When we have low self-esteem, we feel anxious, helpless and depressed. We may not be able to accomplish our goals, have fulfilling relationships and create a meaningful life for ourselves.
If you’re struggling with low self-esteem, you might see yourself in the below words. Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D, includes them in her newest book Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem: A Guide to Building Confidence and Connection One Step at a Time.
“I am self-conscious about everything. I don’t like my looks, my personality, or my background. Don’t tell me to be myself. That’s my problem. I don’t want to be myself. I don’t like me.” ~ 45-year-old woman
“…My boyfriend left me kind of out of the blue. I’m devastated! I thought he was my best friend. How can I love myself when he doesn’t love me?” ~ 22-year-old woman
“I can’t settle on any career. Even though I was always in gifted programs in school, I’ve never felt good enough. I’ve already left two graduate programs, and I’ve quit a lot of jobs. Even thinking about what I should do next makes me so anxious and upset that I can’t make a decision.” ~ 24-year-old man
Since the 1970s self-esteem has been all about feeling good about ourselves. However, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is doing good, according to Hartwell-Walker, a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Massachusetts.
In Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem she introduces the concept of genuine self-esteem, which includes both pieces. “Genuine self-esteem is actually a restatement of what philosophers and psychologists in the early 19th century understood,” she said. That is, our positive feelings about ourselves also “need to be grounded in being a decent person who lives decently.”
She cited this 2003 retrospective study of 15,000 studies, which found that feeling good about yourself didn’t lead to better performance, success, happiness or healthier lifestyles.
However, research on feeling good and doing good has found that “people are more successful in just about any goal they set for themselves if they live by a positive system of values and do positive things for others,” said Hartwell-Walker, also a long-time contributor to Psych Central and one of our Ask the Therapists.
Cultivating genuine self-esteem takes work and awareness, she said. It’s a lifelong process. It means balancing “our feelings with our doings.”
In Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem Hartwell-Walker shares a 3-month plan to help readers create a fuller, more meaningful life based on our values. She features valuable insights and exercises on having the courage to stand up for our beliefs and values; building more positivity into our lives; developing a mindfulness practice; and nourishing positive relationships.
Below are three of my favorite exercises from the book for cultivating genuine self-esteem.
1. Discover your character strengths.
The father of positive psychology Martin Seligman identified 24 character strengths that each of us embodies (to varying degrees) and helps us to thrive. Hartwell-Walker notes that these strengths are really values. Seligman divided the strengths into six categories: wisdom and knowledge; love and connectedness; courage to meet difficulties; participation in community and justice; temperance; and transcendence, or a connection with an enduring sense of meaning.
According to Seligman, each of us has five strengths or values, which are more salient than the others. Discover your five character strengths by taking this quiz.
Then, engage in one or more of your strengths at least three times a week. “Whenever possible, do your best to find ways to use strengths that connect you more with others,” Hartwell-Walker writes. For instance, if appreciation of beauty is a strength, visit an art exhibit with a friend. If social intelligence is a strength, hang out with people you don’t know that well but want to.
After you finish each activity, explore how you felt doing it and how it helped you.
2. Keep a “bragging box.”
According to Hartwell-Walker, a bragging box is where you store “things that remind you of your strengths: thank-you notes, certificates of appreciation, cards you’ve received, and other objects that remind you of successes that were meaningful to you.”
She keeps a simple file next to unpleasant things like bills. Her file is filled with everything from certificates for completing tough trainings to an anniversary card from her husband of over 45 years.
3. Pen a letter of forgiveness.
Doing good doesn’t happen in a social vacuum, Hartwell-Walker writes. “Someone has to be on the receiving end of all that good doing. Relationships, then, are central to having genuine self-esteem.”
All of us have said or done hurtful things. And you’ve probably been beating yourself up about it. But making mistakes is human.
We may be able to repair a relationship by asking for forgiveness. Also, by taking responsibility for our actions, we do something worthwhile, which might make us feel better about ourselves.
Journal about a person you’ve hurt in the past, what you did, whether it made sense at the time and your view of your actions today. “Give yourself the same understanding and compassion you’d extend to a good friend who did something hurtful and now feels terrible about it.”
Write a letter to that person, apologizing, taking responsibility for your contribution and sharing your guilt. You can mail your letter. The person may or may not respond well. If they don’t, this just leaves you where you were. Maybe both of you decide to mend your relationship. Or maybe they’ve moved on, and it’s better to leave things as they are.
Ultimately, according to Hartwell-Walker, the two parts of genuine self-esteem constantly interact with each other. “Feeling good about ourselves is the outcome of doing good things and doing good things (things that contribute to our community and to others’ well-being) is what makes us feel good.”
And the good thing is that each of us can do this. And we can start at any time.
Writing a letter photo available from Shutterstock.