If you’ve ever felt a lack of confidence in your own abilities or have felt unworthy of some kind of positive outcome, then you’ve experienced less than optimal self-esteem.
Self-esteem is not static, and even people who generally experience themselves as capable and worthy will at times experience dips in their self-esteem. Being overlooked for a promotion, losing a job, or getting broken up with can cause such a dip for most anybody.
But some folks live in a perpetual state of self-doubt and unworthiness. Experiencing themselves as generally incapable and unworthy, people with low self-esteem live in an overwhelming and painful state of self-consciousness and anxiety. They want nothing more than to be liked and accepted, yet struggle terribly to like and accept themselves.
They may worry incessantly about how they appear to others, regularly engage in critical self-talk, suffer from feelings of shame and guilt, struggle with practicing vulnerability, and feel concerned that if others knew the “real” them, they would certainly reject them. They may have a difficult time being in the moment and fully present a lot of the time. This interferes with their ability to enjoy themselves and deeply connect with others.
Conversely, people with healthy self-esteem go through life with a general sense that they are capable of handling life’s most basic problems and are worthy of joy and happiness. It’s sometimes stated that high self-esteem is equivalent to thinking too highly of oneself; as being better than or more worthy than others. This is not true. Narcissism and inferiority are two sides of the same coin. They both reflect low, not high, self-esteem.
A striving for improved self-esteem has only to do with changing how you experience yourself. In fact, that is what self-esteem is: the way a person experiences themselves, and more specifically whether it reflects an experience of being competent and deserving, or incompetent and undeserving. It doesn’t have anything to do with a need to be superior to others. Again, a desire to be better than others indicates low self-esteem and a faulty idea regarding how to increase self-esteem in oneself.
So how do you effectively boost your self-esteem and begin experiencing yourself as confident and worthwhile? And is it even possible? First, it is absolutely possible to improve your level of self-esteem. There are concrete actions you can take daily to achieve this. But before I share those, here’s what not to do!
A mistake that is made by those struggling with confidence and self-worth is to try to be as likable to others as possible, even if it means being inauthentic. This will not work and will actually have the opposite effect. When you act in ways that don’t represent who you really are to gain approval, you end up experiencing more shame and you like and respect yourself less.
Rather than focusing on gaining the approval of others, self-esteem is improved when you focus instead on earning your own approval. By strengthening your relationship with yourself, enhancing self-awareness, and behaving authentically, you will deepen your sense of self-respect and recognize and internalize your own inherent goodness and worth. There are some particular actions you can take to begin improving how you experience yourself. Below I list 8 of the most powerful ways. I suggest beginning with one at a time, making each a focus until it becomes a habit before moving on to the next.
1. Take responsibility for your self-esteem and your life
While not everything that happens in your life is within your control, you are responsible for your own happiness, success, and fulfillment. If you find that you are suffering, own it rather than seeking to cast blame or to wallow in self-pity. These habits will only worsen your self-esteem and leave you feeling disempowered.
One of the most powerful examples of the human ability to stay positive and find meaning even under the harshest of circumstances is that of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist and Holocaust Survivor. In his book Man’s Search For Meaning, he shows that no matter what we many be going through, we always have a choice over how to cope and even find meaning and purpose in our struggles. Dr. Nathaniel Branden is the leading expert on self-esteem development. I recommend reading his book The 6 Pillars of Self-Esteem as well as any of his other written works. This list reflects the six pillars.
2. Clarify Your Values and Live Them
Living with intention and purpose requires clarity about what matters to you in your life. Values are what define the intentional direction for your life. They are your foundation for your personal definition of success.They also are helpful to reflect on when important decisions need to be made.
Living with such a high level of clarity positively influences self-esteem, as you enjoy living in a self-congruent way. The more your life and choices reflect your values, the stronger your sense of self becomes. Living with integrity, that is, living with your words, thoughts, and actions in alignment, fosters self-respect and self-love.
3. Know your strengths AND your weaknesses
Enhanced self-awareness is key to a positive self-experience. Every person has a set of character strengths; things they are exceptionally good at. Yes, even you! And you, like everyone else, have things you aren’t so great at also. It’s good to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and to accept both without judgment.
This will enable you to have appropriate expectations of yourself, not feel badly about yourself when you perform less than optimally, and to curate personal growth plans intentionally. In my coaching practice, strengths assessment is one of the first things I do with clients, after values clarification. This sets a solid foundation for setting appropriate goals and forming a fulfilling vision for the future.
4. Face your Fears
We all have fears that serve as blocks to our success in various areas of our lives. No one is exempt. The difference is, some people take chances despite being afraid of failure, or whatever their fear might be. By facing your fears and taking action anyway, you seriously boost your confidence. Courage breeds confidence. Each and every day, aim to do at least one thing that makes you uncomfortable.
5. Be Committed to the Needs and Happiness of Others
One of the major blocks to increased self-esteem for those who suffer from low self-esteem is being in a perpetual state of self-consciousness. Because you live so much in your own head, you tend to neglect opportunities to show up meaningfully for the people and causes you care about. Committing to seeking opportunities to help others whenever an appropriate opportunity arises, you break out of this habit of self-focused thought and analysis and begin to feel a deeper sense of meaning and purpose as you make other people’s lives better and discover that you are useful and needed.
6. Practice Saying No and Enforce Other Boundaries
If you’re desperate to be liked and accepted by others, you may fall into the habit of pleasing everyone all the time, meaning you’ll do things you don’t actually want to do for people you may not actually like. Unlike in #4 where you mindfully seek opportunities to be helpful that are appropriate and come from a sincere desire to be of assistance, this habit is one where you automatically say yes because you are afraid to say no.
Saying no leads to feelings of guilt and worry that the asker will judge you negatively as a result. This can result in your being taken advantage of and will lead you to feeling resentful and unappreciated. Help only those you really want to help, and only when you want to. Others will respect you more for knowing your limitations, but more importantly you will respect yourself for taking back control over your own choices.
7. Speak up for yourself (and others)
An important practice in developing your self-esteem is self-assertiveness. Are you willing to ask for what it is you need? Will you speak when faced with injustice toward yourself or someone else? Will you share your opinion even when you know others present have an opposing view? Being able to share your mind is a critical component of healthy self-esteem.
8. Be Willing to Apologize and Be Wrong
When you live with the awareness that you aren’t perfect and that you’ll inevitably err from time to time, you are more likely to be able to take responsibility for wrong choices by acknowledging them and making amends when necessary. Rather than working very hard to hide your flaws, maybe even denying them, practice admitting your faults and seeing them as opportunities for growth.
Living with low self-esteem is painful. I know this first hand and spent years working on experiencing myself in a more positive way. Today I enjoy healthy relationships, more joy and presence, days filled with meaning and purpose, and best of all, the knowledge that I can grow and heal if only I want it.