Self-esteem is a big contributor to well-being. Low self-esteem is linked to feelings of shame, self-doubt, and inadequacy. It can prevent people from finding fulfilling relationships or following their dreams.
People who have low self-esteem can get help in therapy. A therapist can help people recognize and reduce negative self-talk. People can also self-compassion and goal-setting, both of which are linked to improved self-esteem.
Boosting self-esteem can be a long process. Overcoming ingrained thought processes often requires hard work. “It takes time to learn new things,” says Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC. “Practice and patience are needed when working on improving self-esteem.”
Self-talk is an internal dialogue a person has about their abilities, happiness, and image. It can be so subtle and fleeting they hardly register it. But when certain thoughts repeat day after day, they can influence the choices a person makes in careers, relationships, and self-care. If someone’s self-talk is destructive, the negativity can have far-reaching consequences on their well-being.
Often, self-esteem issues are rooted in harmful self-talk. Negative thoughts often fall into one of the following categories:
- Blame: Holding oneself accountable for things outside one’s control.
- Example: “My friends started fighting at my party. I’m a bad host.”
- Catastrophizing: Imaging all the bad things which could happen in the future.
- Example: “I look so ugly. What if everyone in class makes fun of me when I show up?”
- Denial: Refusing to believe successes or compliments are earned.
- Example: “My boss doesn’t really think I’m smart. They’re just saying that to be nice.”
- Overgeneralizing: Interpreting one event as having excessively large consequences.
- Example: “I got a bad grade on the test. I’m probably going to flunk out of school.”
- Polarization: Interpreting events as all good or all bad.
- Example: “I flubbed my first line in the speech. I ruined the whole presentation.”
- Projecting: Assuming neutral interactions are signs of disapproval or dislike.
- Example: “That couple laughed when I walked into the room. They’re making fun of me, I’m sure.”
- Rehashing: Rehashing scenarios that have already happened, punishing oneself for past mistakes.
- Example: “I can’t believe I told such a dumb joke last week. I’m so awkward.”
People with low self-esteem may say things to themselves that they would never utter to another person. If prompted to examine their feelings, they may admit they are being unfair to themselves. Awareness of one’s thought patterns can be the first step to moving past them.
Mindfulness-based interventions can help people catch negative thoughts in the moment. Then a person can push back against the thought by saying a positive mantra or giving themselves a compliment. Journal therapy can be especially useful in practicing healthy self-talk. Writing positive statements can reinforce their power and ingrain them as habit.
Pronouns can be important when pushing back against negative self-talk. Research has shown the brain tends to hear “you” statements as external. This emotional distance helps people be more objective about themselves. When people speak to themselves in the second person, they often say nicer things. When a person uses “I” statements, their self-talk tends to be more judgmental.
When practicing positive self-talk, language can be also vital. In general, positive self-talk works best when it focuses on actions one wishes to do rather than actions one wants to avoid. A phrase such as, “Remember you are worthy of love and are working to improve your health,” will likely be more effective than, “I should stop worrying and work out already.”
Self-compassion can be vital to boosting self-esteem. “It’s really hard to feel good about yourself if you don’t believe you’re worthy,” says Cush. “Learning to accept and love yourself is the foundation for working on low self-esteem.”
Self-compassion can be understood in three parts:
- Showing kindness toward oneself. Forgiving one’s faults or mistakes, especially in times of failure or pain.
- Recognizing no human is perfect. Attributing one’s mistakes to the human condition rather than failures unique to oneself.
- Building awareness of emotions. Being mindful of painful thoughts and feelings without letting them consume oneself.
One way to build self-compassion is for people to change how they evaluate themselves. Many people compare themselves to others as a way to shape their self-image. This habit may lead people to develop expectations that don't fit their situations. Social comparison can have a negative effect on self-esteem from an early age.
Self-esteem in adolescents is particularly vulnerable to social comparison. “They’re already very critical of themselves,” says Cush. “They’re constantly comparing and contrasting themselves with friends and classmates. Encouraging teens and preteens to broaden their perspective—to see that others might be struggling too—can help to ease their sense of isolation when they’re having a tough day and feeling bad about themselves.”
Every human has struggles and flaws. By reminding themselves of this fact, people of all ages can learn to forgive their perceived faults.
If a person has trouble accepting themselves, they may benefit from experiencing acceptance from others. Many therapists practice unconditional positive regard (UPR) in their sessions. Someone shows UPR when they accept another person no matter what happens. A therapist’s positive regard can serve as a model to accept oneself.
Animal-assisted therapy can also be helpful for self-esteem issues. Most animals provide unconditional acceptance by default. They do not judge people by looks, social status, or wealth. An animal’s affection can boost a person’s self-confidence. That said, animals cannot offer insight, treatment, or advice. Thus, they cannot substitute for a human therapist.
Working in therapy to restore self-esteem is a very personal journey. Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT approaches self-esteem issues by helping people examine their values and priorities in life. “Our first goal is to identify their principles and create a list, in order, of what’s most important to them. From here it becomes very clear when they are acting out of step with their beliefs—and to note how every time that happens, their self-esteem slips,” says Botnick. “Simply put, we feel lousy about ourselves when we’re not being true to our values, but we feel powerful when we assert them, and we feel authentic when what we believe in lines up with how we act.”
Goal-directed forms of therapy can help people act in step with their priorities. A therapist can cooperate with an individual to develop realistic, fulfilling objectives. They may also teach the person time-management and organization skills.
Research shows breaking a goal into smaller steps can make it easier to achieve. Every time a person succeeds in a task, their brain releases dopamine. The hormone dopamine makes people feel happy and motivated. When a person accomplishes several tasks in a row, they often feel more confident. If they do fail a task, they have their prior successes to keep up their momentum.
When a person reaches a goal, they can use their success to push back against negative thoughts. They may also use their goal-seeking skills to improve self-compassion and mindfulness. Boosting self-esteem can itself be a goal.
Many people with low self-esteem have developed self-destructive habits. These behaviors may have been reinforced for years. To improve self-esteem, a person often needs to break these habits and replace them with positive behaviors. Treating oneself with respect or kindness may feel like an unnatural change.
Yet change is possible. “Self-esteem is about not holding on to what you know, but expanding and learning new things,” writes Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT. “You must break through old…behaviors. Taking this action gives us more opportunities for learning, growing, healing, and feeling good about the self!”
- Midlife challenges to self-esteem: Roger, 42, is having difficulty in many areas of life such as work and marriage. He recently found his first bald spot. He isn’t making enough money to pay for his younger son’s college tuition. His friends and family are complaining about his irritability. Roger begins to develop a damaged sense of self-esteem. Through individual and family therapy, Roger regains a sense of his core values—family, honesty, and education. Over multiple sessions, Roger restores a sense of who he is: a competent, honest, loving person.
- Young adult experiences of unworthiness: Jodi, 22, is extremely depressed. She has constant thoughts about being worthless. Therapy reveals her tremendous longing for male approval. This need stems from a rough relationship with her father, a loving but irresponsible figure. Jodi’s work in therapy helps her understand her emotions. She learns her feelings are not a product of her own intrinsic “badness,” but a natural response to a chaotic childhood. She is then able to begin rationally evaluating her own strengths and weaknesses. Jodi learns to clarify her own values and needs, upon which she constructs a positive, adult sense of self.
If you would like to improve your self-esteem, you may wish to find a therapist. Therapy can help you build a healthy relationship with yourself. As your self-esteem improves, you may find unexpected benefits in other parts of your life. There is no shame in reaching out for help.
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