One of my specialties is healthy relationships. There are many things that help relationships to thrive and they are certainly complicated. But one thing I know for sure: the relationship you have with yourself is the most important one. The quality of all your relationships is directly linked to the health of the relationship you have with YOU.
You are the only person you will be in relationship with until you die. So, shouldn’t you pay close attention to it and nurture it? It’s easy for us to focus outward and rely on friends and family and romantic relationships to help us feel important and loved and valued. That stuff is great. And also, the most basic ingredient to a thriving relationship that we have control over is how we relate to ourselves.
How highly do you regard yourself? How kindly do you reflect on who you are and your unique attributes? How do you talk to yourself or about yourself? If you struggle in this area, there are 6 things you can start doing right now to create a positive shift.
We're all heavily influenced by our society, which values flawless performance and places great emphasis on winning and performing perfectly. We often lose sight of the fact that we can value ourselves in spite of making mistakes or not being “the best.” While it is only natural to care about performing as well as we can, it is also important to learn to feel good about ourselves just for who we are, as we are right now.
If you were lucky, as a small child you had self-confidence without even considering it. You were valued by parents or teachers or classmates just for being there, just for being a person. Up until a certain age, the value that other people placed on us and that which we placed on ourselves had very little to do with how well we did or how well we performed.
And then things changed.
As we hit middle school and then grew into adults, we started to believe that we must continually justify our place in the world or our worthiness for love and approval. Get good grades, be a good athlete, be diligent with chores, get into an impressive college, get an impressive job. We started to believe that we have to daily prove to other people that we are worthy of their esteem, approval, and attention. We tricked ourselves that through their approval we can convince ourselves that we are really valuable.
It doesn’t work. There is never enough external approval. We always want more. More Likes. More Shares. More compliments. More positive feedback. More pay to indicate our worth. More sex to feel loved. We always want more because true self-esteem is an inside job. It’s about you liking you, not others liking you.
So let’s start.
6 ways to improve your self-esteem without therapy:
1. Observe and modify your self-talk.
We all talk to ourselves throughout the day. This running commentary can be a source of support or it can be a cruel bully. Which is yours?
“Ugh, my stomach is so fat.”
“Dammit, I can’t believe I did that.”
“What’s wrong with me?!?!”
“Crap, I f**ked it up again.”
All day long, we are scolding ourselves. A common culprit is the use of the word “should.” As in “I should’ve gotten up earlier,” “I should have exercised more,” “I should be further along in my career by this age.” Especially when focused on past decisions, should statements are just judgments of ourselves for not doing things differently or “better” during moments that have already passed. That’s not motivating or kind. And our past actions can’t be changed, so we end up spending energy judging the past that could be put towards changing the present.
When you notice that you are judging or critiquing yourself, replace these thoughts with a more balanced self-assessment and some supportive direction.
“Next time I plan to get up earlier,”
“Tomorrow I’ll work hard to walk a little further,”
“I’m going to talk to my boss about advancement options.”
Start using the “best friend rule” and try not to say anything to yourself that you would not say in all sincerity to a close friend.
2. Make a list of the things that you do like about yourself.
If you struggle with this, you can start by thinking about traits and qualities that you like in other people. You will likely notice that you have some of these same qualities. Focus on things about yourself that you think are pretty good already (rather than focusing on what you don’t like). This will help shift your internal narrative about who you are.
If you’re stuck, you can also ask people that care about you what they see in you and add this to your list. Keep working on the list over time, nothing is too little to write down. For significant change, read over your list regularly (daily!) to start re-shaping what you appreciate and choose to focus on about who you are.
3. Stop comparing yourself to others.
When we compare ourselves to someone else, we almost always compare upwards. As in, we look at the people that are achieving more or that we think are prettier or more popular and we condemn ourselves as inferior. You’re not often comparing yourself to the person who didn’t get to finish high school or who doesn’t have adequate income for a stable place to live.
Compare yourself to yourself. This means: notice your areas of effort or growth over time. And compassionately compare yourself now to who you want to be in the future. Refrain from critiquing yourself for not being that future version yet. Take time to create a realistic plan to move in that direction. Be a coach for yourself instead of a bully. Moments of self-criticism are also important moments to use self-compassion (it's different than self esteem).
4. Set a small, achievable goal for yourself.
When we experience success in something we care about, we build up our internal assessment of our capability overall as a person. This is linked to higher esteem. When you create a goal and then stick to it over time, it increases your sense of pride and strength.
Choose a goal where the probability of success is high and is within your control, like reading more or walking more or learning a new skill. You can start with something you already know you’re good at and aim to increase the intensity/frequency. Or look for new projects which stretch--but don't overwhelm--your abilities.
Each time you stick to your effort, celebrate the effort, not the outcome.
“I did it! One more day of walking done.”
“Cool, I tried a recipe I’ve never tried before!”
“Nice, that was frustrating to learn how to fix my mower, but I stuck with it anyway.”
Whatever you accomplish, prompt yourself to reflect for a minute to acknowledge your effort and the good feelings about it.
5. Make an effort to take good care of yourself.
When you do things that are caring and kind for your body and your mental health, it reinforces the internal idea that you know you are worth caring about. Reflect on what your personal areas of physical, emotional, cognitive and relationship health need.
Some areas to consider: improving sleep, improving nutrition, getting some physical movement, having healthy boundaries in your interactions, and doing intentional things to lift your mood when you notice you are struggling. The more you prioritize identifying and meeting your needs, the more you will start to realize (and reinforce) that you matter and you are worthy as a person.
Extending the "talk to yourself like you would a best friend" metaphor - take time to treat yourself with fondness and kindness, as you would a valued friend.
6. Identify one single word that describes you.
When you are feeling your best, what is an accurate way to sum yourself up in a single word? Caring? Reliable? Loyal? Hard-working? Ethical? Reflect on this for a moment and identify a word that feels true. If all you come up with is a negative trait, keep working on it. You may need to ask someone who cares about you for some insight.
Once you have your word, you can start your day and end your day with a little reminder by saying it out loud or writing it on paper or just repeating it in your head a few times while you brush your teeth.
You can also lean on it when the bully voice starts to creep up. By simply repeating your word "I'm a caring person. I'm a caring person. I'm a caring person." when you face the inner bully voice, you can prevent the bully voice from getting more energy or volume.
The more effort you make to repeat to yourself that you are that caring/loyal/reliable person, the faster you can chip away at your pattern of making negative judgements of yourself in the moment.
There are plenty of books and workshops dedicated to the concept of increasing self-esteem. It's not a quick process, but you can certainly make a dent and notice some positive shift if you make the decision to create a change and take the steps.
Know that temporary fluctuations in our feelings of self-esteem are quite common. Our brain's first reaction to unwanted outcomes is to "solve the problem," often by pointing out where you messed things up. The goal is to let this be a temporary dip and something that you coach yourself through.
If your self-esteem is or has been low for a long period of time, and you tried the above strategies for a while, you might want to take a more structured approach. That's a good time to look into outside resources like books, workshops, support groups and therapy to help get you even further towards loving yourself and treating yourself as you deserve.