Steps for Overcoming Low Self-Esteem

Today I went to the nearby grocery store and passed by the section where they have day old bread and dented and damaged goods.  It brought to mind how many individuals view themselves as damaged goods.  The price mark-down shelves were an additional example of how we can make ourselves feel of lesser value than those around us. 

If you are one who holds these views, it can have a significant negative impact on your life.  These views can hold you back from experiencing greater life challenges, from achieving greater accomplishments, and even from selecting healthy or healthier relationships.  I have so often seen an individual who devalues her or himself select a companion who strongly reinforces that negative belief, resulting in a companion who is constantly emotionally, verbally, and/or physically abusive to the person with low self-esteem.  However, there is hope.  It is a difficult but certainly not impossible journey to change your self-esteem.  It will take work, time, and courage, but it is possible to improve your self-esteem.  Lower self-esteem does not have to be a permanent condition.  The following tools will help you work on improving your self-esteem in the four categories of actions, thoughts, counsel, and perspective.

Actions

Create a list of your strengths and assets.  What can be helpful here is to ask those individuals whom you trust to write a list of your strengths and assets as they view you.  This can help you gain a broader perspective.  Know at first you may find it difficult to accept positive observations of you by another person.  Try not to discount what they see in you, because it’s highly likely that they may be more objective.

Another helpful action is to find even one caring individual whom you can trust and who values you.  Research shows us that even one caring individual who supports us can boost our resilience or ability to bounce back from difficult or negative experiences. 

Volunteering is yet another tool to boost your self-esteem. Find a place to give of your time or talents to those in greater need than you.  For many, giving of ourselves has a wonderful way of helping us feel of greater value.  It’s also helpful to give to yourself.  Do something nice for yourself, even if it is treating yourself to a movie, or that latte that you seldom get.  If funds are available, a massage can be delightful (assuming that trauma is not a present part of your life to where someone touching you would be difficult). 

Other options: take a course and learn something you always wanted to, or gain a new skill.   Community colleges are great for this and not very expensive.  Take up a sport and play it. You’ll probably find new friends with a common interest.  Exercise, even walking, and sunshine can be a boost for your self-esteem.

The reason that action is so important is self-confidence typically grows through small steps.  So, step out with even one step, and try.   

Thoughts

A good place to start your change process is by assessing how you view yourself. If trauma or abuse has been a significant part of your life, you may need a professional to help guide you here.  And there is no shame in seeking help.  We all need training in areas where we may not have expertise.

Regarding unhelpful thoughts, many people with low self-esteem often find themselves making what’s called generalizing and/or catastrophizing statements.  For example, if you frequently use the words always, never, everyone, or no one in regards to negative statements about yourself or your life, these are generalizing statements.  When you hear yourself make those statements, tell yourself they’re seldom if ever true. (I can tell you with confidence that “everyone” does not feel “that” way about you.  For example, I suspect those living in China, India, Russia, or even the next city or neighborhood, don’t feel that way.) 

If you think “everyone” sees you a certain defective way, this can be devastating for your self-esteem and become a cause for immobilization in your life.  If this is the case, having someone help guide you through these false beliefs and challenge your thinking processes and beliefs can be tremendously helpful. 

In therapy, this is a part of what’s known as the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) process. For example, one CBT pioneer, Dr. Marsha Linehan, talks about developing a “Teflon mind,” referring to the substance applied to cooking pans so food doesn’t stick.  It’s a good metaphor for not allowing negative thoughts to stick, whether they come from others or yourself.  The important take away here, and one that should give you confidence in your ability to boost your self-esteem, is to know that ultimately you – and only you – have full control over which thoughts stick and which thoughts slide on through.

Counsel

You can get counsel from a family member, friend, work associate, or professional. As mentioned above, finding a skilled counselor can be huge help in guiding you towards a higher level of self-esteem.  It’s also helpful to find trusted advisors/friends, those you can trust who have proven over time they have your best interests at heart.  If trust is difficult for you, and you don’t have even one individual like this yet in your life, don’t despair, today is a good day to find a new friend.  Most probably you will find then in one of the new areas of interest you are exploring.

Perspective

As is often said, our perception can be our reality; put another way, what we think about a situation is what we believe is the reality of that situation.  The best way to talk about perspective is to give a few examples.  One individual I know well was abandoned as a newborn, left on the steps of the local hospital.  As she became a teenager she lost her adoptive mother to Parkinson’s disease, was sexually abused by an uncle, and left home at age 16. 

She could have felt that as she was abandoned by her unknown parents, she was worthless, unwanted, unloved, unlovable, and more.  Yet she told me she reached a point where she knew she had three choices: adopt a victim mentality, a survivor mentality, or a thriver mentality.  She chose to adopt a thriver mentality, went on to be happily married, raise three wonderful children, and have a fulfilled life.  She chose to not let her early experiences define her, but used them to find strength and resilience.

The second story is an amazing one about a man I know personally named Glen Harrington.   He couldn’t read for much of his life beyond a fourth-grade level, yet became a teacher in the Air Force, which led to two degrees in geology, a career in teaching, and becoming a published author at age 80, writing Two Lives in One: The Struggles and Triumphs of a Dyslexic Mensa.

Throughout most of his life he never realized was that he was dyslexic, discovering this only at about age 70. This had a huge impact on his self-esteem, and told me that he felt less than and not as capable as others, and yet he persevered.  The truly amazing part of his story is that at age 76 he was encouraged to take a test to see if he qualified for Mensa, a high IQ society open to persons who’ve attained a score within the upper two percentage points of the general population.   Glen scored in the 99.6th percentile.  Amazing.  He said just knowing he was smart has changed his entire life and his view of himself.  He was tearfully joyful.  All along he had the ability, but had allowed his belief system – his perceptions – to negatively influence his self-esteem.

The third story is one some of you may know about 4-time Grammy-award-nominee singer Jewell, who has sold over 27 million albums.  In a video interview she said she moved out of her home at age 15, becoming homeless and living in a car.  She recounted how, for a period, she was paralyzed by agoraphobia, not wanting to leave her car. 

Growing up in an abusive environment, she realized she had to learn a new emotional language to overcome her background and its negative influences.  She was determined not to repeat the patterns of abuse that had defined her early years and therefore would have to change herself to learn this new language.  As a result, she started her “Happiness Project” at age 15.  She asked herself, how was she going to learn to be a new way?  “What do happy people do?”  “How do other people behave?”  “What are some other ways of being?” 

It appears her Happiness Project was successful, as she reported she learned to overcome her fear, to overcome her thoughts (negative), and learned how to change fear into excitement and then enthusiasm.  Jewell stated, “I finally let myself be seen for all the good, bad, and ugly.”  We psychologists call this self-acceptance and it’s a wonderful place to get to. 

The above information is just a starting point on your change compass, but it’s a start.  I encourage you to understand you are of greater value than you may believe today.  So take some action, challenge your unhelpful thoughts, seek counsel and support to help you on your journey, and know that by changing your perspective you can change your self-esteem for the better. 

Wishing you Health, Hope, & Strength!