Have you ever thought back to when you were in college, or high school, or maybe an earlier time in your life and had the thought, “I use to be so confident. What happened?”? Were you really cool or hip or sexy back then? Did you have no problem talking with someone you were interested in dating? Maybe you defied authority with parents, teachers, police, etc. If you were like me back then you did what you wanted with little concern for what might go wrong. Now you pause to consider the consequences. Somewhere along the way how you feel about yourself has changed and this has impacted how you act. You have matured and grown into the person you are today. You have gone through some pretty significant transitions in life. Some are positive and some are not so great. Some possibilities: education, career, marriage, divorce, children, and grief. There have also been changes going on around you with other people in your family or friendships. Maybe you have moved. Your community has changed, too. Not the least of which have been changes at Oklahoma State University and within Stillwater. You are probably doing a different job than you were back then (and making more money) and you likely think about the world differently as well.
As you experience life, you will likely have times when you focus a little bit more on the negatives than the positives. This is natural and normal. This might apply to self-evaluations as well. Also, life gets a little bit complicated to downright hectic at times. And, it is challenging to be truly confident when going through a difficult situation. Self-esteem lowers to problematic levels when tendencies develop that involve an over-focus on the negatives about ourselves. Also, situational stressors can leave us feeling helpless (maybe we are actually helpless in some situations), which lowers our sense of self-control. Low self-esteem can be a part of a depressive disorder or Social Anxiety Disorder, but is also something that all of us experience at times. Even the most seemingly confident celebrity has self-doubt occasionally. Except for Kanye, but that’s a different story.
If you are concerned about your self-esteem, I offer the following strategies to consider:
1. Focus on your strengths.
Many people develop subtle patterns of increasing focus on self-perceived weaknesses rather than self-perceived strengths slowly over time. We tend to believe what we focus on. If we focus on our negatives, then we tend to believe that we are not so great. When we shift our focus to what we like in or about ourselves, we feel more confident. Also, negative feelings, statements, and perceptions tend to be much more powerful than positive ones. When working with clients with low self-esteem, I usually get a long list of self-perceived negatives and a short list of strengths that clients feel about themselves. It is all too common, but not surprising, when someone with low self-esteem focuses much more energy and time repeatedly focusing on their own dislikes, which are much more powerful, than their likes.
The good news is that this pattern can be reversed. Like the concept of momentum (think about attempting to reverse the direction of a spinning wheel), it can take some more effort in the beginning. I encourage people to write out a list of strengths and add to it every day. Any little thing can be added. For example, “I held the door open for someone today. That was a nice thing to do. I am nice.” Try to not judge the example as worthy or not worthy. Also, do not worry about whether it is absolutely or always true or not. If it was fitting for that moment, then it counts. Add it to the list. Be generous with yourself here to make up for all of the years that you were not so kind with the over-focus on the negatives. After a while this list of strengths can get pretty long. You can also review your list periodically. This may help during a moment of discouragement to remind yourself of your strengths.
The flip side of this strategy is to stop focusing on those negatives. Either change them or accept them, but do not put any more time into feeling bad about yourself because of them. When you catch yourself falling into that pattern of focusing on the negatives, imagine a symbol for ‘Stop!’ (e.g., a stop sign or a red light for visual people; a whistle or buzzer sound for auditory people; grabbing your wrist or popping yourself with a rubber band for kinesthetic types) and shift your focus to your list of strengths. Maybe, this would be a good time to review your list or make the most recent additions.
These strategies seem straightforward and simple, which they are. Also, they work! Effective does not always involve complicated strategies. No need to take my word for it, though. Try them out and see for yourself. If you are less than satisfied with these strategies there are 12 more categories below.
2. Stop comparing yourself to others.
How often do you look at someone else and think to yourself that you are better or worse than them on some characteristic? Maybe that other person is in better shape. Possibly you are more stylish in your dress. You wish you had her voice. Even if you ‘win’ most of the comparisons you make, you are setting yourself up to focus too much on compare and contrast. Eventually, you will find someone better than you on something specific. We can always find someone better than us in some regard and we can always find someone worse than us in that same regard. This is psychologically unhealthy compared with self-acceptance when no comparisons are made. We can still appreciate the beauty (or style, or grace, or kindness, or maturity) of someone else without it necessarily reflecting poorly on ourselves.
