Self-esteem seems simple, but millions of people struggle with it. Low self-esteem increases your risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. It makes you more vulnerable to toxic relationships. But there are ways you can improve your self-esteem, and strengthen both your relationships and mental health.
1. Find things you like about yourself.
The simplest way to improve your self-esteem is to find your good qualities. What are you good at? What are your strengths? Do other people tell you you’re kind, funny, smart, or give you other compliments?
If you’re not sure where to start, try looking at a list of strengths and examining which ones might fit you. You’ll probably notice some good qualities you hadn’t even considered applying to yourself, like tactful, inquisitive, or genuine. For bonus points, try thinking of situations where you’ve used those strengths, to reinforce them in your brain.
I recommend trying to think of one or two good qualities each day when you’re starting out. The more you practice, the easier it will be for your brain to notice these strengths, which will increase your self-esteem.
2. Accept compliments gracefully.
When someone tells you you’re awesome, do you disagree? When they say you did a great job, do you say, “It wasn’t that special”? This can lower your self-esteem if you do it often. It builds a habit of your brain minimizing your strengths.
Instead, try saying, “Thank you! I really appreciate that.” If you feel uncomfortable, you can follow it with complimenting the other person. This takes attention off of you and helps the other person feel valued, too.
Accepting compliments may feel awkward at first. You might worry about sounding arrogant. But most people give compliments to show appreciation and try to make you feel good, so they will be happy their compliment has been accepted.
3. Avoid putting yourself down.
Many of my clients say, “I’m being lazy,” “I’m a terrible person,” or “I’m not that smart.” Even people who are smart, kind and hard-working tell me this. The problem is, if you keep telling yourself you’re bad, you’ll start to believe it.
Instead, describe the emotion you’re feeling: “I feel worried about my productivity.” “I feel guilty for what I did.” “I feel sad because I want my grades to be higher.” Often, we mistake feeling bad for being bad. But emotions are temporary, not an unchangeable part of who you are. The fact that you’re feeling bad is a sign you’re capable of reflecting on your life, and learning from it. It means you can grow.
4. Write down your accomplishments.
I like to tell my clients to write down one thing they have accomplished each day. Even small things count, like “I managed to brush my hair,” or “I made my sister smile.” If it’s an accomplishment for them, if it took any effort at all, it counts. By the end of the week they have a whole list of reasons to be proud. You can do this, too!
Writing positive things is one of the best ways to improve self-esteem because it makes your brain focus harder on the thought, and when you see it written in front of you, it feels more real.
Make sure to write down your accomplishments after you’ve done them, by the way. If you write something you’re planning to do in advance it can feel like added pressure and stress.
5. Even your friends can be a way to improve self-esteem!
A lot of our self-esteem is learned from how other people treat us. If others treat you like you don’t matter, it can be hard to believe you do.
Look for friends, family and coworkers who treat you with respect. Who pays attention to you when you talk, who hears out your opinions, who makes time for you in their day? If you usually walk away from a conversation with someone feeling better, that’s a good sign to spend more time with them. If the conversation ends and you usually feel frustrated, embarrassed or self-conscious, they may not be good for your self-esteem.
Other ways to improve self-esteem
Low self-esteem is one of the most common issues I treat in therapy. Many tools have been developed to help people with this, including assertiveness skills, boundary-setting, self-compassion, and exploring your personal values. Cognitive-behavior therapy can also be adapted to focus on self-esteem. It’s okay if you don’t know where to start: there’s enough overlap that you’ll probably find something useful with any of those subjects.
Self-help books, podcasts and other media have been created to help people with low self-esteem. You may also find a therapist useful for help personally tailored to your needs, and to get support in your self-esteem journey. If you are interested in starting sessions, or are curious about what it may look like, drop me a line!