Self-esteem is a tricky beast to navigate. It’s like toxic shame. It’s not a sexy topic, and few people care to admit it’s an issue for them. But nearly everybody to some degree struggles with it occasionally (and, sadly, some constantly). If we believe we have a healthy grasp of our own self-worth (a deep, intuitive knowing that we are worthy and valuable), we rarely think about self esteem (which is how we think and feel about ourselves in the context of everyday life). We put zero energy into how it affects our life on a daily basis.
What makes it even trickier is that a person can have a solid foundation of positive self-worth– we can know we’re inherently valuable– but still struggle with self-esteem. We can recognize our value but still have no faith in our ability to navigate the world.
More commonly though, a person struggles with a poor sense of self-worth and self-esteem, and both are directly connected to confidence. Self-esteem and confidence are not inherited. They’re not gifted to us at birth. These are skills to learn, skills to develop, and though I intend to create an entire e-course on the spiritual and psychological foundation of how self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence weave together to help us form our identity (this is a massive topic), self-esteem as a skill to learn is the focus of my blog entry today.
The struggle with self-esteem insidiously reveals itself in so many ways. Like when we take too long to make a decision (because we don’t trust our own judgement) or when a person’s cutting remark sticks with us for days (because deep down we believe that external perceptions must be more valuable than our own). If I expect the external world to define for me my own sense of worth, then I will quickly learn to seek validation or approval at the risk of my own well being. The give me popularity, or give me death syndrome. Jealousy will constantly hound me. And I’ll avoid criticism at all cost. This becomes problematic when the more we get addicted to approval, our psyche starts to register everything we don’t agree with as “criticism.” That makes relationships and communication, in general, problematic.
Perfectionism can also be related to self-esteem if we learn to believe that our value as a Human Being is only as good as our last perfect action, which is impossible to sustain.
Nobody is impervious to this pattern; it’s just a matter of where we fall on the spectrum. Some struggle with it a little. Some struggle with it a lot. Some vacillate between the two, depending on the day. That’s okay.
Poor self-esteem isn’t some immovable monster we’re stuck with. It can always be strengthened. We can change our mindset; we can heal. A healthy level of self esteem means we learn to actually recognize and ask for what we need, we trust our decision-making process, we can hold healthy relationships which requires having difficult conversations every now and then. And we won’t tolerate being treated like yesterday’s garbage by partners, friends, family, or strangers. Healthy self esteem means we can calmly engage in reasonably evaluating our behavior, so we can learn from our mistakes (where they even mistakes?) and move on, rather than bombarding ourselves with blame and criticism for no purpose beyond a cruel, self-directed beating.
(There’s a myth that Highly Sensitive People are prone to low self-esteem, and that’s false. HSP’s are extremely self-aware, and they’re sensitive to external stimuli but they’re not more likely to suffer from self image issues.)
Strengthening our self-esteem is a journey worth embarking upon, because it results in greater health (less anxiety-related health issues), stronger confidence (which benefits us professionally as well as personally), and a deeper sense of peace and well being (we don’t have to chronically second guess ourselves, a burden too heavy to bear.)
So if you’re on a journey to mend and fortify your self-esteem, please let me share this map with you. I think it’s a healthy place to start.
Ten ways to strengthen self-esteem:
1.) Take control of your own belief system. Pay close attention to how much you internalize negative messages. Just because an anonymous internet troll makes a judgement against your worth doesn’t mean you have to believe it. Your nervous system relies on you to tell it how to respond. That means its up to us to be aware of how much external garbage we’re buying into. We don’t have to play along with the advertising messages that tell us we have to have 2% body fat and an airbrushed face to be a worthwhile human being. Start talking back to your inner voices that have been societally programmed for self-hatred (nothing sells like discontent). Affirmative statements, reprogramming your inner dialogue from cruelty to kindness, are scientifically proven to change mindset and increase a sense of self worth.
What to do– Catch yourself when you feel a downward worth-spiral. Stop yourself, take three deep breaths (this helps to reset the nervous system) and develop a mantra which you will repeat to yourself in order to change your immediate neurology from powerlessness to empowered. For example, years ago I was having a really hard time at Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe. Every time I’d go in I’d get bumped into, shuffled, rushed, pushed…there were just too many people per square inch. I felt like it was my responsibility to get out of their way, even if I legitimately had to stand in place for one moment to choose something! So I started saying the mantra, silently inside my head, “You matter”. It worked so well I still use it today anytime I’m feeling pushed around.
