How to build self-esteem
Updated: May 20
There are thousands of blogs from different therapist, self-help authors, and life coaches that broach this issue of building self-esteem. But clients have always asked for the how to's even though there are many instructional blogs and articles about it. So how do I approach self-esteem to my clients and why should you read this article?
First, let me be clear that self-esteem really looks and defined differently from person to person. For example, the rich, successful, charismatic, philanthropist might "appear" to have high self-esteem and claim that he does, a deeper look may prove otherwise. Often clients who come into my office get mixed up between appearing vs actually having self-esteem.
I define it as a person's ability to love and accept themselves. Most importantly it is ones ability to recognize their own internal worth and appreciate it in the moment. Here are my top recommendations for building your own self-esteem.
1. Develop a good narrative
We all have narratives about ourselves and others especially when it comes to human worth. Ask yourself questions like what gives you value? Are you a good person? These questions are often developed and reinforced over the course of our lives. It can be helpful to ask these questions about yourself and see if you can develop a narrative that makes you feel good. For example, believing that you have fundamental value and worth is a good place to start. Or believing that you have qualities that make you fundamentally lovable is helpful as well. Notice the word I am emphasizing is "fundamental" beliefs because they are the foundational beliefs which we build other positive belief systems.
Changing beliefs can be difficult especially if you have many negative beliefs to begin with. But a good place to start is to identify what you currently believe about yourself, others, and the world around you. Then ask yourself whether these beliefs are helpful and make you feel better. Often our beliefs exist to protect us but they can become more of a burden when they outlived their usefulness. Changing them is a great way to develop healthier beliefs.
2. Be Mindful of your critical voice
When we try to develop a good narrative, it will be quickly countered by our internal critic who will tell us otherwise. It can tell us why we are not good enough, why we cannot succeed and point out ways that we fail. Everyone has an inner critic and it has a role that is suppose to be helpful (emphasis on "suppose to".) But a nonstop inner critic can really start to hurt our self-esteem.
There are many ways to deal with an inner critic, but one of the ways I teach my clients to to just notice the inner critic and be aware of it. Most importantly, I teach clients to learn how to be kind to the inner critic rather than fight it. A tough inner critic knows how to fight back and the best way to deal with it is to show compassion, love, and empathy to yourself and your critic. Being aware and mindful will help because its important to know when that part of you is active and driving your feelings, and actions. If you can identify your critical voice and let yourself choose compassion, you can be surprise by how that makes you feel and what kinds of choices you will make.
3. Avoid Comparing Yourself
A common trap to get stuck into is comparison. This is because comparison is our attempt to get our validation and worth from external sources rather than internal. We compare ourselves in areas such as material possession, status, knowledge, and even character traits! When we do this to ourselves it really takes us out of our own story and the positive foundations that we built and focusing on others. And while it may be helpful to notice good qualities and things in others, it can easily become toxic envy and self comparison when we start seeing ourselves as less than because of what we lack.
Protecting ourselves from comparison means learning to acknowledge the valuable things that we have in addition to the things that we want. A great way to avoid comparison is often practicing gratitude where you are genuinely appreciative of things that you already have without negating the genuine feelings of desires and wants.
4. Take Care of Yourself
Self-care in an important piece in self-esteem because it is showing yourself that you matter. It can be as simple as eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep. It can also include setting boundaries, and making sure that you set enough time to do things that you enjoy.
Unfortunately, the "work hard play hard" culture that many of us are living in often means that individuals swing back and forth between over working and then excessive self-indulgence. But good self-care is really about doing the things to operate at optimal well-being. Self-care could look differently depending on the individual but the most important thing to do is to prioritize yourself and your needs.
A simple way to know is to ask yourself, was that restful? Did that activity or task meet my needs? Often times we can be surprised by our own internal answers. For example, a self-care activity I do every morning is to make sure that I make pour over coffee for myself because the act of making coffee is relaxing and helps me get centered. A friend of mine likes to organize her week with bullet journalling as her way of self-care. It can be unique as the expressions above or as basic and universal as eating healthy, drinking water, and getting adequate sleep. You will be amazed by how much self-care can do for your self-esteem.
Self-Esteem can be be difficult to develop, but learning some basic skills can really go a long way. However, there are sometimes things in our lives that may be big barriers that can really prevent people from thriving and developing self-esteem. If you find it difficult to do any of these steps or feel stuck, please seek professional help. There is nothing wrong with getting the help you need to thrive and do well in life.
Alex Ly is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist under supervision who specializes in working with adults in areas relating to self-esteem, dating, trauma, and spirituality. Learn more about his work here.