Do you find it difficult to take pride in your successes? Do you talk down to yourself when you see yourself in the mirror? Do you feel like you aren't good enough? Many people have low self-esteem, so you certainly aren't alone. Self-esteem begins in our childhood and it is shaped by our experiences with our caregivers, friends, teachers, and many others in our community.
I went to school at University of Southern California for a masters degree in mental health and military social work. If you don't know what that means exactly, don't worry, I didn't either until I learned what a social worker is and what kind of paths they can take in their careers. Basically, my degree taught me how to recognize mental health disorders in civilians, active and reserve military members, and veterans of the military and what types of therapy work to help improve their mental health. I am a veteran of the Air Force, so I had a big interest in helping other military members even before I went to school.
Now that you have some information about my background, let's forget about that for a while and talk about what I learned about self-esteem and why I think it's so important to work on improving it (and how you can do it). This isn't coming from a professional angle, just from what I've learned so far in my life.
How Your Self-Esteem Develops
As I said before, your self-esteem develops when you are very young. Every time you accomplish something, you generally look to your caregivers to give you feedback about how you are doing. If their reactions are anything but positive, their reactions can skew how you view yourself. You mostly likely would begin to see your accomplishments as anything but.
Caregivers and people in your community that surround you give you feedback all the time. If that feedback is mostly negative (whether it be outright neglect, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse), it would not be unusual for you to develop negative self-talk. My point is, if you never heard positive feedback, never knew what it was like to take pride in yourself, how could you possibly learn to do it yourself without help?
How to Improve Your Self-Esteem
*This advice is not meant to be a substitute for mental health treatment. If you have trauma due to mental, physical, and/or sexual abuse, please seek mental health treatment from a licensed professional. I have provided links to several books on self-esteem and phone numbers if you feel you need immediate help at the end of this article.
Your First Exercise:
So how do you improve your self-esteem? Well, we have to start from the beginning. You have to figure out what is true about your core self. These are things that are true about you that no one has given you and no one can take away. This may be a very difficult task for some of you, but it is very important.
For example, my core truths are that I am strong, independent, funny, wise, kind, loyal, and I love animals. Those are things that I have not been taught, coaxed, or bullied into being; I have always been those things and I always will. Make a list of all the things that are true about you. These are things that will always be true about you and your job is to tell yourself these things to yourself whenever you feel bad about yourself or find yourself talking down to yourself.
If it took years for your self-esteem to be beat down to a point you can't praise yourself, you need to start building it up. I'm not going to lie, it will take time. There's no way you will be happy and have higher self-esteem overnight You have to be persistent and remember that you need to provide the kindness and compassion your caregivers did not. Be kind to yourself, praise yourself, and be nice to yourself because you deserve it.
Your Second Exercise:
You need to work on yourself and build yourself up before you can learn to set boundaries with others. Learning to set boundaries in general tells us that we are important. We matter. We may have been told we don't matter by many people in our lives in many different ways, both verbally and non-verbally, but we have to learn that that concept is not true. Our feelings, thoughts, ideas, and morals matter just as much as anyone else's and it's important to learn how to be assertive and tell others how to treat us.
Are you the kind of person who always says yes to others even when it's at a detriment to your life? Are you afraid of making someone mad at you? Do you hate the thought of someone not liking you? I used to be like that. I learned how to set boundaries and be assertive because I was absolutely miserable.
I was living my life according to other people's wants and needs and mine were pushed to the side. Those people never really seemed to care that they were inconveniencing me or hurting me in any way because they treated me how I allowed them to treat me. I was so afraid of making people dislike me before, but when I stood up for myself you know what? I found people who respected me and the people who didn't just kind of disappeared from my life. Good people that love and respect you will understand that you can't help them all the time, that you have things going on in your life that are just as important.
Your job is to learn how to set boundaries and be assertive. This may be terrifying at first, but I guarantee that after the first time you do it, you will feel so empowered it will become second nature to you.
Think of someone in your life who always asks favors from you or something annoying that always happens to you. Do you always say yes or keep quiet when these things happen? The next time someone asks a favor from you and you can't or don't want to do it, tell them you aren't able to help them out. That's it. You may feel tempted to add an excuse, but don't. Don't give anyone a way to talk you into doing them a favor. If you say no, they don't have a way in to negotiate.
Do people always do something annoying and you never speak up? Does your friend always call you five minutes before you're supposed to meet for a planned dinner and cancel? Speak up! Tell them that while you appreciate the friendship, you don't appreciate that person not calling well beforehand to cancel the dinner. Tell them your time is important and you deserve to know well in advance so you can make other plans. By doing this you are telling them how you expect to be treated and you will not tolerate rude or disrespectful behavior. Their actions must have consequences if you are to teach others what your boundaries and expectations are.
