Accentuate the Positive: A Guide to Increasing Self-Esteem

pensive manA person voiced the following as the topic of self-esteem came up during a recent therapy session, this time in reference to the holidays: “Not another dinner with my family. … I wish it was just January already so I could avoid my family and every comment they make about how much of a failure I’ve become and how worthless I feel. I’m not even sure if that’s what they’re really saying anymore … but boy does it seem that way to me.”

Feelings of being worthless, a failure, not up to one’s hopes and dreams, and low self-image can be a crippling pattern that ravages all sense of motivation and well-being. These thoughts can be pervasive, and it can be difficult to find any aspect of life that contradicts negative self-talk. These messages may begin to pile up in our minds as explanations for the life circumstances we all face. Unchecked, low self-esteem can lead to depression, substance abuse, fighting with friends and family, and in extreme examples, even suicide.

The above example of a person’s struggles with family members’ statements is not all that unusual, especially as self-esteem tends to rely on messages we receive from others in our earliest and formative years—parents and loved ones in particular. Getting chronic negative feedback tears down how we feel about ourselves. Without contrasting, positive messages, we may believe the negative feedback as gospel. It no longer becomes someone else’s opinion; it becomes fact. This may persist throughout adulthood. That is, until either a build-up of positive messages allows us to overcome these childhood hurts or we begin to address our self-esteem issues ourselves, embracing the challenge individually, maybe with the help of a therapist.

The issue of self-esteem and competition comes up most often when a sense of helplessness and hopelessness accompanies low self-esteem. Self-efficacy—the belief one has that he or she can accomplish tasks and achieve goals—gets attached to low self-esteem. A competitive viewpoint may separate these two closely related mental processes. A feeling that you aren’t worthwhile or a very good person is a very different hurdle to manage when you also feel that you can do something about it.

Are these beliefs based on achievements, such as career or educational accomplishments? Are they based on relationships and feeling close to loved ones? Perhaps based on guilt or shame from behavior you believe is improper and doesn’t match up with your personal values? How many of these beliefs would change, then, with the idea that changing these behaviors would then change your view of yourself? Perhaps the idea that you can change also lends credence to the fact it is not you who is a failure, but rather specific actions which may be corrected. This may result in a lot of guilt over things you’ve done, along with regret and a desire to change it. That is far preferable to shame, a belief that it is not behavior but rather a characteristic of self that is not worthwhile. These concepts of guilt and shame are closely linked with self-esteem.

So how do we feel better about ourselves? To begin, I would recommend a mental approach which many athletes and competitors rely on. I use their example not because I think athletes and competitors are higher-functioning than anyone else. Rather, these individuals confront low self-esteem in order to perform in a successful way. Even some stereotypes of athletes include a brazen cockiness or arrogance. While this may be a symptom of not addressing self-esteem in a healthy manner, and may in fact compensate for low self-esteem, many athletes take a healthy approach by having a “short memory.”

Acknowledging mistakes, failures, and disappointments is a process virtually every professional athlete must go through. Watching videotape, analyzing failures, and reviewing poor outcomes is a way athletes check their behavior and acknowledge what must improve. However, the majority of their training is not spent watching their pitfalls. Far more is involved in moving beyond the pitfalls, focusing on what lies in front of them, focusing on the present moment. Doing the same outside of a sports arena may aid us all in acknowledging failure but not dwelling in it.

Continuously positive self-feedback whenever possible is also helpful. Reminding ourselves how wonderful we can be, and focusing on what makes us who we are in positive ways, can begin to confront some of that negative self-talk. Tough to do? Maybe, but often it’s due to a pattern of daily, negative self-talk that we accept rather than refute. If you’re unconvinced, try an experiment: write down every negative thought you have every day for a week. You may be surprised by the volume of thoughts that enter our minds that are negative, self-defeating, or worse. The following week, try to come up with a positive counterpoint at the end of each day. Even with low-self-esteem, it is difficult to imagine someone being so awful and deviant in their totality that there do not exist some contradictory, positive attributes.

I say this as a professional who has worked with many people struggling with substance and alcohol abuse, many of whom spent years doing horrible things to themselves and others that fostered low self-esteem. Some of these things included abusing themselves, family members, and their community through negative and even criminal acts. Even still, there are positive attributes to accentuate. In my experience working with this population, the folks who were able to focus on what made them wonderful human beings eventually acknowledged their issues as perpetuating the negativity, throwing a wrench into their actual, positive selves. Many stopped using and selling drugs and ceased to engage in otherwise negative behaviors. Unsurprisingly, they felt better about themselves.