2.) If you have unchecked stress (anxiety issues that are interfering with your daily functioning) then make a vow to change that. There are so many non-medicinal options for working to heal your neurological functioning, so you can free yourself from a life of rampant anxiety. (Going to be transparent here, I’m not a fan of benzodiazepine anxiolytics– the valium family of drugs. And I don’t think the American Medical Association has done a great job in relaying the dangers to long-term prescription holders.) This is one area where the merging of spirit and science has been highly affective. Neuro-linguistic programming, neurotransformational coaching, mindfulness and meditation (or prayer)…all great options for learning to manage stress, as are acupuncture, yoga, Qigong, etc. Spending six hours a month in nature has been found to be tremendously beneficial. So many possibilities, I could go on and on.
What to do— Take a stand. Decide to actively work to heal your anxiety. If you can’t afford to work with a coach or a therapist, then do some research on stress-relieving, anxiety-reducing plans. Implement your own first steps by following your energy. What feels right to you? Hiking? Meditating? Commit to yourself to start somewhere and see where you can go from there.
3.) Learn to define your worth using internal parameters. Stop defining your worth by external validation and approval. If your CEO can’t seem to articulate how much you’re worth, that’s not your issue it’s hers/his. If your creative endeavors aren’t getting as much attention as you’d like, then follow your joy and keep trying new things that excite you! Recognize your own inner worth. Don’t tell yourself you’re only as valuable as the response to your last Instagram post. A willingness to fail and fail big is the gateway to success. It was Elbert Hubbard who said, “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.” I am convinced that the only useful metric for putting yourself out there creatively or personally is how much sacred Purpose you feel in doing it. If you feel no purpose to your work, why would anyone else?
What to do– Make a list of what is meaningful to you. What do you need to stay connected and purposeful in your life? Let those reasons guide you. Forget about anyone else’s response.
4.) Follow your instincts! Know what and who to avoid. If a person makes you feel horrible every time you’re around them, maybe it’s not you, maybe it’s your relationship dynamic. That’s not to say it’s the other person’s fault, maybe your combined chemistry just isn’t the right vibe. Regardless, don’t tell yourself a destructive story around it (“I feel like such a loser when I’m with…”) just meander elsewhere where the chemistry is more conducive to your growth. And make a list of everything you know that messes with your self-worth. For example, I’ve found that when I dip into a low cycle I will undoubtedly want to eat sugar but I also know that sugar is like a sledge hammer to my feelings of well being. It exacerbates the horrible mood I’m in. Also, there’s strong evidence that dairy has a depressive effect on some people. I know it does me.
What to do– Pay close attention to what makes you feel worse, write it down, and do your best to avoid it.
5.) Comparisons. Know when you’re doing it, catch yourself, and immediately re-direct yourself to a less completely destructive activity. If you compare yourself to others as a healthy measure to keep your goals ignited and your long-term vision in perspective, well, great. If you use comparisons to fuel your habit of not getting out of your sweats for days on end, as you devour row after row of double stuff Oreos, then step away from Facebook and enact a moratorium on social media for a full week or two until you can detox your psyche.
What to do– Enact periodic social media fasts, for a week at a time, if you’re stuck in a pattern of toxic comparisons. And vow to undergo a journey of healing to free yourself from the comparison habit. This is one you may need some help with. Don’t hesitate, if so.
6.) Choose What To Focus On. Consciously choose to focus on your strengths. Write them down! (It creates an inner shift when you make a habit of documenting such things, because your brain recognizes it as important.) If you honestly can’t recognize your own strengths, then ask your closest friends and family to help you. Ask them what they love about you. This is a 100% love exercise. Ask them what your super-powers are. Also, two structured personality assessments that I highly recommend are the ENNEAGRAM (the official test costs $12.00, but you can find free versions) and Gallop’s Strength Finder assessment (the Top 5 assessment, which is where I recommend you start, costs $19.99). They’ll focus on your gifts and strengths and help you see yourself in a new light.
