Self-esteem is our personal, emotional evaluation of our own self-worth. It contributes to how we feel about ourselves and the lives we have created. No one factor causes low self-esteem; rather it is the result of everything from negative early experiences and relationships, to lack of approval and validation over time. Self-esteem develops over a lifetime of experiences, and based on these, can be high, low, and everywhere in between.
Low self-esteem impacts our quality of live in many domains, whether it be our work life, personal life, or otherwise. It can prevent us from having the confidence to pursue goals, or leave us feeling incompetent in social situations. Despite these negative consequences, self-esteem also has great potential to be improved given time and practice. These 7 steps can help get the process started.
- Identify self-defeating thoughts
Low self-esteem is reinforced by what we say to ourselves. The self-defeating statements we make towards ourselves limit our potential. How often do we find ourselves saying things like, “you’re an idiot”, “you can’t do that” or “that’ll never work”? The first step to changing these thoughts is simply to identify them. Often, they are so automatic that we don’t even register what we are saying to ourselves. Keep a journal. Record what you say to yourself, how it makes you feel, and how it impacts your behaviour. By identifying and labelling your negative self talk as self-defeating, it sets the groundwork for saying something healthier to yourself.
- Practice self-compassion
Our own inner critic is a powerful voice that can often lead to detrimental outcomes. When we notice that we are experiencing self-defeating thoughts, self-compassion can play a big role in targeting these negative thoughts. Asking the simple question, “would I say this to another person” is an easy cue to follow up with, “then why am I saying it to myself?” Because negative thoughts are often so automatic, it takes time and effort to re-train your brain. The more we notice negative thoughts and respond in more compassionate ways, the more automatic these positive responses become. Ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend in this situation?”, or, “How would I help them feel better?”. We typically practice compassion with our friends and family, but could use some practice in speaking to ourselves in the same manner.
- Explore the role of perfectionism
Low self-esteem is often connected with perfectionism. Setting unrealistically high, if not unattainable, expectations for ourselves is an easy way to guarantee failure. When good is never good enough, self-esteem can suffer as a result. Perfectionism can inhibit us for crediting ourselves with a job well done, because we are instead focused on how we could have been better. Acknowledging even the small victories can be a big win for our self-esteem.
- Set realistic and attainable goals
One way to help reduce the effect of perfectionism on self-esteem is to intentionally set realistic and attainable goals. Setting realistic goals, also helps us to experience success. For those familiar with the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goal acronym, the same principles apply. When we create goals this way, we encourage actually achieving them, thus creating a sense of pride and accomplishment that feeds into increased self-worth.
- Foster supportive relationships
As much as self-esteem has to come from within, it is also reinforced by those around us. Choosing to interact with people who support and validate us can help to combat self-defeating thoughts and provide positive reinforcement. Conversely, when we find ourselves in unsupportive relationships, these have the tendency to reaffirm the negative beliefs we hold about ourselves, making it difficult to break the cycle.
- Practice self-care
The way we treat ourselves contributes greatly to the way we feel about ourselves; as much as thoughts influence behaviours, behaviours also influence thoughts. Making choices that aren’t in our best interest can feed into low self-esteem by reinforcing our sense of low self-worth. Rather, choosing to treat ourselves with respect, whether this means allowing for downtime after the end of a long week, or rewarding ourselves for achieving a goal, physically and emotionally makes us feel better. Plus it reminds us of a job well done.
- Reflect on, and acknowledge your progress
When we have low self-esteem, unsurprisingly, we have an incredible ability to discount the positive and focus on the negative. Thus, when we’re actively trying to improve our self-esteem, it’s important to acknowledge the progress we are making. The process takes time, but as the old adage goes, the journey is just as important, if not more so, than the destination.
Looking for more resources to help with self-esteem? Check out the following:
- 10 Days to Self-esteem by David Burns https://www.amazon.ca/Days-Self-Esteem-David-Burns-M-D/dp/0688094554
- Self-Esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving and maintaining your self-esteem by Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning https://www.amazon.ca/Self-Esteem-cognitive-techniques-maintaining-self-esteem/dp/1572241985