My promise is that this pattern is not limited to addiction. Overcoming low self-esteem relies on us identifying these thoughts as self-defeating, circular, and untrue. The truth is that being alive in our world is tough, and surviving in it is something we all ought to feel pretty good about.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeffrey Kaplan, MA, LMFT, therapist in East Setauket, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • bela

    bela

    January 15th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    I personally try to avoid at all costs the people who are a part of my life but who wind up making me feel so bad about myself. I know that this is not always a possibility but there has to come a time when you can look out for yourself and not feel like you are stepping on others toes. They are generally not going to care too much if they step on yours so my thoughts are to stay away from them until you feel like you are at a strong enough place in your own life to stop caring so much about what others think about you and your choices.

  • jaxon

    jaxon

    January 15th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    My brothers pretty much ruined my self esteem. I was the runt of the litter so you can imagine how they would always pick on me and make me feel left out. I know they were just kids but some of that feeling of always being the last guy picked has never left me.

  • Carmen

    Carmen

    January 16th, 2015 at 8:03 AM

    Don’t stop believing in yourself
    you are so much stronger than what you have ever realized
    or that anyone has ever told you

    That’s my life motto anyway

  • Mike

    Mike

    January 16th, 2015 at 4:12 PM

    This essay does have something important to say, but I found it very difficult to parse. The worst writing I’ve found on Good Therapy which I usually regard as a good source.

  • Kayla

    Kayla

    January 17th, 2015 at 6:12 AM

    Can you think of something slightly less offensive than “the worst writing I’ve found…” The author is precisely asking us to see the positive in ourselves and others. Have some gratitude for his work at helping others break themselves from negative thought patterns. You have no idea the extent his work has gone, he may be saving peoples lives on a regular basis and this article could just be a reflection of his work and a reminder that we all need to focus on the positive.

  • Jess B.

    Jess B.

    January 16th, 2015 at 4:16 PM

    Well my low self esteem has come from my father, pretty much reminded me everyday I was worth nothing, grew up believing it & rebelling as a teen, still struggle with it but what’s worse is I’m married to a man that not even a year after being married he cheated on me with a girl he works with, we separated for about 7months but now are together again, I admit I make bad choices, I feel like less of woman & that I am unable to take care of my husband the way a woman should, I am now 3 months pregnant & feel I’m falling in a deep depression cause I feel unattractive & that he’s going to go back to his bad habits, he’s been acting weird towards me again. 😢

  • Jane

    Jane

    January 16th, 2015 at 10:29 PM

    I used to avoid all people that brought up negative feelings. I am now able to be around them and even use them as resources if I need to. I don’t rely on them for my emotional needs because I do not believe what they say and know I can find emotional nourishment with other people. I never thought I would say this but it’s almost like I have more choice.

  • Ann

    Ann

    January 17th, 2015 at 5:12 AM

    My Mom told me at a young age that my Sister had “the face” and I had “the hair.” Then should would have to tell me that the lady down the street said you are homely. That did wonders for a small red-headed girl who already have bullies to deal with in every way. I wished ever night that I was pretty like the other girls or had dark hair like my family. Unfortunately, I never felt pretty or felt good about getting compliments from people.

  • Kayla

    Kayla

    January 17th, 2015 at 6:08 AM

    Thank you for the time you spent writing this article! It’s a great reminder to focus on the positive. When I consider how addicts have used a system of positively affirming themselves to let go of previous behaviors, I realize that it will certainly be effective for me as well. Thank you for your brave and hard work in helping people free themselves from negativity and shame.

  • jj

    jj

    January 19th, 2015 at 9:12 AM

    I think that years of feeling worthless and not appreciated is what led to my issues with drugs and alcohol. Never have been able to come to terms with how I feel about myself and the pain that the drinking masks for me

  • Bret

    Bret

    January 23rd, 2015 at 11:09 AM

    THere will always be those days when you feel a little worse about yourself than other days. But you know the best thing for that is self talk, talk to yourself about the many things that you have been able to achieve and the success that you have earned in your life and I think that once you do that then you start to see just a little more clearly just how valuable you actually are.

  • Lara

    Lara

    July 13th, 2015 at 10:09 PM

    I think to raise from low self esteem and confidence we should hangout out with our friends and share our emotions and feelings, try to make new friends and share your experiences.

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