Self-esteem is not a thing that’s either high or low that we carry around with us. Nor is it a thing we wear to protect ourselves from pain. Self-esteem is not a thing at all: it’s an action. It’s something we do. We esteem ourselves. What high self-esteem means is that you treat yourself as someone you hold in high esteem; i.e., you act as if you like yourself.
Think about a friend you hold in high esteem. You like that person, don’t you? And because of that, you tend to think well of them even though, like the rest of us, they sometimes make mistakes. You recognize when they didn’t do so well in a particular moment, but your relationship stays essentially positive because you like who they are. When you like someone, you accept and appreciate them for who they are, not just for their latest accomplishment or complete lack of flaws. You may notice or may even cringe at their flaws but you still accept them, flaws and all.
It’s not perfection that makes a person worthy of your esteem. Perfection isn’t as likable as other, more human, qualities. Someone who does her best; someone who generally tries to do the right thing even if he doesn’t always succeed; someone who respects the rights and feelings of other people, these are good, worthy souls who deserve affection and respect.
How about you? You do the best you can, don’t you? You try to do the right thing. You respect others’ rights and feelings. You deserve affection and respect too. You are worthy, and you are likable exactly as you are. Liking yourself doesn’t mean thinking everything you do is great (that’s not self-esteem, that’s delusional thinking). But you can like yourself even while you admit that you’re not perfect. So what are you waiting for?
Let me say it again: Self-esteem is an action. You can increase your self-esteem any time by taking action to esteem yourself more highly. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
1. Self-esteem does NOT come from being skinny. So don’t try to lose weight to improve your relationship with yourself. If you succeed, you’ll get a temporary ego boost that will disappear as soon as the weight comes back. Instead, if you don’t like the way you feel in your body, give yourself the gift of more regular exercise. If the thought of putting yourself through boring, difficult paces makes you want to hide under the bed, good for you. Don’t “exercise”, just move your body more. Human bodies, including yours, love to move. But they don’t like to be pushed around; listen to your body and move in the ways and at the times your body wants to move.
Do you enjoy leisurely stretching as opposed to a pounding run? Do it. Try a gentle form of yoga, or check out the fantastic book, “Stretching,” by Bob Anderson. Love to dance? What a beautiful way to move your body and get some Vitamin M (music) while you’re at it! You can go to a dance class or get a DVD to work with at home. Or just go down to the local club, pub or restaurant that has a dance floor, and bust a move. How about just doing ankle rolls while watching your favorite TV show? Try it. It feels lovely.
When moving your body feels good, you experience moving as a gift to yourself rather than a boring chore that someone else thinks you should do. In addition to the immediate gratification you get from moving your body in pleasant ways, you’ll feel better in your body all day long as you get used to moving more.
2. Take steps to bring the good stuff you crave into your life. If you love a good book, gourmet food, lively conversation, working with your hands, whatever it is, make it happen. If you don’t do it, who will? Making a point of giving yourself what you want is an act of self-esteem, because it’s something you would only do for someone you like.
So think of whatever actions you take as a gift you’re giving to someone special (you), rather than just sticking them on your already crowded to-do list. Don’t let those actions become tasks that you probably won’t get to, but will just feel bad about. And speaking of not getting to things and feeling bad about it… how is your motivation? If it’s been low for a while, might you be depressed?
3. If you find you don’t have the energy to esteem yourself through your actions, the first step you might want to take is to talk with a trusted friend or therapist. What would you do for someone you really liked if you thought they might be depressed? Would you get them some help? You might also decide to see your doctor if you’re overdue for a checkup. You don’t have to go it alone. Reaching out to others for support is an act of self-esteem; you’re telling yourself, “I’m worth supporting.” And you’re right!
4. When you’re having so-called “negative” feelings such as anger or sadness, assume you have a good reason. Even if you don’t have the energy or the time right now to take a physical action on your own behalf, there is one thing you can do in your heart to esteem yourself more highly – no ankle rolls necessary. Make a point right now of understanding, rather than criticizing, how you feel. Decide to be on your own side. If you can’t understand why you feel the way you do, it doesn’t mean you don’t have your reasons. Believe in yourself and know that you make sense, even if that’s not clear in this moment. Let yourself have the feelings you have. There’s healing in them, if you listen to the message they have for you.
Whether it’s exercise, time to read, new friends, a medical checkup or a silent decision to stop criticizing yourself for how you feel, you will raise your self-esteem as soon as you take action to do something for yourself. If you can take only one step, make it a step to get help. You deserve it.
© Copyright 2011 by By Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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