What to do– Keep a strengths journal. Write down everything you’re good at. Nothing is too insignificant to document! This exercise is about retraining your brain to focus on what’s good about you, rather than what’s ‘wrong’ with you (which is nothing). You may have some things to work on– who doesn’t– but they don’t define you as a person. Also, consider exploring the ENNEAGRAM or the Strength’s Finder assessment to help you illuminate your hidden gifts. I am not an affiliate, so I get no financial reward for recommending these assessments. I just think they’re really useful and worth every penny.
7.) Accept. Every. Emotion. You are not flawed because you get angry, or depressed, or jealous. We are so programmed to live within a tiny range of the full spectrum of human emotion, that many people don’t have a grasp on what “how did that make you feel” even means! Example– “Q: How did that make you feel, Jerry? A: “It made me realize I’m working too hard.” That’s not the question I asked. But emotional intelligence (having a firm grasp on how we feel and how we make others feel, how we’re being perceived by others) is too often ignored. One thing I have every single one of my clients do when they work with me is adopt the practice of using an emotions word list. Simply naming the emotion (“Today when that car nearly ran me off the road I felt very afraid.”) has been found to be one of the most powerful stress-relieving tools available to us.
What to do– Name the emotion! When you feel it, say it! When you bonk your head on the kitchen cabinet door, hold your hand to your head and say, “I feel angry.” If someone yells at you for no reason, get somewhere private, hold your hand to your racing heart and say, “I feel anxious and mistreated.” The nervous system calms immediately when your body’s physiological responses are named and acknowledged. (There is nothing that exacerbates stress more than emotional repression, which is an epidemic in this country.)
I also highly recommend using an emotions word list to familiarize yourself with the full scope of human emotion. We’ve been so programmed to think in our society, we sometimes forget what a true feeling is. One of the most powerful anxiety-reducing exercises is to work through an emotions word list, remembering when you felt several of those emotions, alternating between happy and painful (all emotions are crucial) feelings.
8.) Compassion is mandatory! Watch the inner self talk. Start paying attention. Catch yourself when you call yourself stupid, or degrade yourself in any way through thoughts or words. I won’t allow this in any form when I’m listening to somebody. It is so insidiously destructive, and many have no idea they’re even doing it. If you have a tendency to say horrible things about yourself out loud, imagine how much you’re saying silently! If this is you, please work to shift this. There is also a lot of research that supports the practice of using your name when you have inner dialogue. For example, if I get anxious and I say– “It’s alright, Kristy, you’re okay.”– my nervous system is going to be highly soothed by hearing my name, even if I’m the one who spoke it. Nobody can calm us like we can.
What to do– Write yourself notes all over the house, “Watch the self-talk, please!” and correct yourself when you break your vow to show yourself compassion. The first step to being treated well is to learn to treat ourselves well.
9.) Define what makes you feel better. Again, write a list. Write down every single thing that has ever made you feel stronger about yourself, anything you feel proud of, any movie you’ve watched that boosted you, any book you’ve read that motivated you…you get the idea. Get yourself a beautiful little journal and keep it handy at all times. Fill it up with the smallest of things. Its only purpose is to remind you of the thousands of things that actually do you good, rather than focusing on what makes you weaker (which is what a stressed mind tends to do).
What to do– Keep a happiness journal. Document everything that puts a smile on your face. Again, this is a neurological exercise to train your brain to focus on what’s right.
10.) Try to take care of yourself. Try to treat yourself lovingly. Eat what makes you feel stronger, get some fresh air, take a walk, drink enough purified water, get yourself a new bike, deep condition your hair, soak your tired feet, get a massage, do whatever you have to do to remind yourself that your body is worth preserving. This doesn’t require a lot, just a healthy intention to be good to yourself, even if you can’t quite feel the concept of self love yet. It’s very common for a person who struggles with low self-esteem to completely disregard their physical well being because they’ve taught themselves they don’t matter. You matter. You deserve to take up space in this world. You deserve to be cared for.
What to do– Decide one or two things you’re going to commit to this week, things that will make your body feel cared for and tended to.
Okay, dear readers, please let me know, in the comments, if you have any questions or if you have any techniques you’ve used to strengthen your self-esteem. I know if something’s worked for you, it will benefit others. This planet needs the full expression of your magnificence. I want nothing to hold you back from sharing your gifts with the world. You are a miracle of Being. Believe nobody (including yourself) who would tell you otherwise.