Some sayings might be well-intended, but that doesn’t make them true, let alone easy to hear. Case in point: “You can’t find love until you learn to love yourself.”
The people who come to me for help tend to hate that thought. “If I knew how to love myself more,” they say, “I would have started long ago. In fact, I wouldn’t even be in therapy if I had that figured out.”
Improving self-esteem seems to some to be an impossible task. But each time, as we explore it together, similar themes come to the foreground. After years of figuring it out with people from all sorts of backgrounds and at all levels of self-confidence, I’ve come up with a few main components of esteem work.
Here are the key factors, in my experience:
1. Accept That You Are Flawed
The first step toward liking yourself is accepting all parts of yourself. Most people are at least slightly perfectionistic, with an unrealistic expectation that there’s someone out there who can be right or good all the time. (Not only is this impossible, it would make you insufferable.) Self-esteem, on the other hand, is based on unconditional love, which means you expect and allow yourself to mess up sometimes and are gentle with yourself when you do.
This is very different from excusing bad behavior or never asking yourself to grow and change. Instead, it’s about having compassion and kindness toward yourself when you fail, with the knowledge that if you want to change, using a gentle desire to do better is far more productive than viciously beating yourself up.
2. Be Curious About Yourself
You can’t love what you don’t know, so an important step to increasing self-confidence is to learn who you truly are. Often, by early adulthood, people have created a blanket definition of themselves based on their experiences and what others have told them. “I’m shy” or “I have an anger issue” become messages they’ve accepted and no longer question. Even if you’re shy or angry, though, this is only one small part of you.
When choosing a therapist, it might be helpful to ask how they approach self-esteem work and if they have a blueprint for increasing self-love.
Another way of not seeing or knowing your full self is when you pick and choose what you let others see. By showing only the parts of yourself that you think look best to others, you hide other pieces which are equally important and valid.
When you take time to examine who you are and who you want to be, you get more clarity about all of you—not just the elements that others have liked or disliked. You can gain insight into how you see yourself: your goals and ambitions, your flaws and failures, where you would like to grow. When you have all the pieces straight, you can start to accept them and integrate them into a real, full picture of yourself.
3. Practice Compassion
It’s a thin line between having compassion for yourself and having it for others. Working on both pieces at the same time is helpful. Often if a person in therapy finds it too tough to start with being kind to themselves, we pivot to working on being kinder to others.
One interesting way to gauge if you’re compassionate to others is to ask if you feel like others are judging you. Although it sounds conflicting, a worry that you are being judged is often an indication you have been taught to judge others. Maybe you came from a household where people’s clothes or weight or religiosity was criticized, and you find yourself as an adult having the same strict rules of behavior for others. It might be hard, then, not to imagine that people are doing the same thing to you. If you were disparaged by family or peers, you might have learned to carry this voice of disapproval inside of you. You might have even come to believe people were disliking you when, in reality, you were disliking yourself.
Having compassion for others is good practice for being kinder to ourselves. Think about letting others off the hook for bad behavior or not living up to your standards. Then try to move that same kind of understanding and gentleness back to yourself so you can realize everyone messes up sometimes. You may be surprised how your perspective shifts from one of distrust to one of tolerance.
Any of these three components of building self-esteem can be worked on by yourself or with the help of a professional. When choosing a therapist, it might be helpful to ask how they approach self-esteem work and if they have a blueprint for increasing self-love. Even if you need not love yourself to find love, it’s worth learning how to do so anyway. It feels good to be the best version of yourself possible.
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