“When our emotional health is in a bad state, so is our level of self-esteem. We have to slow down and deal with what is troubling us, so that we can enjoy the simple joy of being happy and at peace with ourselves.”
― Jess Scott
Self-esteem can be defined as healthy respect for yourself, as well as healthy self-worth. In our competitive, material driven, image conscious, and achievement oriented society, the propensity to be affected by low self-esteem is chronic and pervasive.
The good news is that having low-self-esteem is largely a learned phenomenon. Low self-esteem issues are essentially poor habits in our attitude and our intra-personal communication (self-talk). By learning empowering perspectives and effective intra-personal communication skills, you can progressively replace poor self-esteem with healthy self-esteem. Here are seven keys to changing low self-esteem:
1. Avoid Generalization
In private coaching, I often hear clients say: “I have low self-esteem.” There are several problems with this statement. First, it presumes a general, “all or none” perspective, as if either one has high self-esteem, or one has low self-esteem. If you take an honest assessment of yourself, chances are that you can come up with a list of qualities that make you feel good. For instance, if you’re reading this article, it most likely means that you possess self-awareness, the willingness to learn and grow, and a desire to realize more of your potential, all of which bode well for your future success.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle on the spectrum between high self-esteem and low self-esteem. If you ever find yourself saying or thinking: “I have low self-esteem,” please stop. It is a general, all encompassing, personalizing, and self-defeating comment that simply isn’t true. Saying you have low self-esteem can also make the problem seem so big and daunting that you may feel relatively powerless to do anything. Instead…
2. Divide and Conquer Your Low Self-Esteem
It’s more accurate and empowering to be specific about particular aspects of your life where you lack confidence, be it your weight, your competence to speak publically, your capacity to attract the “right” romantic partner, or your ability to deal with a difficult individual. Saying “I have low self-esteem” is very different than saying “I have self-esteem issues about my weight.” The first is general and personal - it makes low self-esteem into an all-encompassing character flaw. The second is about an issue that you have. It does not invalidate other aspects of who you are as a person. As an issue, the problem can be diagnosed and solved.
“Soft on the person, firm on the issue.”
― One of the four key characteristics of effective communication, from the author’s book (cl “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People."
3. Notice Your Negative Thought Patterns – from a Distance
To change low self-esteem, it’s important to observe when we’re engaged in thought patterns that sabotage self–worth. When low self-esteem issues have been conditioned for many years, the resulting negative thought patterns are likely automatic and unconscious, until you pause them with your Observer Self.
The Observer Self is a useful psychological resource that helps increase awareness in many situations. It is the part of your consciousness that exercises mindfulness, and helps you make intelligent, thoughtful choices.
For example, if you have the tendency to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and think “I’m unattractive;” instead, simply notice and make a mental note to yourself that “I just had a negative thought.” This objective observation is your Observer Self in action. Notice your negative thoughts without judgement. Avoid beating yourself up about the low self-esteem issue(s). Simply notice, with curiosity as if you’re watching yourself in an experiment, and even with compassion and humour. Say, for example, from your Observer Self to your lower-esteem self : “There goes my lower self again. Hello! That’s alright. You can feel this way if you like. I’m here for you. I know what to do to take good care of you.” When you utilize your Observer Self in this way on a regular basis, you progressively distance yourself from the negative thoughts, psychologically and emotionally. This gives you the opening to introduce healthy self-esteem habits outlined in points #4-7 below.
4. Talk Back to Your Negative Thoughts with Assertive Responses
Once you distance yourself from your negative thoughts, you can more easily talk back to them, and replace the negative thoughts with positive, empowering thoughts. This action is positive habit forming with repetition, persistence, and determination. Here are just two examples:
A. Reducing negative personalization. When you feel adversely about someone’s behavior, avoid jumping to a negative conclusion right away. Instead, come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting. For example, I may be tempted to think my friend didn’t return my call because she’s ignoring me, or I can consider the possibility that she’s been very busy. When we avoid personalizing other people's behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively. People do what they do because of them more than because of us. Widening our perspective can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.
