A young client of mine was recently describing her struggles with low self-esteem. She doesn’t like the way she looks on the outside or who she believes she is on the inside. She doesn’t see any good qualities in herself, nor does she feel she has any purpose. She feels she isn’t useful or helpful to anyone and believes she is a burden to others.
There’s a natural urge in this situation to try to convince the person otherwise — to help them see the errors in their thinking and to reassure them of their positive qualities. However, I refrained from doing that because I knew she wouldn’t believe me. With people who only experience occasional self-doubt, a pep talk may be helpful and appropriate. But chronic and pervasive low self-esteem is a harder problem to tackle, and it requires a more comprehensive approach.
I write from the perspective of an experienced professional counselor, but also from the perspective of someone who has dealt with this issue firsthand. For much of my life, I have been haunted by what I like to refer to as the “demon of self-doubt,” which has often spiraled into self-loathing. I have worked diligently on this issue, and I believe I have made progress. On most days, I can maintain a realistic and balanced view of myself and treat myself with compassion. However, developing and maintaining a healthy self-esteem is an ongoing process. It continues to shift and evolve as I respond to the ups and downs of life.
If you struggle with self-esteem, you may be wondering how you can learn to like yourself — especially if, at your very core, you don’t. How do you start to see yourself as a person of value, goodness and potential? My first answer is: It’s hard! It takes time, effort and maintenance. But my second answer is: It’s possible, and the rewards are plentiful.
Here are some suggestions to begin your journey toward greater self-esteem.
Take the Leap of Faith
Improving your self-esteem is daunting task, especially if a negative self-view is deeply rooted and long-standing. Therefore, this work requires a leap of faith — a belief that the endeavor is worthwhile and that success is possible. To succeed, you must have the commitment to see it through.
This will serve as an anchor to keep you grounded and as a catalyst to push you forward. Take the time to do some research about self-esteem or speak with a professional who can guide you through the process. The more knowledge, resources and support you have, the more likely you will be able to take that leap of faith.
Entertain the Possibility
Of course, having a healthy self-esteem is not something we can just easily talk or think ourselves into. The client I mentioned earlier told me that when she tries to change the way she thinks about herself, it just doesn’t feel true to her.
I told her she can begin by entertaining the possibility that she isn’t as bad as she thinks she is — that maybe her critical view of herself is not entirely accurate. That way, she is not trying to force something that feels rushed or artificial, but rather, open some space in her mind for new possibilities and ways of thinking about herself. To put this another way, experiment with letting the negative thoughts you have about yourself mingle with some positive, self-affirming ones.
Strengthen a New Muscle
Another client, who has chronic, debilitating negative thoughts about himself, once said, “Well, I’ve been thinking this way for close to 30 years, so I can’t exactly change it now.” I told him that learning to like yourself when you are disinclined to do so is like building physical stamina or strengthening a new muscle group.
I chose this analogy for him because he had recently lost close to 50 pounds. It might feel awkward, uncomfortable and even painful at first, but through practice and repetition, we gain strength, and we feel more comfortable and confident.
Understand That Self-Esteem Is Not Narcissism
Another client told me that when she tries to acknowledge her strengths and positive qualities, she feels like she’s showing off or being narcissistic (having an excessive interest in one’s self). I explained that having a healthy self-esteem is not the same as being narcissistic. Having a healthy self-esteem is about having a balanced and reasonable view of oneself as a complex, imperfect human being. It has just as much to do with acknowledging our shortcomings as it is about acknowledging our strengths, skills, gifts and potential.
Additionally, a truly narcissistic person would not worry about being narcissistic, whereas a person with low self-esteem would. It is the voice of low self-esteem itself that says: “Maybe I’m showing off,” or “maybe I’m self-absorbed,” or “that makes me sound so narcissistic.”
Practice Being an Objective Observer
One way to begin the process of increasing self-esteem is by learning to observe your internal dialogue. It requires you to take a figurative step outside of yourself so that you can be an objective observer. Then, you can begin to take note of how you interact with yourself:
- What are your responses to both positive and negative events and/or stimuli?
- How do you talk to yourself when you are struggling with something difficult?
- Do you tend to downplay the good things that you do, while berating yourself for every mistake you make?
- Do you negatively compare yourself to others and/or feel inferior?
The point of this observation is to become more aware of the automatic and habitual patterns of thought that feed into your low self-esteem. That way, gradually, you can develop healthier patterns, and a more accepting and loving relationship with yourself.
Name the Challenge
I have found it helpful in my own life to come up with names, visual images or analogies for different issues and challenges, such as my “demon of self-doubt.” Doing this helps me to gain some control over it. It allows me to gain some mental distance from the problem and view it from a different perspective.
Low self-esteem can become tangled inside of us, making it hard to manage and overcome. But by naming the problem, we can begin the process of taming it as well.
Susie Moore is a licensed professional counselor living and working in Philadelphia, Pa. Susie can be reached at [email protected].