Social media makes this social comparison tendency worse. The reason being that people are biased in what they post. Are you more likely to post a ton of vacation pics on Instagram or do you consistently report the boring meal you are having for lunch every Tuesday. People tend to post their happier moments. This is not to say that negatives do not come up on social media. They do. Just not in proportion to the positives and within what actual lives are like (except maybe Kanye’s life).
Also, there is an issue of information access. When we compare or contrast ourselves to other people (whether on social media or in-person), we have different types of information access. With ourselves, we know our internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, motivations, desires, etc.) as well as what we choose to display to the external world. However, with other people, we only have access to the external, what they choose to share with the world. Because our external selves tend to be more positive than our whole selves (internal and external), we can mistakenly make the inaccurate assumption that our whole selves do not match up with someone else based only on the external information we have about them which is likely to be positively biased.
If social comparison is a problem for you, consider catching yourself. You can use the same strategy to ‘stop’ yourself mentioned above. Then think about comparing yourself with yourself. Trying to be better than you were yesterday is a psychologically healthier goal than trying to best someone else.
3. Be aware of your internal self-critic and the purpose it serves.
Do you have a nagging, internal voice that is critical of your actions? Your decisions? Your personality characteristics? Some people can easily identify the source of their internal critic (e.g., a parent, a teacher, a coach, an in-law), but it can be a challenge for others. You do not need to know where your internal self-critic originates to change it. You do, however, need to know what purpose it serves. Sometimes that internal critic is trying to motivate you. This only works when you need to be motivated and often backfires to make you less likely to achieve whatever goal is under consideration. Another example of a purpose of an internal critical voice is to put you down before others do it for you. If you can be down on yourself, then the criticisms of others does not have as much power. Self-critics can protect us from failure or success if these are outcomes that scare us, whether we are aware of these fears or not. If your self-critic limits or prohibits you from interacting with other people, the purpose might be to prevent you from feeling or being rejected.
There are several functions that an internal, critical voice can serve. What is important is to know which purpose(s) yours serve so that you can begin to make some changes so that it no longer has a negative impact on your self-esteem. Is there another way to deal with that fear of failure or rejection? Can you address the need that the critic serves rather than continue to allow the critic to tear you down? Awareness is the first step in making changes to this tendency. Without that nagging, critical voice to weigh you down like an anchor, your self-esteem is free to soar.
4. Change negative self-talk.
Once you know what purpose your internal self-critic serves, you can begin to make changes to your internal dialogue, the way you talk to yourself. Recall that what you focus on leads to what you believe. So, if you focus on the negatives that your internal self-critic says about you, you are likely to begin believing that. Recognizing this process can be challenging at first and exhausting once you begin to realize just how much you put yourself down. The good news is that with a little bit of effort at first (remember the idea of changing momentum), you can quickly begin to make some changes and feel better about yourself in a relatively short amount of time.
First, I work with people on how to recognize negative self-talk. Paying attention to your thoughts, ask yourself is this something I would say out loud to myself in front of someone who cares about me? If the answer is no because the thought is too critical, then this is the type of thought you want to target for change. Some people benefit from writing out these negative, critical thoughts about themselves. Warning: it can be distressing to see these thoughts written down because we also tend to believe what we see written. Once you begin to recognize negative self-talk, the second step involves getting your attention. This is where imagining a symbol for stop can be helpful (see above for more information). Once you are paying attention, the third step involves replacing the negative thought with another thought that is more positive or neutral. You can still think negatively about your actions, but maybe put some separation between how you feel about your behaviors from how you feel about yourself. Just because you had a lazy moment, does not mean that you are a lazy person. The important thing for the replacement thought is that it has to be believable. Do not change a negative thought about being tone deaf to the unbelievable thought that you are Kanye. That would be delusional!
