As a psychologist, I spend a lot of time talking to people who struggle with low self-esteem. They say things like:
I’m very successful, but it never feels like enough.
I know this is bad to say, but I just never feel worthy.
But whatever the original cause of your low self-esteem, here’s what you need to understand about it:
Self-esteem is something you can build with better habits.
Most people spend so much time trying to understand their low self-esteem, that they don’t have any energy left to build higher self-esteem.
If you want better self-esteem, focus on identifying and building consistent habits that will improve your self-esteem. Here are four pretty good ones to start with.
1. Spend More Time with People You Actually Enjoy
Jim Rohn famously said:
You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
This is often interpreted in terms of success, productivity, and ambition: If you hang around with lazy, unmotivated people, it’s going to rub off on you negatively.
What people miss about this quote is that it applies to more than just success and achievement…
The people you consistently spend time with affect your wellbeing and self-esteem too.
If you constantly hang around people who don’t particularly like you, that’s gonna rub off and it’s going to be harder to like yourself more. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time with people who genuinely like you and enjoy spending time with you, it’s going to be much easier to like yourself more.
On one level this seems obvious: Spend more time with people you actually enjoy! But this can be a surprisingly hard thing to do because competing desires often interfere.
For example, while many people like the idea of hanging around people they genuinely enjoy, they also like the idea of hanging around people who will advance their social standing. And more often than not, the second desire outcompetes the first:
Instead of going to dinner and a movie with your easy-going buddy from high-school, you commit to attending a dinner party with a co-worker who could put in a good word for you with the partners at the firm.
Instead of joining that Tuesday evening mystery novel book club you’ve been so excited about, you commit to attending Tuesday night PTAs, a group you don’t mind but also don’t particularly jibe with.
If you find yourself chronically spending time with people you don’t really enjoy, take a moment to consider why that is. What’s motivating you to do this? Social pressure? Ambition? Fear?
Then, try experimenting in very small ways with spending more time with people you truly enjoy: Email your fellow PTAers letting them know you won’t be able to make it this week and get coffee with your best friend instead. Text an old buddy and grab lunch with them instead of a coworker.
Spend a little more time with people you enjoy and who enjoy you back and you just might start to enjoy yourself.
“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
2. Practice Gentle Self-Talk
I think all of us have people in our lives who are critical, negative, and at times, just plain mean:
Maybe it’s your manager at work who’s always criticizing your performance and comparing you to other coworkers.
Or maybe it’s a spouse who’s perpetually sarcastic and judgmental about everything from your wardrobe choices to your parenting style.
If you have one or two of these people in your life, you know how draining and difficult it is just being around them. It’s as if they suck the life and energy right out of your soul, leaving you stressed, depressed, and empty.
Ironically, we dislike it when other people are mean to us, but we’re incredible mean to ourselves!
And the main way we’re mean to ourselves… negative self-talk.
If you struggle with low self-esteem, there’s a good chance your inner voice is a jerk. It’s harsh, judgmental, overly-critical, pessimistic, and sometimes downright cruel:
You flub the last slide in your presentation at work and instantly your inner voice jumps on you: I’m such an idiot! I always screw something up. I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to lead the presentation for the team.
You forget to give your kid a kiss when you drop her off at school and as you’re pulling out of the parking lot, your inner voice starts berating you: Oh my God, I didn’t even give her a kiss goodbye. She’s going to be so upset… I’m probably the only mom at school who forgets to give their kid a kiss goodbye. Maybe I really am just a bad mom?
Now, here’s the thing you really need to understand about your overly-negative self-talk: Even if you understand intellectually that it’s not accurate or helpful to talk that way to yourself, you’re still going to feel miserable if you keep doing it.
Self-talk is a behavior. It’s something we do. And sometimes, it’s something we do so often that it becomes a habit.
If you’re constantly cruel to yourself, you’re going to feel the same as if another person was constantly cruel to you.
The best way to undo a habit of overly negative self-talk is to focus on one simple idea: gentleness
Try to catch yourself speaking harshly or critically to yourself and ask: Is there a gentler way of talking to myself?
