When we have high regard for ourselves we work hard to overcome life’s challenges. We’re tenacious, getting back on track when things don’t go our way. Our self confidence spills over to others, allowing us to be open and emotionally generous. On the other hand, without regard for ourselves, large goals seem impossible, and even small obstacles overwhelm us, causing us to collapse in upon ourselves in self loathing and premature defeat. We escape to television and substances, choosing the safety of retreat rather than risking failure. To relieve our fear that others are better than us we gossip about their faults.
As children, when our parents told us we would never amount to much we internalized their opinions. We also learned who we are by observing the way our parents related to the world. If they felt defeated, we learned to feel the same way. Later in life we live up to these negative expectations by giving up, getting into trouble, and passing up opportunities to succeed.
If we find ourselves believing we are not worth much, we need to take a new inventory, and learn how to see ourselves in a new light. With diligent work we can root out negative mental habits, and improve our beliefs about ourselves. Here are some of the ways we can elevate our self image.
Reduce self put-downs, increase self-praise
We may be in the habit of putting ourselves down. For example, when we drop something we automatically say to ourselves “You clumsy oaf!” putting a negative label on ourselves that is bound to make us feel bad. We can soften the intensity of our self-criticism by choosing more forgiving words, and by limiting our self put-downs to criticizing just one incident rather than damning our entire lifetime. For example we could say to ourselves, “My, aren’t we having a bad day. We’ll do better next time.”
In addition to softening self-putdowns, another habit that can build up self-esteem is to increase our self-praise. When we do something worthwhile, in addition to congratulating ourselves for the achievement itself, we should recognize and reward ourselves for our effort. Praise, whether from others or from ourselves, is our reward for a job well done. Savoring the pleasure of self-praise energizes us and builds our self-esteem.
We make ourselves feel worthless by comparing ourselves with other people, imagining them to be perfect and happy, while focusing on our own weaknesses and faults. When we mercilessly compare ourselves to others and overlook their flaws, naturally we seem worse in comparison. We can turn this self defeating habit upside down by realizing that no matter what we’re going through, there are many people who are going through worse. By comparing ourselves to those less fortunate we can feel better about ourselves. Better yet, we can learn to appreciate our own and other people’s good points without the added burden of comparison.
Focusing on areas of influence
When we worry about the things we can’t control, we feel helpless. No matter how much we fret, our complaints and wishes don’t change the weather or improve our chances of winning the lottery. To regain a sense of responsibility and energy we need to focus on the actions within our control. When take action, and then accomplish real change, no matter how small, we feel more empowered. As we experience our own small victories we build a foundation of self-esteem, one success at a time.
Focus on strengths
Many of us focus far too much attention on our weaknesses, despite the fact that such a focus makes us feel worthless. Why do we continue to place more emphasis on our own faults? Perhaps our parents harped on what we couldn’t do rather than what we could. In addition, we might have received negative feedback in school. If we didn’t fit in, or didn’t excel academically we learn to see ourselves as flawed, inadequate people. Rather than pouring so much importance and worry into our perceived weaknesses, we can open ourselves up to our strengths. We can pay more attention and get more involved in dimensions of ourselves that were probably overlooked in school, such as entrepreneurial skills, caring for others, creative arts, and spirituality. When we broaden our definition of success, we can find niches in other areas of life that are every bit as rewarding and fulfilling as more conventional pursuits.
Accepting praise from others
We are social beings, and so we learn where we stand by observing how other people respond to our actions. Tuning into less positive response we find ways to improve our actions or seek others with whom to interact. And carefully processing praise, we appreciate what we’re doing right. Ideally, our connection with others, becomes like a dance, giving us feedback which we use to adjust our response, and improve our harmony.
Unfortunately, when low self-esteem takes control, we tend to filter what we hear, letting in only criticism, while ignoring praise. By placing our main focus on negative feedback, we manipulate our perception of other people’s opinions to reinforce our bad feelings about ourselves. Such negative filtering supposedly “proves” that we are inadequate, giving us “evidence” that we use to make ourselves feel worse.
We need to stop this vicious cycle. To counteract our habit of accepting only criticism, we should learn to carefully focus on praise, and absorb it. This will help us become consciously aware of the positive opinions of others, and help us realize our negative ideas about ourselves are not supported by facts.
Accepting praise also increases our intimacy with people. When we reject praise, we block emotional connection with someone who is expressing positive regard for us, pushing them away. On the other hand, by openly acknowledging positive input, and letting the person know that we appreciate their praise, we open our heart, absorbing love and respect from people who care about us.