After these exercises and confrontations, repeat to yourself, I am important, I matter, and I am strong. Confronting someone and being assertive when you've never learned how to do it can be very scary, but it is so important to be protective of yourself and your fragile self-esteem. Repeat your core truths about yourself as well. Treat yourself as if you are your own caregiver. Give yourself the love, respect, understanding and compassion you needed growing up.
Your Third Exercise:
It is very likely that if you have low self-esteem that you also have a negative body image. Once you learn to receive the message of your core truths from yourself and it becomes part of your belief system, once you learn to set healthy boundaries and be assertive, you can begin to work on how you view yourself.
You may not believe that the way you look is good enough until you are able to believe that you are good enough as a person. You may not be able to even hear what you have to say about yourself until you can be assertive and set boundaries with people who have hurt you and may continue to hurt you.
The first two exercises allow you to build up protective barriers from those who hurt you. You first have to believe you are good enough and are a wonderful person in order to take the negative things people say about you and reject those false messages before you can build walls to protect from others who will try to tear your self-esteem down again. Being assertive and setting boundaries allows you to protect yourself so no one can get to the core of who you are and make you question your self-worth ever again.
Once you have completed the first two exercises and feel confident being assertive and setting boundaries, you can work on your body image.
Your job is to look at your body in a full-length mirror. The best thing to do is to be completely naked, so before or after a shower might work for you. Look at your body without judgment. This may be very difficult. You may find yourself zeroing in on "problem areas". Notice what you are doing and go back to observing your body. Look at yourself like you would someone you love and take care of. Love yourself unconditionally; your self-worth isn't found in your legs, arms, head, or anywhere else. No matter what anyone told you, you are wonderful as you. Tell yourself that. When you tell yourself you have a fat tummy, scars, wrinkles, etc., you are saying, you're not good enough and it's not true. Repeat your core truths and tell yourself you have an awesome body. Instead of saying, I have a fat tummy, say, I love my tummy, it's soft and beautiful. Instead of saying, I have scars, say, I love my scars, they are beautiful. They make me, me. Only I look like this, only I have this body, and I am awesome.
Every time you see yourself in a mirror, really look at yourself. Make it a point to do it and look at yourself with love, not criticism. You need to say positive things about your body even if it seems dumb or repetitive. You need to be kind and loving towards yourself. Do you ever get tired of hugs, or someone telling you you are awesome? Do you ever get tired of hearing, I love you? Praise yourself and love yourself. You need to let yourself know you love yourself and that you are good enough in every way.
Building your self-esteem takes a significant amount of work and you have to put the effort in to make it happen. I will tell you it is life-changing. It can make so many aspects of your life better; you will feel so much better about who you are and know that the days of people mistreating you are over, but only if you put in the work.
If you are interested in pursuing therapy, there are many different types of therapy that can help you. I have personally worked with therapists where we tried Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). CBT focuses on your thoughts and behaviors and how you can learn to challenge negative thoughts and change negative behaviors, while ACT focuses on acceptance of past traumas, how to focus on things that are important to you, and how to incorporate mindfulness and meditation in your everyday life.
While visiting a licensed mental health professional, ask about the different types of therapy they are experienced in practicing and ask them to explain how those therapies can help you. Think about what your goals are before you visit so you know what you want to work on. I find that choosing one or two main goals is very helpful when choosing what kind of therapy will work for you. This allows the therapist to think about which therapy would work best to help you complete your goals.
A lot of people going to therapy don't know this or think about this, but you do not have to stay with a therapist you do not mesh with. You are allowed to speak up and tell the therapist that while you appreciate their help, you would feel more comfortable with a different therapist. You are allowed to tell a therapist you are seeing that you do not feel a certain therapy is helping you. You do have to give the therapy a chance though, don't just give up after two sessions because it's difficult, but definitely speak up if it's been some time and you don't see an improvement or things are getting worse for you. Your therapist is there to help you, but it is your job to let them know how you are feeling and what you are thinking; they can't fully help you unless you are honest with them.
Another thing to remember, your work isn't done when you leave the therapist's office. The best thing you can do for yourself is continue to do work to help yourself at home. Repeat your core truths, show yourself compassion, be kind to yourself, and love yourself unconditionally.
*These links are to Amazon, but you can buy these books wherever you like. I do not receive any compensation for these book recommendations; they are books I have read and like.
Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Raise Your Self-Esteem, Quiet Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame by Beverly Engel
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward and Craig Black
People That Can Help You In A Crisis:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1-800-273-8755
Crisis Text Line - Text CONNECT to 741741
National Sexual Assault Hotline (created by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)) - 800-656-4673
The National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1-800-799-7233 (English) / 1-800-787-3224 (Espanol) / There is also an online chat on the website
Veterans Crisis Line - 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1)
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline- 800-931-2237
I hope this has helped you. Please share any thoughts you have in the comment section below.