Instead of: I’m such an idiot! Try: Well, I did screw that that last section of the presentation up, but overall it went pretty well.
Instead of: Why am I always so lazy?! Try: I wonder if there’s a different strategy I could use to workout more consistently?
You wouldn’t be friends with someone who was constantly putting you down, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that you don’t like yourself very much when you’re constantly putting yourself down.
Be gentle with yourself and you’ll find it a lot easier to like yourself.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”
― Michel de Montaigne
3. Clarify Your Values
Ultimately, healthy self-esteem comes from living your life in a way that aligns with your values.
On the other hand, if you habitually compromise on your values in the way you think and act, you’re setting yourself up for low self-esteem.
Have you made a plan to work out at the gym more regularly? Every time you follow through on that goal, you’re training your own brain to believe that you are trustworthy and reliable, the kind of person who does what they say they will.
But every time you forget or decide to stay on the couch watching Netflix after a long day of work, you’re teaching your brain that you’re not trustworthy and reliable, that you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. This is a recipe for low self-esteem.
Of course, following through on our best intentions and commitments to ourselves isn’t easy. And one of the biggest reasons people struggle to do it is because their values aren’t clear and compelling.
Having clear values means you have a well-defined vision for the things that matter most to you.
The term values includes everything from traditional virtues like honesty and integrity all the way down to more mundane but still important commitments like maintaining your physical health through exercise or spending quality time with good friends.
Here’s the catch, though:
When your values are unclear, there’re not very motivating.
On the other hand, the more clear, specific, and compelling our values are, the more drawn to them we are, like gravity. And when our values exert more pull on us, it becomes easier to act in a way that lines up with them, which then generates high self-esteem.
Of course clarifying your values isn’t something you just do once and then are done with… Clarifying your values means building a habit of reflecting on them regularly.
Once you know your values and begin aligning your thoughts and actions with them, healthy self-esteem will not be far behind.
“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
― Frederick Douglass
Read also: 7 habits that build real self confidence
4. Keep Your Promises to Yourself
People with low self-esteem are usually really good at keeping their promises to other people and really bad at keeping promises to themselves.
They’re so concerned with other people’s wants and needs that they end up constantly compromising what they want. And when this compromise becomes a habit, their self-esteem takes a serious hit.
Think about it this way:
If you had a friend, and you were constantly ignoring their suggestions, disregarding their recommendations, and flaking out on plans, what would they think of you?
They’d think you were a pretty lousy friend!
They’d quickly lose respect for you, start thinking poorly of you, and more than likely, they’d stop wanting to spend time with you.
Well, what do you think happens to your relationship with yourself when you ignore your own suggestions and desires, disregard your own recommendations and commitments, and flake out on the plans you make for yourself?
Yeah, you start to think pretty poorly of yourself!
You lose respect for yourself, and eventually, just plain don’t like yourself.
Of course, a part of healthy self-esteem does come from doing good for other people. It’d be hard to have genuine high self-esteem if you were a jerk to everyone in your life!
But the mistake most people with low self-esteem make is to assume that taking care of other people’s wants and desires is all they need for self-esteem:
They choose a prestigious career path because society (or their parents) admire it.
They choose to marry someone because they know their family would approve.
They take on too much responsibility at work because they want to be a good employee and impress their boss.
But take it from me — a psychologist who talks to unhappy people every day — putting other people: when you prioritize other people’s wants and needs to the exclusion of your own, unhappiness and low self-esteem are sure to follow.
On the other hand…
True self-esteem comes from balancing the wants and needs of others with the wants and needs of yourself.
If you don’t have a solid foundation of keeping promises to yourself, all the noble self-sacrifice in the world won’t make you like yourself more.
Addressing your own wants and needs doesn’t mean you’re selfish or a narcissist or an ego-maniac. It’s just basic psychology: In order to feel good about yourself and be helpful to others, you have to make sure you’re putting fuel in your own tank. And one of the best ways to do that is to keep your promises to yourself.I
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
— E.E. Cummings
CONTRIBUTED BY Nick Wignall
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