Tips to Improve Your Self-Esteem
People are often confused about what it means to have self-esteem. Some think it has to do with the way you look or how popular you are with your friends or others. Others believe that having a great body will help you gain self-esteem, while others think you actually need to have accomplished something in order to have good self-esteem.
Boiled down to its simplicity, self-esteem simply means appreciating yourself for who you are — faults, foibles and all. It seems like other cultures don’t grapple with self-esteem as much as Americans do, perhaps because of the emphasis we seem to put on materialistic indicators of self-worth (like what kind of car you drive, what school your kids attend, what your grades are, how big a house you have, or what your title is at work).
The difference between someone with a healthy or good self-esteem and someone who doesn’t isn’t ability, per se. It’s simply acknowledgement of your strengths and weaknesses, and moving through the world safe in that knowledge.
Which brings me to the question I’m often asked — how can I increase my self-esteem? Here’s how.
People with a good and healthy self-esteem are able to feel good about themselves for who they are, appreciate their own worth, and take pride in their abilities and accomplishments. They also acknowledge that while they’re not perfect and have faults, those faults don’t play an overwhelming or irrationally large role in their lives or their own self-image (how you see yourself).
1. Take a Self-Esteem Inventory.
You can’t fix what you don’t know. This is one of the core components of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Before you get to work on putting CBT to work, you have to spend a fair amount of time identifying irrational thoughts and what-not.
The same is true for your self-esteem. To simply generalize and say, “I suck. I’m a bad person. I can’t do anything.” is to tell yourself a simple but often convincing lie. I’m here to tell you that it’s not true. We all suck from time to time. The solution isn’t to wallow in suck-age as the core of your identity, but to acknowledge it and move on.
Get a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle of it. On the right-hand side, write: “Strengths” and on the left-hand side, write: “Weaknesses.” List 10 of each. Yes, 10. That may seem like a lot of the Strengths side if you suffer from poor self-esteem, but force yourself to find all 10.
If you’re having difficulty coming up with a whole 10, think about what others have said to you over the years. “Thanks for listening to me the other night when all I did was talk your ear off!” “You did a great job at work with that project, thanks for pitching in.” “I’ve never seen someone who enjoyed housework as much as you do.” “You seem to have a real knack for telling a story.” Even if you think the Strength is stupid or too small to list, list it anyway. You may be surprised at how easy it is to come up with all 10 when you approach it from this perspective.
This is your Self-Esteem Inventory. It lets you know all the things you already tell yourself about how much you suck, as well as showing you that there are just as many things you don’t suck at. Some of the weaknesses you may also be able to change, if only you worked at them, one at a time, over the course of a month or even a year. Remember, nobody changes things overnight, so don’t set an unrealistic expectation that you can change anything in just a week’s time.
2. Set Realistic Expectations.
Nothing can kill our self-esteem more than setting unrealistic expectations. I remember when I was in my 20s, I had thought, “I need to be a millionaire by the time I’m 30 or I’m going to be a failure.” (Don’t even get me started about how many things are wrong with that statement.) Needless to say, 30 came and I was nowhere close to being a millionaire. I was more in debt than ever, and owning a home was still a distant dream. My expectation was unrealistic, and my self-esteem took a blow when I turned 30 and saw how far away such a goal was.
Sometimes our expectations are so much smaller, but still unrealistic. For instance, “I wish my mom (or dad) would stop criticizing me.” Guess what? They never will! But that’s no reason to let their criticism affect your own view of yourself, or your own self-worth. Check your expectations if they keep disappointing you. Your self-esteem will thank you.
This may also help you to stop the cycle of negative thinking about yourself that reinforce our negative self-esteem. When we make set realistic expectations in our life, we can stop berating ourselves for not meeting some idealistic goal.
3. Set Aside Perfection and Grab a Hold of Accomplishments… and Mistakes.
Perfection is simply unattainable for any of us. Let it go. You’re never going to be perfect. You’re never going to have the perfect body, the perfect life, the perfect relationship, the perfect children, or the perfect home. We revel in the idea of perfection, because we see so much of it in the media. But that is simply an artificial creation of society. It doesn’t exist.
Instead, grab a hold of your accomplishments as you achieve them. Acknowledge them to yourself for their actual value (don’t de-value them by saying, “Oh, that? That’s just so easy for me, no big deal.”). It may even help to keep a little journal or list of things you accomplish. Some people might even do this on a day-by-day basis, while others might feel more comfortable just noting them once a week or even once a month. The key is to get to your smaller goals and move on from each one, like a connect-the-dots game of life.