5. Realize that feelings and thoughts are not necessarily true.
One of the more difficult steps in getting your self-esteem back is not believing what you think and feel all of the time. We often fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that if we think it or feel it then it must be true. Also, we might falsely believe that what we feel will become permanent. However, ask yourself if you have ever worried about something bad happening only to later find out that you were worried for nothing. This is an example of attaching to a feeling that was not necessarily true. It might have been true. It was possible. It just was not true in that situation. Also, it is tricky because sometimes our feelings and thoughts are true. That is why this section includes the phrase, “not necessarily true”. When we over-attach to our thoughts and feelings, we can make ourselves miserable, especially if these thoughts and feelings are unpleasant. As it applies to self-esteem, we might overly attach to negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves which causes further damage.
One strategy for detaching from your thoughts and feelings is to recognize some important facts. 1) What you think and feel is not necessarily true. It might be true or it might not. Consider that it might be untrue. Think about the probability that it is or is not true. Avoid wasting your time and energy with low probability scenarios. 2) What you think and feel is not permanent. In a moment of distress, it can be difficult to believe that you will not always feel or think what you are feeling and thinking in the moment. However, think back to a difficult time in your life. You probably do not feel exactly the same way about it now or at least not as intensely about it. 3) You are not your thoughts and feelings. You have the option to act as an observer to your thoughts and feelings. These are just symbols for events in our lives. Instead of fighting against unpleasant thoughts or feelings, allow yourself to notice them. This will make them much less powerful and you will likely be able to move on in life in most non-severe circumstances.
6. Live in the moment.
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Buddha
Focusing on the past, especially negative experiences in the past, can lead to feelings of sadness as we mourn the difference between the way things were and the way we wanted them to be. Focusing on the future, especially with an over-focus on potential negative outcomes, can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety. This impacts low self-esteem when we over-focus on our mistakes from the past (i.e., regret) or expect ourselves to fail in the future (i.e., worry). When we focus on the present, we can live in the moment without regret or worry. We are not judging ourselves as having failed nor expecting ourselves to fail in the future. Think about the last time you felt truly care-free. Was it a time you were living in the moment? Most likely it was. You were probably able to take a break from the sadness of the past or the fears about the future, even if it was for a brief moment.
Also, living in the moment can help us connect and engage with other people. Have you ever had the experience of focusing on some unpleasant thought or emotion while in a crowd? Did you feel lonely? Did it impede you from talking with other people? When we are truly present it is easier to converse, interact, play, and be creative with other people. Humans are social animals and we need social interaction. This includes spending less time on your smart phone or tablet including social media (see above information about the social media bias and how it can affect your self-perceptions). If there are people around you, allow yourself to engage with them.
7. Know your limits.
It happens often that I hear clients talking about how their low self-esteem comes from taking on too many tasks, roles, and responsibilities while holding themselves accountable when they are less than perfect in each one of them. With our current, fast-paced society and technological ease of communication we face more demands, deal with expectations of urgency from others, and take on multiple roles. It is unfair to expect ourselves to be perfect at all of them and unfair to expect perfection in any one of them. If we hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard and fall short, our self-esteem can suffer. Something has to give!
One option for those with this as a problem is to lower your expectations for yourself. If we expect less and meet the target, we feel better about ourselves. Sometimes the lowered self-esteem that results from judging what we do with what we ‘should’ be doing is a problem with perception. If you are unable to do more to meet your expectation, why not adjust your expectation to meet what you do? This might involve reducing ‘shoulds’ in your vocabulary as well as learning to be more assertive with others. It is important that you make the adjustment for yourself before you communicate to others. Another potential option for some people is to take on fewer roles and responsibilities. This will free up time and energy to put more effort to the tasks that are a priority for you within the roles you choose.
8. Be appropriately assertive.
If your self-esteem problems result from the expectations of others and your challenges or difficulties (or straight up impossibilities) to meet them then it might be time to confront those expectations. This might involve learning to be appropriate assertive. Easier said than done, especially for someone who has been under-assertive about their needs and wants for long periods of time.
