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.