It’s just as important to take something away from the mistakes you make in life. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it simply means you made a mistake (like everyone does). Mistakes are an opportunity for learning and for growth, if only we push ourselves out of the self-pity or negative self-talk we wallow in after one, and try and see it from someone else’s eyes.
4. Explore Yourself.
“Know thyself” is an old saying passed down through the ages, to encourage us to engage in self-exploration. Usually the most well-adjusted and happiest people I meet are people who have gone through this exercise. It isn’t just about knowing your strengths and weaknesses, but also opening yourself up to new opportunities, new thoughts, trying out something new, new viewpoints, and new friendships.
Sometimes when we’re down on ourselves and our self-esteem has taken a big hit, we feel like we have nothing to offer the world or others. It may be that we simply haven’t found everything that we do have to offer — things we haven’t even considered or thought of yet. Learning what these are is simply a matter of trial and error. It’s how people become the people they’ve always wanted to become, by taking risks and trying things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
5. Be Willing to Adjust Your Own Self-Image.
Self-esteem is useless if it’s based upon an older version of you that no longer exists. I used to be good at many things I’m no longer good at. I excelled in math while in high school, but couldn’t do a calculus problem today to save my life. I used to think I was pretty smart, until I learned just how little I knew. I could play trombone pretty well at one point, but no longer.
But all of that’s okay. I’ve adjusted my own beliefs about my self and my strengths as I go along. I’ve become a better writer, and learned more about business than I ever knew before. I don’t sit around and say, “Geez, I really wish I could play trombone like I used to!” (And if I cared enough to really think that, I would go and take some lessons to get good at it again.) Instead, I evaluate myself based upon what’s going on in my life right now, not some distant past version of me.
Keep adjusting your self-image and self-esteem to match your current abilities and skills, not those of your past.
6. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others.
Nothing can hurt our self-esteem more than unfair comparisons. Joe has 3,000 Facebook friends while I only have 300. Mary can outrun me on the field when we play ball. Elizabeth has a bigger house and a nice car than I do. You can see how this might impact our feelings about ourselves, the more we do this sort of thing.
I know it’s tough, but you need to stop comparing yourself to others. The only person you should be competing against is yourself. These comparisons are unfair because you don’t know as much as you think you do about these other people’s lives, or what it’s really like to be them. You think it’s better, but it may be 100 times worse than you can imagine. (For instance, Joe paid for that many friends; Mary’s parents have had her in sports training since she was 3; and Elizabeth is in a loveless marriage that only appears to be ideal.)
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I know I made this all sound easy. It’s not. Changing your self-esteem takes time, trial-and-error, and patience on your part. Make an effort to be more fair and more realistic with your own self, however, and I think you may be pleasantly surprised by the results. Good luck!
How To Raise Your Self-Esteem
Global self-esteem is not set in stone. Raising it is possible, but not easy. Global self-esteem grows as we face our fears and learn from our experiences. Some of this work may require the aid of a psychotherapist. In the meantime, here is what you can do:
- Get sober. Get help through 12-step groups to stop self-destructive behaviors. Addictions block learning and drag down our mood. Identify them and replace them with self-care.
- Practice self-care. Make new lifestyle choices by joining self-help groups and practicing positive health care.
- Identify triggers to low self-esteem. We personalize stressful events (e.g., criticism) by inferring a negative meaning about ourselves. A self-defeating action often follows. Each event can, instead, be a chance to learn about ourselves, if we face our fear of doing so and the negative beliefs about ourselves that sustain the negative meanings.
- Slow down personalizing. Target personalizing to slow impulsive responses. You can begin to interfere with these automatic overreactions by using relaxation and stress management techniques. These techniques are directed at self-soothing the arousal. This allows us to interrupt the otherwise inevitable automatic reaction and put into play a way to begin to face the unacknowledged fears at the root of low self-esteem.
- Stop and take notice. Pay attention to the familiarity of the impulse. Our tendency is to overreact in the same way to the same incident. Awareness of the similarity can be the cue to slow our reactivity.
- Acknowledge reaction. Verbalize, “Here I go again (describe action, feeling, thought) . . . ” Actively do something with the awareness rather than passively note it. The result is to slow the impulse and give ourselves a choice about how we want to respond.
- Choose response. Hold self-defeating impulses. Act in a self-caring and effective way. By choosing to act in a more functional way, we take a step toward facing our fears.
