight waistband or buckle digging in and, instead, can focus on the conversation. And comfortable doesn’t have to mean boring. It can be colourful and patterned, but still feel good to wear.’
Research has now disproved the outdated idea of ‘calories in vs calories out’, which had millions slogging away on treadmills hoping to burn off fat. In fact, if you force yourself to do exercise that you hate, then your stress response can actually mean that your body holds on to fat. But if you think that means there’s no point doing any exercise, hold up: ‘Movement is vital because of how it makes you feel,’ says Rangan. ‘It boosts your self-esteem. I want people to move to feel good about themselves, not to burn off calories.’ The trick is to find something you actually enjoy. It might be yoga, dancing or maybe you genuinely love getting a HIIT sweat on. Whatever it is, make sure that it feels right for you. If you still don’t feel you have the time or energy, Rangan recommends making it as easy as possible: ‘Try keeping a dumbbell in the kitchen so, while the kettle’s boiling, you can just lift it a few times. You’ll feel better about yourself,’ he promises. ‘Do it for your mental health.’
We know sleep is important, but how many of us prioritised it in 2020? ‘Not only did anxiety soar in this pandemic, but sleep dropped right down,’ says Rangan. ‘People are worried, they’re scrolling news late at night. But, when we’ve slept well, not only are we less likely to crave sugary foods, we’re also more resilient and capable of making healthier choices.’ So decide on your bedtime, switch off screens an hour before, and make sleep a priority.
Building healthier habits into your new normal is not only doable, it can actually be enjoyable. At this time of year, there is ‘too much talk of deprivation, punishment and restriction. Let’s change the narrative,’ says Rangan. ‘Let’s make it about enjoyment, self-esteem and kindness.’ If the only new year’s resolution you make is to do more of what you enjoy, that sounds absolutely perfect to me.
Take Note Of Our Smart Self-Esteem Strategies Below…
- BE YOUR OWN CHEERLEADER says Shahroo Izadi: ‘Spend 10 minutes listing all the things you’ve managed to do that demonstrate how capable you are. List successes, difficult things you’ve got through and things you’re proud of. Keep it on your desk so you can look at it for a boost.’
- CREATE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION says Annie Ridout: ‘When I feel uncomfortable in my body, I focus first on the fact that I’m still healthy, and then, how I’d like to feel. Create an affirmation around it, like: ‘I am calm, confident, happy and healthy’, then set it as an alert on your phone to go off five times a day.’
- FORGE MEANINGFUL CONNECTIONS says Chloe Brotheridge: ‘Reach out to five friends or family members and tell them what it is that you appreciate and admire about them. Then ask them to do the same for you. I get that this feels cringe, but both you and your friends will get a serious confidence boost.’
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