One of the misconceptions about building self-esteem is that it can be achieved by outside influences. Many times, we hear that if one “wears the right clothes”, “has better posture” or “updates their look,” it will increase your self-esteem. Although these changes may have the power to boost your mood, they are not long-term solutions. A safety pin can temporarily hide a hole in your favorite sweater, but you need to thread a needle and sew it up in order to fix it for the long haul. The same is true for building self-esteem; outside features can help you hold it together but will not build a solid foundation for life.
How Do You Build Self-Esteem?
In order to achieve healthy self-esteem, you need to get clear on the negative thoughts you’ve accumulated – get really honest about what they are. Recently, I was talking to a client who said she is aware that she punishes herself with food. “It sucks, because on one hand I use it to make me gain self-esteem (when I don’t eat) and then I see that it is actually punishing me, which makes me feel bad about myself. It’s exhausting and it doesn’t work.”
She’s right. The negative thoughts or ideas that we tell ourselves will “fix” our self-esteem, often make it worse. So rather than safety pinning your life, let’s try a new approach - an inner, honest evaluation of what these beliefs are and how you can challenge them in order to be the self-assured person you want to become.
Building Self-Esteem in 5 Steps
Here are my five steps for building self-esteem that will endure throughout your life.
Awareness. This deals with negative thinking. Get your pen to paper and ask yourself about the negative thoughts that have been playing over and over in your mind? Negative thoughts can be cyclical but awareness helps to break the chain.
Some common thoughts are:
I’m not good enough
I should have done _____ better
I’m such an idiot
I always _______
Once you become aware of the thoughts, you can then begin to use skills to challenge these beliefs and talk back to them when they come up. Once you are aware you can’t push these thoughts under the rug, awareness and acceptance leads to change.
Acceptance. When you become aware of these thoughts, even if you don’t like them (no one does), it gives you power. You can accept they are happening and they are painful, but you don’t have to live with them forever. Acceptance doesn’t mean you agree, rather it is a gentle way of reminding yourself this thought is happening: I can notice it and challenge it, let it ride out, or let it consume me. When you pick from these three options you have a much more realistic grasp on self-esteem in your life.
Accumulate Positive Experiences. When we are feeling bad about ourselves, it’s hard to think of something positive. It can be painful even. In order to move past the thoughts with ease, have a few stored up positive thoughts or experiences you can bring into the present. Look back on the last few weeks when you felt good, what were you doing, where were you? Get in the moment. Try to do this without judgement. Become aware of the things that brought you joy during the day, things you are proud of. Think of the happy experiences.
Build Mastery. Do one thing a day that makes you feel more effective and in control of your life. This can be anything from balancing your checkbook to playing the guitar. When you hone in on the skills that you already have, rather than focusing on what you are lacking, you become more aligned with your positive self-talk, which you can build on.
Plan ahead. A client was afraid to make social plans, fearful that if her friends said no she would be validating her negative self-talk: “They rejected me. I am a failure.” Without a backup plan, many people trigger negative feelings based on past experiences. Those original negative feelings were the building blocks of unhealthy self-esteem.
We came up with a plan. If they couldn’t go to dinner the night she asked them, than she would call another friend to hang out with (more reliable) or stay in and watch a movie while ordering in from her favorite Chinese food restaurant. She came into my office grinning the next week. “Well I got the Chinese food.” she said. “So no dinner date with the girls?” I was surprised she was seemed so positive. “They had to do a project for school and we planned on Saturday night instead. So I was able to make plans, eat Chinese food and have something to look forward to. I was able to see it was them, not me.”
Remember this is work! There is no magic potion or quick fix for building self-esteem. It can be a constant battle when you are talking back to these negative beliefs. They have been there for a long time. Validate that and then get to work. You will be happier in the long run. So try your best, stop punishing yourself, and if that’s too hard, then do it less often. That’s a step forward. The less power we give the negative thoughts, the less control they have, which contributes to the cycle of low self-esteem. When actively working at sewing up the holes, building self-esteem happens naturally.
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