- Accept impulse. Be able to state the benefit (e.g., protection) of overreaction. We won’t be able to do this at first, but as we become more effective, we will begin to appreciate what our self-defeating impulse had been doing for us.
- Develop skills. We can provide for our own safety, engender hope, tolerate confusion, and raise self-esteem by learning and using these essential life skills:
- Experience feelings. “Feel” feelings in your body and identify your needs. When we do not respect our feelings, we are left to rely on what others want and believe.
- Optional thinking. End either/or thinking. Think in “shades of gray” and learn to reframe meanings. By giving ourselves options, we open ourselves to new possibilities about how to think about our dilemmas.
- Detachment. End all abuse; say “no” to misrepresentations and assumptions. By maintaining personal boundaries, we discourage abuse by others and assert our separateness.
- Assertion. Voice what you see, feel, and want by making “I” statements. By expressing our thoughts, feelings, and desires in a direct and honest manner, we show that we are in charge of our lives.
- Receptivity. End self-absorption; listen to others’ words and meanings to restate them. In this way, we act with awareness of our contribution to events as well as empathize with the needs of others.
Exercise Improves Self-Esteem in Overweight Kids
The 40-minute group sustained the most psychological benefit, according to research published online in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
The MCG researchers were the first to demonstrate this dose response benefit of exercise – meaning the more the better – on depressive symptoms and self-worth in these children. Benefits came despite the fact that the children’s weight did not change much over the three months.
“Just by getting up and doing something aerobic, they were changing how they felt about themselves,” says the study’s first author, Dr. Karen Petty, postdoctoral fellow in psychology at MCG’s Georgia Prevention Institute.
“Hopefully these children are taking home the idea: Hey, when we do this stuff, we feel better.”
The study focused on fun activities that increase heart rate, such as running games, jumping rope, basketball and soccer and typically included short bursts of intense activity interspersed with lower-activity recovery periods.
Participants in these activities reported feeling better about themselves. “If you feel better about yourself, maybe you are going to do better in school, maybe you are going to pay more attention,” Dr. Petty says. MCG is compiling a mound of evidence that supports the case that these go hand-in-hand.
Dr. Petty works with Dr. Catherine Davis, clinical health psychologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute, who has shown that regular physical activity not only improves fitness and reduces fatness but also reduces insulin resistance (diabetes risk), improves cognition and reduces anger expression.
“This adds to the evidence that exercise is great for people of all ages, physically and mentally,” Dr. Davis says of the latest finding. “Our physical and mental wellbeing are intimately interwoven.”
One exception was that even a longer daily exercise regimen did not impact the general self-esteem of black adolescents although it did improve their depressive symptoms and how they felt about how their appearance. The researchers noted previous evidence that the black culture is more accepting of obesity.
Their study, one of a few to test race as a moderator of psychological risk in overweight children, appears to support that. However, a better way to measure self-esteem in blacks also may be needed, say the researchers, who call for more study on race’s influence on the psychosocial consequences of obesity and exercise.
For this study, children filled out the Self-Perception Profile for Children and the Reynolds Child Depression Scale reports before and after the 13-week period. “We asked them about feelings of sadness, how they sleep – most don’t sleep well when depressed – and their appetite – some eat more, others less when depressed,” Dr. Petty says.
As with most children, most of the study participants had some symptoms associated with clinical depression but few would be given a diagnosis of clinical depression.
There’s some irony in that depression and low self-esteem may decrease the chance you’ll feel like moving yet moving decreases depressive symptoms. Dr. Petty, a runner, experiences that herself. “Even if it’s hard and I don’t want to go, 15 or 20 minutes after I do, I feel so good I could go for another run.”
Acknowledging running isn’t for everyone, she suggests a more festive family affair that could include a walk in a park or around the neighborhood, a game of pickup basketball or tennis. Peer group activities may work better for some children, she says, such as study participants who could routinely be found in the Georgia Prevention Institute, laughing and joking as they exercise.
“There’s a message here for all of us that taking some time out of our day to do something physical helps make us better mentally,” says Dr. Petty, whose postdoctoral fellowship is supported by a National Institutes of Health training grant to MCG’s Vascular Biology Center.
The researchers already are following another group of children for eight months to determine the longer term impact of exercise. They also are bringing the control subjects to the Georgia Prevention Institute each day to ensure that it’s exercise, not just the extra attention from participating in an after-school program, that’s making the difference.
About 37 percent of children in the U.S. are overweight and about 16.3 percent of children age 2-19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Animal studies have shown exercise may help regulate genes that increase levels of brain chemicals that combat depression.