Deepen sense of identity
When we’re not sure who we are, naturally we don’t have a high regard for ourselves. How can we feel good about a self we barely know? If we generally don’t like ourselves, or don’t have much regard for our rights in the world, or don’t have a mission about who we want to become, chances are our sense of self is built on a shaky foundation. Without our own solid internal guidance system, we struggle to interpret what other people want from us, or make awkward guesses about what we should do, and believe that other people have rights that we don’t.
Improving the health of our sense of identity is not something we typically think about. Rather, this seems like something that should take place automatically as we were growing up. But for many of us, growing up was far from ideal. Growing up in the real world with its flaws, pressures, and pains, we may reach adulthood with a disorganized and unclear sense about who we are, what we’re supposed to do or feel, or how to relate to others.
To improve our self-esteem, we may need to improve our confidence about our identity. To do so, we should include personal growth as a central life goal. Through mission statements, counseling, creative soulful insights and accomplishments, mutually respectful relationships, service to others, healing the child within and other introspective, strengthening tools, we can gradually build a sense of purpose and a knowledge of self.
Another way to deepen our belief in our own value is to become more deeply engaged with our spiritual dimension. Belief in a compassionate higher power contributes to a solid sense of self-worth that holds up against the battering of circumstances or criticism. A spiritual basis for self-esteem endows us with fundamental rights based on our presence in this creation, not just on our accomplishments or position.
Increase tolerance for frustration
It’s easy to watch television or play a video game, but that adds nothing to our self-esteem. If instead we form the habit of creating small victories, these add up over time to give us confidence in our ability to accomplish our goals. Such self-confidence is one of the keys to self-esteem. To achieve these victories we need to plan the task, make the effort to accomplish the parts of the task, employ existing skills and learn new ones, and persist until the task is complete.
During this process we might experience anxiety wishing we were more physically comfortable, anxiety that we might fail, anxiety about learning a new skill, anxiety wondering why we are doing this task when we could be with friends or playing a video game, anxiety that no one will notice or care about our accomplishment. People with low self-esteem frequently find their efforts derailed by these frustrations, and eventually give up, no longer challenging themselves to do things that could make them feel better about themselves.
To break out of this trap we should learn how to deal with the anxiety, and not let it prevent success in things we set out to do. We need to learn how to ride through our anxiety to accomplish our goals. There are a variety of methods we can learn that can assist our effort to complete tasks.
We can observe the kinds of thoughts we tell ourselves that stop us from completing a task, and counteract these thoughts with positive ones. An effective way to counteract negative thinking is to repeat affirming phrases to ourselves, like “I can do it.” We can learn more about the kinds of body sensations that occur during this anxiety and relieve them through muscle relaxation and breathing. We can listen to soothing music. Or we may realize we are tackling our tasks too impulsively. If we slow down and break them into manageable parts, we feel more confident about each part.
Self-esteem and generosity
At first glance, we might assume that a person with low self-esteem is humble, and can easily override their own self-interest in order to serve others. On the other hand, our initial impression might be that a successful person with money and power would naturally have high self-esteem. But when we look under the surface we find that we can’t judge a person’s self-esteem by actions alone.
Self-esteem is more a measure of an internal state of satisfaction and the pleasure of being who we are. If we have low self-esteem, we may criticize others, and make ourselves feel good by putting them down or gossiping about them. We look at the people around us as high and low, weak and strong, and believe that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and that we’ll sink unless we fight our way to the top, or if we don’t want to fight our way to the top, we at least can pull other people down.
With high self-esteem, we feel confidence inside ourselves, so we don’t need to put others down to make ourselves feel good, nor do we need to manipulate their attention so we become their main focus. High self-esteem gives us the freedom to open our hearts generously, and also to have a healthy admiration for others, without being threatened by the possibility that we’ll look small or weak in comparison.
Low self-esteem drags us down in every area of our life, and could be at the heart of many problems that at first glance seem to be caused by factors outside our control. When we realize that our attitude about ourselves influence the way we act and the way people perceive us, we can explore ways to improve our core beliefs about ourselves. To get started , we need to get in touch with, and break out of mental habits of self-put down. Such habits, started in childhood, are often reinforced by dim memories and resentments we barely know we have. Healing our inner child becomes a critical step along the way of raising our self-regard.
To increase self-esteem, we also need to improve the way we look at ourselves in the present, focusing on those areas of our self that are working and build from that strong base, adding accomplishments step by step, one small victory at a time. Honoring our victories leads us to persist and try again. By honoring our own efforts we develop habits of self-praise for all successes, small and large.
See also: Affirmations, Assertiveness, Beliefs, Boundaries, Change, Child within, Depression, Goals, Self-talk, Thoughts and feelings
Revolution from within by Gloria Steinem
The Six Pillars of Self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden
Self-esteem by Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning
Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century by Howard Gardner
Seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey