“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ― Sharon Salzberg
It’s a fact: most, if not all of us, experience low self-esteem at one or more points during our lives. In some cases, people with low self-esteem suffer such self-doubt because they have been exposed to emotional or psychological abuse, i.e., untoward or unwanted criticism from another person. In others, low self-esteem results from adopting negative behavioural or verbal cues at an early age: volatile social situations (including unstable home environments) can encourage the internalization of damaging self-images, particularly when people around us (such as family members) do or say things that evidence their own lack of self-love and self-confidence.
With the increasing complexity and uncertainty of the modern world, we’re undoubtedly living in very challenging times today. The likelihood of having your actions, beliefs, or character attacked is perhaps greater now in the 21st century than at any other point in history. This is particularly the case considering that the ubiquity of the Internet makes it incredibly easy for anybody with an opinion—harsh or not—to instantly publish it to millions of others. Being subjected to criticism can make life seem unbearable, especially when you’re already suffering from merely trying to deal with the difficulties of every day life.
We never truly know what lies beneath the surface of another person. To draw on the famous iceberg analogy, 90% of a person’s constitution rests below the waterline, i.e., below what we can easily see. Even though we know that there’s much more than what meets the eye, so to speak, whenever we interact with somebody, we readily form judgments about the worth or value of others—often in a matter of seconds.
Given the frequency with which most of us encounter criticism today, I think it important to discuss several strategies that each of us can use to improve our self-esteem and thereby better prepare ourselves to deal with assaults on our beliefs or actions if/when they arise. Greater self-esteem will lead to a heightened sense of self-confidence, self-love, and perseverance—the latter referring to the ability to push past difficult situations rather than giving into failure and the resultant depression.
The following six strategies for improving your self-esteem will allow you to develop the specific habits and mindset you need to successfully face whatever challenges life throws your way, so to speak.
“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” ― Mark Twain
The first strategy for developing greater self-esteem requires the practicing of acceptance, i.e., the ability to fully and honestly embrace who and what you are as a unique individual. This doesn’t mean ignoring your faults and acting as if you’re perfect in every way. To the contrary, acceptance means acknowledging your imperfections and flaws, and working to improve upon them over time. You must find a healthy balance: focusing too much on your imperfections gives them a heavy, self-destructive “weight” that “brings you down” whereas ignoring them outright leaves no room for self-mastery or development as a person.
You must be able to say to yourself, “I’m imperfect. I have my flaws, just like everybody else. Sometimes I react with anger and cruelty; other times I back down from a challenge and feel ashamed. However, learning from such experiences is what it means to be a human being. I’m committed to becoming a better person, to showing greater courage, resiliency, and self-respect. I will falter but I will never give up. I must remain open to what others say about me because, sometimes, their remarks represent opportunities for me to grow as a person.”
Building up your self-esteem also requires enhancing your self-belief. You can think of self-belief as a muscle that requires constant contraction in order for it to grow. If you don’t actively practice developing your self-belief, it will shrivel up and become weak. Success in life, whether in personal matters or those of business, results from persistence and a commitment to believing that you are indeed capable of achieving great things. Believing in yourself requires that you constantly engage in positive and reinforcing self-talk: your inner dialogue directly affects how you experience and make sense of the world and so it’s crucial to keep it aligned to the positive and proactive and away from the negative and self-defeating.
Some unhelpful thoughts are inevitable—you can’t fully prevent them from emerging. However, what you can do is choose how you will react to them. Thoughts in and of themselves are not automatically valid or correct; you are the one who decides whether to pay attention to them, to accept them as justified or to reject them as mistaken. Try to remain ever aware of your previous successes and accomplishments: this will reinforce your sense of self-worth and allow you to develop an inner dialogue of kindness and empathy towards yourself and others. When you’re facing a particularly challenging situation, remind yourself that you have battled harder times previously and yet always “made it out the other side” much stronger.
In short, be your own best friend by treating yourself as you would treat a close family member or a loved one.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” ― Michel de Montaigne
3. Be Present
The third strategy for developing your self-esteem involves reorganizing how you think about and “engage with” the past. One of the most well-known principles of mental health and wellness is that people who spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about their past often find it very difficult to be happy in the present. A huge source of the anxiety that so many people experience today is the unwillingness to stay grounded in the present moment alongside the desire to re-live and “correct” the wrongs of the past.
Here’s something that you might not know: the brain cannot readily distinguish between events that occurred 20 years ago and those that are occurring right now. The brain reacts to emotionally powerful events in the past as if they were taking place in the here and now. This means that focusing too much on your past causes your brain to release neurochemicals designed to “protect” you but that actually cause you stress and discomfort. Each time you re-live getting fired from a job, breaking up with a romantic partner, or being humiliated at a party, your brain goes into “high alert” and prepares to defend you as if you were under attack in the present moment. Constantly forcing your brain into a hyper vigilant state by obsessing about the past can lead to anxiety, depression, and the feeling that something bad is always around the corner, so to speak.
You must train yourself to stay grounded in the present moment by focusing less on the hurts of your past and more on the beauty and enjoyment of your immediate surroundings. Take regular walks in nature, feel the sunshine on your face, notice the colour of the trees, pay attention to the joy of animals as they run around looking for food. In essence, take pleasure in the simple things in life occurring right now, and don’t project yourself back into the past or ahead into the future.
More substantively, start every single day by writing down (yes writing, not typing!) 5 things for which you’re grateful. They don’t have to be monumentally important—just 5 things that have some sort of meaning for you. They can be as simple as the phone call you had last night with your best-friend or the pizza dinner you’re set to make later on today or even the cool wind blowing through your window at the moment. This exercise will encourage you to stay mindful and appreciative of the joyous aspects of your life, which will give you the strength you need to persevere when things become (temporarily) more difficult.
Developing greater self-esteem also requires that you dedicate yourself to continuous self-improvement and self-growth. This doesn’t mean that you must become ever critical of yourself, questioning each and every choice you make. On the contrary, it involves becoming slightly better—smarter, more patient, less antagonistic, more forgiving and understanding, less harsh on yourself and on others, etc.—than you were yesterday or last week or last month. Don’t beat yourself up, so to speak: try to re-frame your failures by treating them as opportunities for growth, for personal betterment, and, if possible, for the benefit of those around you.
Improving your character, your ethical constitution, will take a lot of hard work and discipline. You will experience setbacks: your motivation will waver at times and you will disappoint yourself and possibly even those for whom you care. The important thing, however, is to stay dedicated to the process of learning and improving over time. When combined with mindfulness practices, self-improvement exercises can be powerfully effective in cultivating a greater sense of self-respect, self-esteem, and inner contentment.
“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” ― C.G. Jung
5. Practice Mindfulness
The fifth core strategy for developing superior self-esteem is practising mindfulness. Mindfulness is a simple yet powerful form of meditation that merely requires that you pay close attention to your thoughts as they arise, pass through your conscious awareness, and dissipate. The objective of mindfulness is to allow you to dispassionately recognize and assess your thoughts as they emerge. Mindfulness makes it possible for you to see your thoughts for what they truly are—i.e., temporary “intellectual currents” that spontaneously arise and fall away—rather than falling into the trip of believing them to be something that they are not—i.e., accurate representations of your inner self, your essential identity.
We are not our thoughts: we are that which notices our thoughts. We, therefore, decide what, if anything, we will do in response to our thoughts.
Using mindfulness to enhance your self-esteem involves paying habitual attention to your predominant thought patterns as they appear throughout the day. It’s especially important to be “on guard” for self-sabotaging thought patterns, i.e., negative self-talk. Are you constantly telling yourself that you can’t do x, that you’re not good enough to do y, or that don’t deserve z? If so then you must learn to develop a constructive, supportive, and forgiving inner dialogue that will allow you to re-frame such thoughts. This re-framing involves at least two steps: 1) recognizing that thoughts are just thoughts, i.e., they don’t necessarily signify the truth nor do they represent your worth as an individual; and 2) refusing to automatically react to thoughts as if they’re inherently valid, and instead simply letting them “go on their way”, understanding that they’re always fleeting/temporary.
Be aware of the chatter inside your head, so to speak, but don’t mistake it for the real you. Ever notice how there are silent gaps in between your thoughts? That right there shows you that you are more than your thoughts. Mindfulness can also be coupled with deep breathing exercises, which can be tremendously helpful in calming the mind, synchronizing your inner and outer worlds, and creating a peaceful mental-physical state.
6. Empowering Beliefs
The final strategy for effectively boosting your self-esteem is one to which I’ve been implicitly referring throughout this post, i.e., adopting empowering beliefs whilst casting aside self-limiting ones. As human beings, we’re constantly reshaping, tweaking, and “finessing” our beliefs based on what we go through in life. On the one hand, this means that we’re always partially a product of experiences that might no longer be relevant or helpful to our current circumstances. On the other, it means that every day we’re presented with a new opportunity to work towards fashioning new beliefs that can facilitate, rather than impede, greater self-discovery, self-respect, and ultimately self-esteem.
Adopting positive and self-affirming beliefs—I can do x, I will accomplish y, I did the best I could given the circumstances—is crucial to enhancing your sense of self-worth and your overall happiness. Remember: you are much more than the opinions you hold about yourself. Untrue or unnecessarily harsh narratives about who you are as a person will almost certainly prevent you from realizing your true potential. Start telling yourself new and better stories about the direction, meaning, and upcoming events of your life, and see how much of a difference doing so makes to your attitude, energy, and self-drive.
People who are genuinely happy, successful, and at peace with themselves were not born that way: they devoted endless energy and hard work to creating the kinds of lives that they now enjoy. Merely wanting more self-esteem without engaging in the difficult yet necessary work upon which it exists will not, of course, bring you any closer to the person you wish to be. Developing a deeper and truer sense of self-esteem is often a slow and arduous process but it’s also incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. A strong, loving, and self-assured temperament can take years to create: don’t allow yourself to become discouraged if you don’t immediately see positive results after implementing the various strategies discussed herein—you must stick with them in order to achieve real progress.