B. Reducing the fear of rejection.
One effective way to manage your fear of rejection is to provide yourself with multiple options in important situations, so that no matter what happens, you have strong alternatives going forward. Avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket (emotionally) by identifying a viable Plan B, and also a Plan C, should Plan A not work out. For example:
Increased fear of rejection: “I’m applying for my dream job. I’ll be devastated if they don’t hire me.”
Decreased fear of rejection: “I’m applying for three exciting positions. If one doesn’t pan out, there are two more I’m well qualified for.”
5. Recognize Where You May Be Running Your Old Tape
When we contemplate where we might have picked up certain low self-esteem issues, we may recall past experiences when we internalized negative or “double-edged” influences. For example:
- Watching “beautiful,” skinny models in the media as a child may have caused insecurity about one’s own body.
- Being teased in front of class while giving a report may have induced a fear of public speaking.
- Witnessing the parents’ divorce as a young person may have affected one’s confidence in having a successful committed relationship.
- Being taught socially or culturally to respect authority may have inhibited one’s assertiveness in dealing with difficult managers.
Being aware of the possible origins of one’s low self-esteem, and recognizing that low self-esteem is largely learned is an inherently empowering exercise. As a learned anomaly, low self-esteem can also be unlearned, just like replace a poor habit with a healthy habit. In "How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions,” I present a step-by-step exercise on how to recognize and eradicate one’s negatively conditioned “old tape”.
6. Change Negative Social Comparisons to Humanization
One of the easiest and most common ways to feel bad about oneself is to compare yourself unfavourably to others. We may be tempted to compare ourselves with those who have more accomplishments, seem more attractive, make more money, or boast more Facebook friends.
When you find yourself wishing to have what someone else has, and feel jealous, inferior or inadequate as the result, you’re having a negative social comparison moment.
Habitual negative social comparisons can cause a person to experience greater stress, anxiety, depression, and make self-defeating choices.
Two interesting notes about negative social comparison:
A. Negative social comparison has elements of narcissism.
When we wish to look, be, or have like others, we’re not really wishing for everything about that person, but only the idealized aspects of the individual. This idealized and grandiose perception of another is narcissistic in nature. Chances are, not even those whom your compare yourself with can live up to your idealized images of them. This is why so often when people spend some length of time with their “heroes,” “heroines,” “role models,” or “idols,” they discover that those whom they look up to also have weaknesses, flaws, difficulties and problems just like everyone else.
B. It’s relatively easy to change from idealizing to humanizing.
For example, you may wish that you have the perfect career and a lot of money like your manager Joe, or the good looks of your friend Kelly, or a wonderful romantic relationship like Samantha. Comparing yourself with them might cause you to feel somehow “lesser.” But when you look at their lives more objectively, you know that Joe has health problems and family issues, Kelly is actually insecure about her looks, and it took Samantha a painful divorce and many hard lessons before she found a compatible mate. Looking at them from a more balanced perspective, you realize there’s more than meets the eye, and that they’re human beings with their own share of challenges like you.
7. Create Positive Sanctuaries In Your Life
The final tip to change from low self-esteem to healthy self-esteem is to create positive sanctuaries in your life, where on a regular basis you can receive supportive, realistic, and affirming messages. This can occur in the company of positive family members, friends, counsellor, therapist, support groups, teachers, colleagues, or community organizations. Identify and embrace your basis of support based on acceptance of who you are as a person, empathy for your weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and encouragement for you to move forward in your life in a healthy and constructive way.
“You can’t fly like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys!”
“Around people who are positive…I'm happier and able to be who I am.”
― from the Internet
In addition, create a positive sanctuary in your own inner life. Each morning or evening, take a few minutes to acknowledging and affirm yourself. Validate what’s working in your life (no matter how large or small), identify purposeful goals, and count your blessings. Express gratitude for what you already have. Develop a daily ritual to resource and empower yourself.