Several of the clients I work with on this issue have the fear of becoming over-assertive (i.e., aggressive), so a brief primer on assertiveness might help. Under-assertiveness means that a person focuses on meeting the needs of others at the sacrifice of their own needs (i.e., meekness). This hurts your self-esteem because it repeatedly reinforces the message that other people’s needs are more important than your own. Over-assertiveness involves meeting one’s own needs at the expense of the needs of other people (i.e., aggressiveness). Appropriate assertiveness occurs when a person is able to meet their own needs without taking advantage of others and meeting the needs of others without sacrificing themselves.
Notice that to move from under-assertiveness to over-assertiveness, one would have to move through appropriate assertiveness. There is no short-cut between being under-assertive and being over-assertive. Usually once a person makes progress in changes from under-assertiveness to being appropriately assertive, they do not further change to over-assertiveness or aggressiveness.
One common strategy for learning to be assertive involves using a role model. Think about the most appropriately assertive person you know. Now consider what that person does. What does s/he say to get her/his needs met but not at the expense of others? How do they go about meeting the needs of others while not being self-sacrificing? Most often, assertive behaviors involve saying, ‘No’ to requests from others and/or setting limits in other ways. If you have an example in your own life, consider how your role model would respond. Practice being assertive in front of a mirror or with a trusted friend.
9. Focus on values and meaning rather than feeling happy.
We often hear about people trying to be happy. I think this is a misguided goal. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the times in my life when I have been happy. It is much more pleasant than sadness, fear, anger, and shame. However, there are too many experiences that create temporary happiness and some of these are unhealthy if used in excess (e.g., substance use, video games, etc.). When we live a life of chasing happy experiences, it can lead to a path of meaninglessness. Also, happiness, like other emotions, is temporary. It is short-term, so we keep chasing it. We find new ways of seeking to feel good. But, we are never fully satisfied. So the problem occurs when we attempt to create a permanent state from a temporary emotional experience. Going along this path, we can begin to question ourselves. Are we living the right kind of life? What is wrong with me that I cannot seem to be happy? Or-what is wrong with me that I can’t hold onto feeling happy for longer periods of time? The problem is often not you, but your perception that you can maintain and contain an emotion that is temporary in its nature.
I suggest that people seek meaningfulness rather than happiness. This might result in happiness (in the form of satisfaction with a life well lived) which becomes a consequence rather than a goal. This involves being clear about your values and having actions that support those values. Actions become habits which become tendencies which become your character. Ask yourself what types of experiences would be meaningful to you (rather than creating temporary happiness)? What are your values? How do you live your values through action? When you live a life of meaning where your actions support your values, it becomes easy to feel good about yourself.
10. Avoid ‘should-ing’ all over yourself.
This joke comes from the great Albert Ellis, an eminent American Psychologist who developed his own psychological theory of human behavior and treatment, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He discouraged the use of words like ‘should’ and ‘must’ (calling the use of the latter, ‘musterbation’). The reason being is that these words create a sense of pressure when applied to an expectation. Imagine the difference between, “I must get this project done tonight” versus “It would be nice if I get this project done tonight, but not the end of the world if it is not completed”. Do these two statements feel differently to you? Along the lines of reducing expectations for ourselves (or being assertive in dealing with the expectations others may have for us), reducing the pressure of these expectations involves a simple change in our language for our self-talk. Using ‘should’ or ‘must’ implies that there is something wrong or dire consequences will occur if we fail and this can lead to negative self-interpretations thus further lowering our self-esteem. Being self-compassionate and reducing that pressure can go a long way towards improving self-esteem.
11. Handle mistakes with grace.
Sometimes the way we handle mistakes impacts how we feel about ourselves. Some people let their blunders roll off of their back with a ‘devil may care’ attitude. Others are eaten up with guilt and shame for days, weeks, even months or years afterwards. What do you notice saying to yourself after something you do does not go the way you wanted it to? Are you overly harsh and critical of yourself? Do you make global personality or character accusations (e.g., “I’m so clumsy”)? Have you spent time at the end of a day thinking about all the ways you would have done things differently if you were granted a ‘do-over’? Pay attention for the next few days and try to understand if you have any of these tendencies. Do you recognize that internal self-critic as the voice of someone in your life (parent, teacher, or coach)? Do you know what purpose that critical voice serves? This is helpful to know if you are going to make changes to improve your self-esteem.
