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Published originally in the Irish Times, 14th November 2008, the message that high self-esteem is the deciding factor between failure and success is still relevant today.
The feelings of failure associated with the recession can be as damaging as its material consequences. But fragile confidence can be restored, three experts tell Anna King.
A COUNTRY'S confidence can take a battering during times of recession. And it is more important than ever, according to experts who spoke to The Irish Times, to ensure that people suffering the consequences of economic decline do not fall into self-doubt and torture themselves with negative feelings. This, they argue, will destroy any hope of turning disastrous circumstances, such as loss of a business or unemployment, around.
Stock markets respond brutally to negativity and fear. Equally, for a buoyant recovery to occur on a personal level, people need to remain confident in their self-worth and have enough courage to believe that this is only a temporary experience, that things will change for the better.
Resurrecting confidence in the marketplace is only one key facet to sustainable recovery. Equally important are the everyday people of Ireland; how they feel and how they respond to this challenge is critical.
It appears that the Celtic Tiger has taught a lesson that people need more than wealth to succeed. Three experts working within the field of psychology believe that having high self-esteem is the deciding factor between failure and success.
Self-esteem is critical to recovering psychologically from this recession, says Dr Harvey Wasserman, a former Yale University psychiatry professor who now practices in Galway as a psychotherapist.
When he was practising in the US during the 1980s he noticed three reactions from clients who had lost their jobs. Twenty per cent of them collapsed emotionally and were never able to work again; 60 per cent were out of work for approximately six to 12 months; and the remaining 20 per cent saw the experience as an opportunity to explore the things they had always wanted to do.
Wasserman believes that the most important variable that influenced the outcome for these individuals was personal self-esteem.
"Having high self-esteem will enable people to cope and find alternatives after losing their livelihoods," he says. He believes that learning coping skills early on in life increases self-esteem. "A child's immune system needs exposing to infection at an early age to ensure a strong immune system as an adult. Similarly, we also need exposure to failure to teach us that we can cope and move on.
"Once I got a phone call from one of my patients. She told me that her husband was under the bed and she could not get him out. He had just lost his job. When he arrived in my office I was struck by how powerful he was. He had been president of a division of a major multinational corporation. He was an incredibly successful and well-respected man. He unfortunately found himself in a political situation at work which forced him to resign. He was devastated. He had never experienced failure before and therefore had no tools for dealing with his present circumstances.
"I discovered that his dream was to own his own corporation. Eventually, investors offered him an opportunity of a lifetime: a 49 per cent stake in a company, an opportunity to be his own boss and a good salary. What is interesting is that my client refused the opportunity because he could not deal with his sense of failure. His self-esteem was shattered.
"He ended up taking a job as a president in a small multinational, and he never recovered his confidence. How we respond to difficult work situations is, in the long run, more important than the actual loss and trauma being experienced at the time. An affluent, materialist culture does not necessarily train us how to cope with failure. Dealing with failure at some stage of our life is inevitable. Life is full of failures."
Brighid Daly Connolly, a psychotherapist practising in Co Kerry, believes that this recession is causing fear throughout the nation.
"It is like the Irish are experiencing a tsunami," she says. "We have gone through the first waves of this crisis, but we still do not know how bad it is going to be or when it will come to an end. People are feeling vulnerable and powerless. How well each individual weathers this storm will vary considerably."
She suggests that survival is not just about money. "One of my clients is a young waitress who is coping with unbearable bereavement. She cannot come to me any more because her boss has reduced her hours to two days a week. On the other hand, I have another client who is worried that she will lose her third house. Both are experiencing enormous fear of the unknown. Whether you are a waitress or a millionaire, dealing with these challenges takes courage.
"The Irish have always regarded education as a route out of poverty. Education literally means 'to bring forth'. Now is the time to bring forth the courage to meet this challenge face on, and to educate ourselves with new and creative ways of living."
Connolly believes that surviving this recession requires us doing an NCT on our value systems. "Without wanting to oversimplify issues, we now need to take away the bling," she says. "Shelter, good-quality food on the table and warmth are the essentials. Distinguishing between what is really needed and what is just pride and competitiveness is vital.
"Teaching our children that even when everything materialistically is lost, that we can retain our self-esteem and self-worth is a great gift to give. It will help us keep a sense of dignity and will enable us to find new, more positive directions in life."
Michael Mullally, a clinical psychologist and marital therapist in Galway, believes that one of the obstacles to overcoming the recession psychologically is that the dominant message being heard by everybody is one of panic and worry.
