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Feeling ​insecure about returning to social life? Here are some expert tips

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Mandatory lockdowns, remote work and learning, and limited in-person social interactions have resulted in an increase in self-esteem issues over the course of the pandemic, psychologists say.

Time spent alone has increased the opportunity for self-critical thinking, which lowers self-esteem and confidence. But psychologists say that there are ways to develop positive self-esteem in preparation for the return to "normal" social life.

“People have just had more time to ruminate,” Dr. Amber Cohen, a registered clinical psychologist and director at the Cohen Clinic in Toronto, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Monday​. “If you have had some issue within COVID or if you were already struggling with self-esteem prior to COVID, there is just a lot more time to be in those thoughts and have it impact you in a negative way.”

Low self-esteem and low confidence play a crucial role in the development of other mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Research has found that increasing self-esteem can improve other aspects of mental health, and that high self-esteem leads to better social and personal relationships, helps people achieve their goals and aspirations, and even helps people cope with diseases like cancer or heart disease.

Cohen says that while time spent alone during the pandemic can seem beneficial to people who are already experiencing low self-esteem, the benefits of isolation are often artificial and temporary, and prevent people from properly managing their thoughts.

“I think for a lot of people who were already struggling in that realm, it’s actually kind of been artificially positive because for people who are already struggling with self-esteem and confidence, it allows them to avoid the triggers or people that raised some of those thoughts and feelings for them,” said Cohen.

“A lot of people actually felt relief from not being around others or not being in the workplace or whatever it was. It’s kind of artificial because it just allows you to avoid those feelings versus really managing them.”

Cohen says that shifts in schedules, work routines and basic life can leave people feeling like they’ve lost their sense of identity, which lowers self-esteem and confidence.

Comparative thinking, dissatisfaction with your current position and a desire to change, are all aspects of low self-esteem that have been made worse by the pandemic, according to Cohen.

However, Cohen says that there are ways people can increase their self-esteem and ensure that they feel confident and comfortable when the time comes to return to in-person work, school and social life.

For people who feel insecure about re-entering social settings, Cohen suggests taking gradual steps to make yourself feel more comfortable.

“You can start small,” says Cohen. “You don’t have to jump into the deep end. You can pick one person that you feel safe with and do an activity that feels achievable and once you have that success you can build from there, so you could move to a smaller group of friends from there, or whatever it is.”

Cohen says increasing self-esteem comes from paying attention to negative thoughts and working to change them.

“Have awareness,” ​said Cohen. “Mindfully noticing when those thoughts come up instead of just getting taken with them. You could label them for yourself, just noticing that those are those self-critical thoughts.”

Building awareness of why negative thoughts are developing and working to determine where self-critical thinking and behaviour comes from can help better manage harmful thinking.

Developing awareness also allows you to identify and work on negative thoughts in a way that is more accepting and kind, as opposed to critical, Cohen says.

“Then the next general rule is to say something out loud and if you wouldn’t say it to another person, if it sounds pretty bad, then you probably shouldn’t say it to yourself,” said Cohen.

Cohen also suggests focusing on who you are in the moment, rather than thinking about who you want to be.

“A lot of times we get into the mindset that once we change this about ourselves or once I do this or once I get this job or once I get this partner, then I’ll be happy with myself,” said Cohen. “But really what we want to do is just work on accepting ourselves for where we are, instead of feeling the need to change in order to like yourself.”

Cohen says that it is important to remember that everyone is in the same position and that feelings of anxiety, stress and low self-esteem can be overcome.

“I think one thing to remember is that a lot of people are feeling this way,” says Cohen. “Being social involves a little bit of skill and I think a lot of people are feeling a bit rusty. So just a reminder that you are going to need to grease the wheels and become more comfortable and that this is a transition period and this too shall pass.”

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