Changing to a more self-compassionate approach with more understanding and grace can have a positive impact on your self-esteem. Try to separate your feelings about the mistake from your feelings about yourself. We all mess up from time to time, but we do not all interpret these experiences in the same way. Those with grace tend to have healthier self-esteem than those who are overly critical. As mistakes occur, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to a loved one who just committed the same error. If you would not say that to someone else, have the same level of grace for yourself (or more).
12. Accept what you cannot control.
Not just a part of the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer, accepting what you cannot control is psychologically healthy. Many people get caught up over-focusing on things outside of their power, especially negative things, and then blame themselves. Holding yourself responsible for things you have no control over is a surefire way to feel helpless and have low self-esteem. If you find yourself in a difficult situation there are some questions you can ask yourself. Do you have control or power here? You might have power or control (or even influence) over aspects of the situation even if you do not have overall power in a situation. If you have no power in the situation, can you get yourself out of that situation? For things outside of your control, avoid holding yourself responsible (at least in your own mind-you might have to pretend to blame yourself for the benefit of others).
Sometimes people get into a tendency to blame themselves for things outside of their control because the alternative is too difficult to consider. If you acknowledge aspects of your life as outside of your control, then it rationally follows that there are some things you are helpless about. This is a challenging idea for many people in this American culture of independence. Therapy can help people become more comfortable with the helpless feelings associated with aspects of their lives outside of their power and emotion-focused coping is the recommended strategy. I spend a lot of time as a Psychologist encouraging clients to express emotions about the things outside of their control (emotion-focused coping) and deal with the things within their control (problem-focused coping).
This helps improve one’s self-esteem when you can reduce or eliminate the self-blame for things outside of your power.
Another approach is to shift your focus to other experiences and situations in your life in which you have more power and control and put your energies towards these pursuits. This can help you feel more empowered and build your self-esteem.
13. Relax (if time allows).
Last, but not least, relaxation can help with low self-esteem. Giving yourself the gift of relaxation on a regular basis strengthens the message to yourself that you are worthy of self-care. Relaxation can come in many forms from the everyday (e.g., taking a walk, hot shower, favorite food, etc.) to the more intentional (e.g., daily meditation, scheduled massages). Working with clients on issues of anxiety or stress, I often find it helpful to match the treatment strategy within the same category as most of their symptoms:
· Physical symptoms (e.g., sleep disruption, appetite or weight changes, increased pulse or difficulties breathing with anxiety) and physical relaxation strategies (e.g., deep breathing, stretching, regular exercise, massage)
· Cognitive symptoms (e.g., concentration difficulties, memory problems, racing thoughts) and cognitive relaxation strategies (e.g., thought replacement, meditation, visualization)
· Emotional symptoms (e.g., mood swings, crying, irritability) and emotional relaxation strategies (e.g., journaling, social support)
· Behavioral symptoms (e.g., fidgeting, pacing, avoidance) and behavioral strategies (e.g., taking a walk, leisure activities like sports, painting)
I have found from professional and personal experience that a focus on recognizing and changing negative and pressured thought patterns (e.g., over-focusing on weaknesses, social comparison, negative and critical self-talk, pressured language) to more positive, accepting, and self-compassionate ones; avoiding getting overly attached to thoughts and feelings, living in the moment, setting limits for yourself and others, choosing actions that are meaningful, and being able to relax are all valuable ways to improve self-esteem. I hope this information has been helpful for you to get your self-esteem back.
If it is time for you to regain your self-esteem and you would like some professional assistance, give me a call at 405-614-2846 for a consultation.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Penguin Random House.
Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boulder, CO: Trumpeter Books.
McKay M. & Fanning, P. (2000). Self-esteem (3rd ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.