Master This to Boost Your Self-Esteem and Create New Opportunities

sudoku puzzleFor years we have known that when we accomplish something, our self-esteem and sense of contentment grow. As a child, it might have been activities such as tying shoes or whacking a baseball off a tee that spurred the triumphant exclamation of, “I did it!”

What we seem to forget as adults is that we can make a concerted effort to incorporate accomplishment into our everyday lives. And if we do so, we can keep our self-esteem and contentment at a healthy level.

The idea is that actively engaging in a specific behavior can affect our mood. In the typical treatment of depression, this is called “activity scheduling” or “behavioral activation.” The idea is to increase the number of potentially pleasant activities and increase positive interaction with the environment. If I just sit around for the cloudy day (or mood) to clear up, it might not. If instead I try to line up some potentially positive or engaging activities, my mood may (and will) eventually lift.

In dialectical behavior therapy, we go a step further with the activity idea to include a self-esteem or accomplishment component. The skill is called “mastery”: engaging in an activity that’s somewhat challenging with the goal of focusing attention and building our sense of competence.

What’s great about this skill is it’s within the realm of our control. I can decide to tackle a new craft project, a Sudoku puzzle, or a cooking recipe I’ve never tried before. Even if I’m in a terrible mood. Even if I feel like life is not worth living. I can focus on adjusting my day to include some mastery in it. Many people think that EVERY day should have this in it for a healthy sense of self-esteem and outlook.

Once I start experimenting with activities that promote mastery in my life, I can make adjustments along the way. If the tasks I’m doing seem too challenging (or are resulting in burnt food, frustration, or incomplete craft projects or puzzles), I can decide to dial it back a notch. Maybe there’s a less difficult, but still somewhat challenging, activity I can try.

With a depressive episode, this might mean something as small as getting out of bed and getting a shower. The next day, it might be tackling some dishes or going for a several-block walk. The following day, it might be tackling a craft project, and so on. It often builds on itself since the encouragement of completing something challenging can establish some motivational momentum.

Mastery Can Lead to Big Things

While mastery might begin with small steps, it can lead to great things, even breakthroughs about activities that you’ll come to love for the rest of your life. A recent book (actually titled Mastery, by Robert Greene) explores how some of history’s greatest minds utilized the skill of mastery—mostly in connection with activities they were tied to emotionally and personally.

A recent article about the book in The Week Magazine explains how mastery, and experimentation, is the key to initiating an emotional and personal connection to an activity: “Stop waiting for the light bulb to suddenly appear over our head. Start trying things until something clicks. … It’s a path. It’s never the case that you wake up and know ‘this is exactly what I have to do.’ You try things out, some things work, some things don’t work. You find your way by actively going in a direction.”

Sounds an awful lot like another DBT skill—acting effectively and focusing on what works! (Elsewhere in the article, it also warns about pushing against distraction—something we know mindfulness is helpful for.)

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Lebo, LPC, CADCI, therapist in Portland, Oregon

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

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  • Peter


    May 8th, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    I love this kind of encouragement because I know that I am the world’s worst person in that I look at something that I might like to do but then totally talk myself out of it because at first glance it looks too hard. And then I never go back for that second look to see if there is anyway that I could actually acomplish it and make it more manageable for me. I don’t know why I tend to sell myself so short when it comes to things like that because I know that I can do it, but I think that it is the fear of not knowing that actually gives me this fear of failing and then holds me back from doing so much.

  • Gabriel


    May 9th, 2014 at 3:31 AM

    Give yourself ways to be a success- i like that
    Most of the time we get so crazy and beat up on ourselves for the things that we screw up that we never take the time to look at the things that we actually do well.

  • Belle


    May 10th, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    Because of the home I was raised in I think that there are times when I actively look to fail, mainly because this is the message that I always seemed to receive. It’s not that my parents were necessarily bad parents but they never gave me that encouragement or those words that I very much needed to hear to know that I could do something special in my life.
    I know that now it is my time to make up for that, they didn’t do it for me so now is the time to do some of it for myself, but it is hard to try to forget what they always told me, maybe not in words but by their actions and non-words.

  • jb


    May 12th, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    If there is something that I want to accomplish I guess that I have the tendency to always think that it has to be right in that moment, and then when I don’t then I feel like such a failure.

    I guess that my problems is that I never really give myself the necessary time to be a success because I want it to be instantaneous.

    You would think that since I know this then it wouldn’t be such a big problem, but recognizing the problem and being able to actively change how you work through it are two totally different things.

  • Mark Noo

    Mark Noo

    May 13th, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    This is the way the military trains new recruits. It starts them doing things they know they can accomplish but make it a little more difficult each day. You gain mastery over things in incremental steps the increase both your confidence and skill set. In 3 months time you can take a lay about high school kid and turn him into a very effective soldier. Once they see they can do that they move on to advanced training.
    The trick is to pick a goal that will push you but that you know you can accomplish

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