Don’t disempower yourself

There are some people who can be so insensitive, dismissive and even abusive towards others that they have the effect of disempowering them, by which I mean putting them down, taking the wind out of their sails and undermining their confidence. This is bad enough, but what I have also noticed over the years is that there are just as many people – if not more – who do that to themselves. And that is what I mean by ‘self-disempowerment’. There appears to be no shortage of people who disparage themselves and undermine themselves (for example, through what is known as ‘negative self-talk’, such as telling yourself: ‘I can’t’ before you have even tried).

Sometimes this can be linked to depression. For example, people who are depressed are often unduly harsh towards themselves. Many times in my career I have found myself having a discussion with someone struggling with depression that involved basically trying to get the message across that, if they were being as harsh on other people as they are on themselves, they would consider themselves to be quite an unpleasant person. It is as if they are turning their frustrations inwards upon themselves.

Sometimes it can be linked to anxiety. If I tell myself I can’t do something, I don’t have to face up to the possibility of failure – or so it may seem. In reality, I am guaranteeing failure by not trying, but if I tell myself I can’t do it, then I don’t have to take the risk. In a way, it’s a form of bad faith, trying to deceive ourselves into seeing the situation in a way that appears less risky or threatening.

But very often it has nothing to do with either depression or anxiety – it is just a pattern of behaviour (and thought and feeling) that we have developed. This may be a response to how other people treat us – if enough people tell us we can’t, we soon start believing we can’t. Or there may be 101 other reason for how this state of affairs has come about. One thing that is likely to be common across the board, though, is negativity – self-disempowerment is characterised by a tendency towards negativity, defeatism and even cynicism.

But, what is most important is that we should recognise that it doesn’t have to be this way. What has been learned can be unlearned, anxieties can be conquered and depression can be relieved in the right circumstances. Self-esteem is a concept that is often overused and oversimplified, but this is a situation in which it is very relevant. If we don’t have at least a basic level of self-worth and self-respect, we will struggle to get past negativity.

This does not mean that there are easy answers or magic solutions, but it does mean that, if you are prone to self-disempowering tendencies there are steps you can take – you don’t have to resign yourself to it and write yourself off by saying ‘I can’t help it; it’s the way I am’ or ‘It’s my nature’. These are just other ways of disempowering ourselves. Similarly, if you are involved in supporting others who are prone to self-disempowerment, you can take heart in knowing that it is not an impossible task.

Some people oversimplify the matter by just urging people to ‘Be positive’. To someone who has developed self-disempowering ways of operating, that’s not likely to mean much to them. What can be more helpful is recognising what can be controlled and taking steps to control it. That way, you can try to move from ‘I can’t’ to ‘Oh, I did!’. The concept of tentative confidence can be helpful. ‘Consolidated‘ confidence is when you are able to say to yourself: ‘I know I can do this’, because you know you have done it before – your confidence comes from learning from experience. To reach this stage we need to start by saying: ‘I don’t know whether I can do this, but I’m going to have a damn good try!’. In that way tentative confidence can be a stepping stone to consolidated confidence – we can go from strength to strength, provided that we don’t write ourselves off before we even start.


Routes to Resilience: a guest post by Carolyn Barber

When we talk about physical health, we mean healthy habits, fitness, strength, agility, energy and so on. Mental health on the other hand has become synonymous with ill-health – depression, anxiety, stress, unable to cope, and above all stigma.

With physical health, we all know that at times we have to work harder at it. We all know that if we get flu, or if we have an operation, there will be a period of recovery needed. Sometimes we have to build ourselves up physically to take on a particular challenge – stamina if we plan to run a marathon, for example. No one imagines that if you get yourself into peak physical condition you never have to think about your physical well-being again.

The stigma which surrounds mental ill-health means that we are often ignorant about what contributes to good mental health, which habits are beneficial and can help build psychological strength and mental resilience in times of change, for example. And if you’re in the 25% of the adult population who are identified as experiencing mental ill-health, such as depression and anxiety – many people say that the stigma and attitudes of others are the hardest things to deal with, making recovery tougher than it needs to be.

For those working in the people professions, self-care in terms of good mental health and well-being, is a pressing concern. According to the Health and Safety Executive in their 2013 report, the ‘industries that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress (three-year average) were human health and social work, education and public administration and defence.’

There are huge challenges in the changing political and economic context, as well as the organisational cultures associated with human health and social care services. A better awareness of how to take care of our own mental health strengthens our professional ability to help others in a climate of uncertainty.

The 5Cs framework represents five core components of good mental health:

Challenge – this is the way we grow in self-confidence, and develop a sense of competence and capability. ‘Challenge’ represents learning new things, taking risks and stepping outside our comfort zone, setting goals for ourselves.

Character – this is about how we understand and believe in our own personal values, strengths, skills and resources. We all have stories about our lives, but how do we tell them?

Composure – this is the ability to distance ourselves from our thoughts and reduce emotional intensity. It means learning how to still the mind, notice more, and develop our self-awareness.

Connection – this is about our relationships with others, our social networks, and our contribution to work, to our family, to the community.

Creativity – this represents the fun, child-like aspects of our nature which all too often we lose sight of as we grow older. It’s about using our imagination, developing our creative talents, and thinking outside the box.

The 5Cs framework is simply a way of organising information to make sense of complex ideas. It’s helpful to think of a framework rather like a travel map. Like a map, a framework can help us make decisions about the route we want to take. It can show us that there may be many different paths to get to the same place. Using a framework we can explain why we might try this or that path depending on our circumstances.

Carolyn Barber is a qualified social worker with over thirty years’ experience as a practitioner, manager, practice educator, researcher and trainer. She is the author of The Layperson’s Guide to Good Mental Health: Your A-Z for a Happier Life (2013) and a founder director of The Good Mental Health Cooperative, a social enterprise based in Hampshire. Her new e-learning course, Positive Mental Health, uses the 5C’s framework to explore self-care in relation to good mental health, well-being and resilience; develop a broader perspective on the research and theory around what contributes to good mental health; and identify specific interventions which can be applied in direct work to support people experiencing poor mental health and mental ill-health. For more information go to

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