Self-Esteem: The Myth, The Legend. But What is the Truth When it Comes to Self-Esteem?

                                                                                             By Maggie Werther, LCSW, CAC II

“Where can I get some of that [self-esteem]?” one of my adolescent clients asks, feeling frustrated once again with herself. As a therapist, my first question when I see a new client for an initial session is, “What brings you through my door today?” Quite often clients answer by saying they believe they have low self-esteem and would like help improving it. Clients are overwhelmed and often don’t know where to start; increasing self esteem feels like a monumental task for so many people.

“Where do I begin? How do I even go about increasing my self-esteem?” Well, I’m here to tell you that your self-esteem can improve. And the how? Well, it’s a journey of course, like many things in therapy. If one of my established clients is reading this, I can just imagine eyes rolling and hearing the words, “She always says that!” Yup! Seriously though, improving self-esteem takes time, patience, self-awareness, attention, and openness. So, are you ready? Let’s do some processing around this idea of self-esteem.

First of all, let’s define self-esteem and break it down so we are on the same page. If you Google “definition of self-esteem” you will find it defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect.” I like this simple definition and it makes sense, but there’s more. In my mind, there are two types of self-esteem, and I don’t just mean high and low. I’m talking about how our self-esteem is constructed within ourselves.

First is the self-esteem we get from the things we do, our abilities and the confidence we have in ourselves. This builds the love we have for ourselves and how we ultimately value ourselves. The second type is the self-esteem we build from the recognition and respect we get from others and here’s the clincher: believing that we are worthy and deserving of that respect and recognition. When your self-esteem is low, you tend to undervalue and sometimes even devalue your own ideas, opinions, and self-worth. The more you do this, the more you start to have feelings of self-loathing, negative thoughts, and a pessimistic outlook on life. When your self-esteem is high, you have a more positive regard for yourself and you see yourself as deserving of respect from others. You have a more optimistic outlook, can accept a compliment, and when the going gets tough, you don’t doubt every decision you make; instead, you roll with it. In a nutshell, you value yourself. See how important this is?

So, now that we have defined self-esteem, and you’re over-analyzing your own, let’s discuss tools and strategies for improving it. Remember when I said it’s a journey? Well, it is and I think there’s value in embarking on that journey. A therapist can be of benefit in helping you to dig around a bit, do some self-discovery, and may help to uncover the origin of that low self-esteem.

If your goal is to improve your self-esteem, simply allowing yourself to put aside an hour each week to do this work will help you to reach that goal. If you don’t have an established therapist, here are some strategies that you can implement on your own. If you are already in therapy, these can be a great supplement to your work between sessions. And, side note: there are many more tools, skills, and strategies. I’d be here all day listing each one. So, here is a list of my favorite tips and ones my clients have reported the greatest benefits from using:

List your strengths and own them. No really, what are your strengths? What are you good at? Even if you question those things. If I were to ask a friend to describe you, what would they say? Write those things down on sticky notes and stick them anywhere you will see them. Your bathroom mirror, the cereal box, in your underwear drawer, on your coffee mug. And when you see those strengths listed in front of you, repeat them. Take them in. Own them. Let yourself notice and absorb what you are good at and the shining qualities of your personality.

Challenge your negative thoughts. When you have a negative thought, check the facts, ask yourself, ‘is this true?’ Challenge the thought, dispute it. For example, let’s say you forgot to pack you child’s snack for snack time at school and you think, “I’m a terrible parent,” and all day you stew on this thought. Let’s challenge that: I mean, really, are you a terrible parent? Check and verify the facts: Do you remember to pack a snack the majority of the time? Are you allowed to make mistakes? Does forgetting one snack actually make you a terrible parent? What about all the times when you haven’t forgotten the snack?

When we make even the smallest of errors we tend to question everything. One negative thought can hold so much power but why let it? Instead, challenge the negative thought by checking the facts and finding a reasonable and/or positive thought to replace the negative one. In the above example we would go from, “I’m a terrible parent” to “I’m doing the best I can and sometimes I make mistakes.” Instead of letting yourself spiral downward with your negative thoughts, I encourage you to empower yourself around challenging and eliminating the power these thoughts have over you.

Build evidence for yourself. Not only should we be challenging our negative thoughts to increase self-esteem but we should also establish evidence and take note of our meaning and purpose, our accomplishments, and believe we are worthy and deserving of good things. Identifying confidence in our abilities is important. If you find that you do something well, accept that. Don’t just brush it off or provide some excuse for why something worked out. Own and accept that you had a part in it. Also, if someone gives you a compliment, think about it and take it in. Don’t just rationalize it away or flat out deny it (it’s unreal how many people are so quick to do this). Listen to and hear the compliment and, let yourself soak it in. It’ll make a big difference.

Take a break from social media; compare and despair! Because of the pervasiveness of social media, we are constantly voyeurs into other people’s lives and it’s easy to feel like others have it better or more together than we do. I call this the “white picket fence” syndrome. Everyone is always posting pictures and status updates about their white picket fence- 2.5 kids , amazing career, brand new car; beautiful home, life is grand! It’s rare that people post about how difficult life can be or when things aren’t going well. As an observer to all of this, we start to wonder why everyone else seems so shiny, when we are left thinking, “I’m over here feeling dull and lackluster.” There’s that low self-esteem again. It’s just not necessary to constantly compare yourself to others, especially when you simply don’t have all the facts. I recommend taking a break from social media (or at least cutting down on your use) while you work on improving your self-esteem.

Set reasonable goals for the things you want to change. No one is perfect. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is from Marsha Linehann (the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, known as DBT): “You’re perfect the way you are; now change.” We are all striving to be better versions of ourselves, and just because we have things to work on and change about ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t love ourselves or that we’re unworthy or undeserving. Love yourself through the changes you want to make for yourself. Keep in mind that these changes must come in the form of reasonable goals. If there is something you don’t like about yourself, or something you wish to be different or that would serve you better, set a goal around it and work toward it. If you need help meeting these goals on your own, you may want to consider seeing a therapist or mental health professional who can help guide you toward making those changes.

Well, I think I have given you plenty to start with. As you begin to work on some of these skills and strategies, I believe that you will find a growing awareness of your self-esteem and it will become easier to notice when you are falling back into old patterns of thought. I challenge you to stick with that awareness and encourage you to make small changes in areas of your life that you want to develop or improve. These will add up to big developments in your self-esteem, your sense of self, and ultimately, in your life.

Maggie Werther is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Addiction Counselor in private practice in Broomfield, Colo. To learn more about her services click here. Photo courtesy of Ms. Werther.