1. Skip empty "affirmations."
John was 25 when he came to see me for psychotherapy. The previous year he had quit his “boring office job” and moved back in with his parents to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He now had a part-time job as a barista, played video games, and saw friends on weekends. As for figuring out his life—he wasn't.
“I think what’s holding me back is my self-esteem,” he said during our first session. “I just don’t feel good about myself—in any way.” John had tried to improve his self-esteem by repeating positive affirmations several times a day: I’m going to be a big success, and I can do anything I put my mind to.
“The positive affirmations you’re using are not good,” I explained to John, “both grammatically and psychologically. But the bigger problem is there seems to be nothing in your life that is nourishing your self-esteem—you’re not doing anything that would make you feel good about yourself.”
Indeed, we have to nourish our self-esteem. If we want to feel good about ourselves, we have to do things that actually make us feel proud, accomplished, appreciated, respected, or empowered, or take steps that make us feel that we’re advancing toward our goals. John was doing none of these things.
5 Steps to Nourishing Self-Esteem
1. Avoid generic positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations are like empty calories. You can tell yourself you’re great but if you don’t really believe it, your mind will reject the affirmation and make you feel worse as a result. Affirmations only work when they fall within the range of believability, and for people with low self-esteem, they usually don't.
2. Identify areas of authentic strength or competency.
To begin building your self-esteem, you have to identify what you’re good at, what you do well, or what you do that other people appreciate. It can be something small, a single small step in the right direction, but it is has to be something. If John were a champion video game player, that could have done the trick. But he wasn’t that dedicated. As a result, the hours he spent playing did not provide his self-esteem any emotional nourishment.
3. Demonstrate ability.
Once you’ve identified an area of strength, find ways to demonstrate it. If you’re a good bowler, join a bowling league. If you’re a good writer, post an essay to a blog. If you’re a good planner, organize the family reunion. Engage in the things you do well.
4. Learn to tolerate positive feedback.
When our self-esteem is low we become resistant to compliments. (See Why Some People Hate Compliments.) Work on accepting compliments graciously (a simple "thank you" is sufficient). Hard as it might feel to do so, especially at first, being able to receive compliments is very important for those seeking to nourish their self-esteem.
Once you’ve demonstrated your ability, allow yourself to feel good about it, proud, satisfied, or pleased with yourself. Self-affirmations are specifically crafted positive messages we can give ourselves based on our true strengths (e.g., I'm a fantastic cook). Realize it is not arrogant to feel proud of the things you are actually good at, whatever they are, as when your self-esteem is low, every ounce of emotional nourishment helps.
Self-esteem is not fueled by hope—“I’ll be successful any day now”—or by false beliefs—“I’m the greatest." It's fueled by authentic experiences of competence and ability, and well-deserved feedback. If those are lacking in your life, take action to bring them into your daily experience by demonstrating your abilities and opening yourself up to positive feedback (from yourself as well as from others) once you do.