"Television coverage of the recession is particularly panic-driven," he says. "This is because it needs to keep listeners interested. People are often not getting a full, balanced picture. Panicking and worrying about this recession is not going to help anyone, whatever their situation. Famous Chinese philosopher Dr John Shen said: 'If you have a problem, you have one problem; but if you worry about it, you have two problems.' "
Mullally's advice is for individuals to try to understand practically how the recession will have an impact on their own circumstances, and then to work towards finding alternatives.
"Finding alternative work or alternative ways of making it through the recession requires using one's own critical faculties. Anxiety and stress will only hinder this process," he says.
"Everyone is nervous. There is a great deal of anxiety around. The question is: how do we deal with this anxiety? Self-esteem is the foundation of our personality. If someone has low self-esteem, then dealing with a trauma, such as losing your job, has a much greater negative impact.
"People with a high level of confidence find it easier to cope with the fact that life is constantly changing and that we do not know what the future holds."
Mullally says that having the confidence to overcome the recession partly comes from recognising that we are more than the labels we stick on ourselves.
"What people do for a living is a huge part of their identity," he says. "Losing this identity can have a deeply adverse effect, not just financially but on how people perceive themselves. It is vital that people recognise that they are more than what they do for a living.
"One way of achieving this is by keeping a degree of perspective. The recession is only in the economic sphere. Without undermining the importance of this, it is still vital to keep in mind that our whole human condition has not shut down."
What you can do to bounce back?
Dr Harvey Wasserman: "Regularly practice techniques to improve self-esteem. I have developed a technique that enables people to function better in life and to build self-esteem over a period of time. I call it the 'Alien Technique'. Every time a person tortures themselves with negative feelings such as failure, they must give this emotion a name. Any name will do. When these feelings come up, acknowledge the feeling by name. Say politely: 'Oh hi, you're back again.'
"It isn't an instant fix, but nonetheless, if done regularly, it works. It is a simple yet effective therapeutic approach that, over time, separates the part of the personality that tortures itself from the rest of the personality.
"Aerobic exercise can help people cope better with life's challenges. Huffing and puffing for 25 to 30 minutes a day for four to five days a week has been scientifically proven to shift brain chemistry. Exercise relieves anxiety, depression and, in some cases, can make people feel better almost immediately. If physically compromised, huff and puff for five minutes a day initially and then build up the minutes over several weeks.
"Dealing with the panic of finding yourself unemployed or unable to pay your mortgage is a reality that cannot change overnight. But it is possible to control the physiological and psychological reactions that can prevent us making positive choices and decisions within present circumstances. A simple meditation will help calm the mind and clarify thoughts. Sit quietly on a chair and breathe in deeply through the nose and out through the mouth. Keep exhaling for as long as possible. The other important thing to do is to try not to swallow. Not swallowing combined with this breathing technique will focus the mind and reduce panic, if practiced twice a day for approximately 10 to 20 minutes."
Brighid Daly Connolly: "Bravely look straight on at your challenges. Consider your strengths and weaknesses, and work out a plan for staying afloat as soon as possible. Do not live in denial. It isn't an indulgence to relax and let go of negative feelings. You are far more likely to let inspiration in and make wiser decisions if you let go of negative feelings about yourself and your situation.
"Dig right in and get creative. You can't be creative and proactive if in a deep contraction of fear. Try to have faith that if you let go of the fear, new, more positive experiences are around the corner.
"Get the highest-quality financial, psychological and, if necessary, physical help. If you are desolate, don't be ashamed to ask advice from the people you know. We all know someone who can give us a helping hand. Have compassion for those in more difficult situations than ourselves, irrespective of how they got there. It does not take money to be truly decent."
Michael Mullally: "Losing employment can put a massive strain on relationships. Support and kindness to oneself and others during this time is really important. Having belief in yourself and your partner will help turn this situation around.
"Looking at options during this time helps to keep the self-esteem intact. Not being able to get a job does not mean you have to give up. Being unemployed may be an opportunity to look at upskilling or getting some more education. There are still many people who do not have the Leaving Certificate. There are many adult education services available, including distance learning. It may not immediately result in employment, but it will strengthen and increase self-esteem.
"Psychologically, we have been programmed from a young age to accept the notion of 'go out there and get a job'. Breaking through this belief system opens up people to the opportunities of self-employment. Believing in your ability to succeed is crucial."