Self-esteem gets a bad rap. Some view self-esteem as arrogance, narcissism or selfishness. It’s anything but.
Individuals with healthy self-esteem are humble and recognize all people’s worth, according to Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D., author of The Self-Esteem Workbook and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. They’re also realistic. Those with good self-esteem are able to realistically and honestly evaluate their strengths, weaknesses and potential.
According to Schiraldi, self-esteem consists of three elements: unconditional love, unconditional worth and growth — “a deep, quiet inner security that is not easily shaken under duress or after a disappointing performance.”
Research has found positive links between healthy self-esteem and many desirable outcomes, including happiness, humility, resilience and optimism. Studies show that low self-esteem is related to stress, depression and anxiety.
Some psychologists believe that self-esteem stays where it is permanently. In other words, if you have low self-esteem, there’s nothing you can do to improve it. Schiraldi disagrees and sees several reasons for this misunderstanding. “Usually, criticism springs from simplistic, or sometimes false, definitions, lack of understanding about how it changes, and measurement challenges,” he said. Improving self-esteem is not a quick or easy process, he noted, and simplistic interventions don’t work. It takes time and practice to genuinely enhance self-esteem.
Lisa Firestone, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, also believes it’s possible to lift low self-esteem. She cites neuroplasticity as a major reason. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change structurally and functionally as a result of our environment.
What Doesn’t Work in Boosting Self-Esteem
Empty affirmations don’t work. Telling someone they’re smarter and better than others doesn’t boost self-esteem. Rather, it just sets people up for failure and a shaky self-esteem.
“Everyone doesn’t deserve a trophy for showing up, but everyone can feel that they have as much right to play and enjoy the process of improving as anyone else does,” Schiraldi said.
Strategies for Strengthening Self-Esteem
Practice healthy habits. According to Schiraldi, it’s important to prepare your brain — “maximizing the health, function and receptivity to new learning of neurons” — before studying new skills. This includes feeding your body nutritious foods, participating in physical activities, getting enough sleep and treating medical or psychological conditions. “For example, if one has been shamed by sexual abuse, it is usually critical to heal the emotional wounds before trying to get to a more positive place,” he said.
Recognize how you’re attacking yourself. Identify what you may be doing to perpetuate your low self-esteem, Firestone said. For instance, you might choose to surround yourself with toxic people who further sink your self-esteem. Or you might encourage others to talk down to you. Many people don’t voice their needs and let others speak for them.
Once you can recognize the ways you sabotage yourself, you can work through them. Take the example of articulating your needs. If you’re too passive to do so, learn how you can become more assertive. Start small: Ask your roommate to turn the music down, say no to an event you don’t want to attend or ask your server to have a cold entrée reheated.
Identify and challenge self-critical thoughts. Certain distorted thought patterns enable low self-esteem. A common distortion is personalizing, which Schiraldi describes in The Self-Esteem Workbook as “seeing yourself as more involved in negative events than you really are.” Maybe you take full responsibility for your spouse’s fatigue, your son failing his math final or your boss being mad.
In his book, Schiraldi offers two antidotes to personalizing. First, remember that you may be able to influence someone’s behavior but you certainly don’t cause it. “The final decision is theirs, not ours,” he writes. Next, look for other influences in a situation. Instead of believing that you can’t accomplish a certain project, acknowledge that it’s a tough task and you’re in a noisy environment.
You also can learn to challenge other negative thoughts, he said, such as: “I’m a loser,” “I can’t do anything,” or “I’m completely inadequate and will always be so.” To learn more, here are 15 cognitive distortions, how to fix them and more on challenging these distortions.
Find out who you are. A healthy self-esteem also means having a quiet gladness about who you are, Schiraldi said. But first you need to know who that person is. “Every individual must determine his or her own values, principles, and moral standards and live by them,” Firestone said.
What do you value in life? What matters to you? Once you can pinpoint your values, you might even realize that the very things you beat yourself up about have nothing to do with your goals. For instance, one of Firestone’s clients berated himself for not earning a high enough salary. But when he and Firestone explored his goals and dreams, he realized that doing meaningful work, helping others and spending time with his family were all more important than earning a specific income.
Getting to know yourself better also helps you assess your traits and determine which are in line with the kind of person you’d like to be, Firestone said. Another client realized that one of his core values is to be kind. But his interactions with his wife were antagonistic. He was so worried that his wife would attack him that he’d make preemptive strikes. He worked on finding ways to avoid being on the offensive.
Again, a healthy self-esteem doesn’t mean thinking you’re flawless; it means knowing realistically what you need to work on and making the necessary changes, Firestone said. If you’d like to be more social, start volunteering and join a book club. If you have a short fuse, see a therapist to work on your anger issues. If you don’t like that people walk all over you, read up on setting boundaries.
Learn what lights you up. People with low self-esteem often have a long can’t-do list, Firestone said. They may have incorrect ideas of what they’re capable of. What helps is to challenge these thoughts and try new activities. For instance, Firestone always thought of herself as a shy person until a friend encouraged her to try public speaking. She started slowly by doing presentations with her friend, attending other presentations to see what worked and practicing at home. Now, public speaking is a passion of hers. “Doing things that matter to you helps you build up confidence,” she said.
Appreciate your body. “The way we experience our bodies often parallels the way we experience our core selves, “according to Schiraldi. So if you’re tough on your body — bashing your weight, shape or wrinkles — you’ll likely be tough on your core and have a conditional self-esteem.
Appreciating your body with all its imperfections can help you cultivate a more accepting view of yourself as a whole. In The Self-Esteem Workbook, Schiraldi explains how amazing the body really is. For instance, did you know that the heart, which weighs just eleven ounces, pumps three thousand gallons of blood per day? “Technology cannot replicate the heart’s durability. The force of blood hurled against the aorta would quickly damage rigid pipes, while the flexible, tissue-thin valves of the heart are sturdier than any man-made materials,” he writes.
Accept your imperfections. Think of your best friend, partner or kids. Why do you love them? Undoubtedly it has little to do with their flawless traits. We don’t wait to love others until they’re perfect. If we did, as Schiraldi said, then no one would be loved.
“Love is a choice and a commitment that we make each day, despite our imperfections,” Schiraldi said. And we can make the same choice and commitment to love ourselves as well, warts and all. According to Schiraldi, what helps to cultivate self-acceptance is mindfulness, which teaches compassion for the self and others along with the ability to sit with painful emotions. (Here’s another way to cultivate self-compassion.)
Again, having a positive self-esteem isn’t selfish. It’s important for leading a fulfilling, healthy life, which in turn helps you help others.
Here are signs of low self-esteem. If you see yourself in them, you can use the tips outlined here to help.