Improve Your “Self-Esteem” in 6 Steps

Improve Your “Self-Esteem” in 6 Steps

“I have low self-esteem.”

“I want to work on my self-esteem”

“Can you help me with self-esteem?”

Self Esteem Tips Improve Thinking

I hear these statements and requests all the time from my clients. But what is this “self-esteem,” and what can someone do if it appears to be “low”?

First of all, I’m not fond of the expression “self-esteem.” As I’ve pointed out in my videos and blog previously, Hitler had very high self-esteem, and I’m not sure that I want whatever he had. I’d prefer to cultivate self-acceptance and self-compassion than self-esteem.

However, I have to meet people where they are, and for various historical reasons, the term “self-esteem” has embedded itself deep in the Western (or at least American) mind-set, and for now it appears to be here to stay. So let’s unpack what self-esteem might be, if we use it in a meaningful way. Well, for starters, when we say that one has “low self-esteem,” one has a very harsh inner critic, is prone to depression, often feels badly about oneself without having good reason to feel that way (such as having a history of heinous crimes). If that describes you, what should you do about it? If you believe you have “low self-esteem,” I think you will find the following step-by-step process quite helpful.

(Note: I said “Self-Esteem in 6 Steps,” but I did NOT say “6 Quick and Easy Steps!” If this stuff were easy, everyone would have “healthy self-esteem” without trying).

Step 1: Clarify Your Values System

Clarify Self Esteem ThinkingFreedom is a wonderful thing, and the freedom to choose one’s own values system could perhaps be the most important freedom of all. However we aren’t often informed that it is basically up to us to work out what our values system is. We absorb others values as well as those which media and other societal influences put forward, and often mistake these for our own.

By ‘values’ I mean ANYTHING that is of value to you, what are the most important things to you; the people, activities, principles, and so forth that make your life meaningful. For example, I value music, and I try to incorporate it into my daily life. Parenting, being a good partner or spouse, making significant contributions to society through work, spending time in nature — all of these are examples of values.

The benefit of clarifying one’s core values and writing them out, for example using a worksheet such as the Values Bullseye, is that values can inform our day-to-day objectives as well as our long-term goals. It’s difficult to sustain self-esteem when one is unclear on what one’s life is about, or more specifically, what we most sincerely WANT our lives to be about. Clarifying and making explicit our values system is the basis of my approach to developing healthy self-esteem. Having done so, note areas of your life in which your behavior does not follow your values system. We all have that gap to some extent; the important thing is to note in what ways you act differently from what you know to be most meaningful and most important to you.

It’s quite important that this initial step be done in the correct manner, because it’s the basis of the whole process. Sometimes having a trusted friend or a therapist help you with this part is essential. Some common pitfalls include:

– Confusing your past behavior with your current values — the first question in this case is how you WANT to live, not how you do in fact live. We need to see and feel the discrepancy between the two, or there is nothing to have hope about, nothing to work on. We can easily get stuck in hopelessness if we believe that we cannot change our behavior!

– Mistaking other people’s values for your own — your parents, significant others, friends and society as a whole exert a natural pressure on you. As social animals, we crave the approval of such others. But valuing is not about gaining approval. It’s about caring deeply about things for their own sake, not for the social rewards they bring us.

– Blurring the distinction between goals and values — goals are points along the way; they can be completed. On the other hand, values are NEVER completed. I can’t just “cross off” music from my list once I’ve “done” it, any more than I can cross off family from my list once I’ve visited with them. Values are directions; goals are mileposts along the way that show us we’re moving in the direction that we value.

Step 2: Make a Plan

Planning Improving Self Esteem

The next step after clarifying your values is to make a plan on how you will bring your behavior into greater accordance with your values. So if for example, you value being kind to others, yet you find that often you are impatient and harsh with others when under pressure, rather than judging or condemning yourself for this shortcoming, note it as a discrepancy between your behavior and values, and make a plan on how you will do better.

It’s important that the goals you set are small, so that they are achievable in a short time-frame, such as a week. For example, you might, in the case I just described of valuing kindness but tending to be short with others, make it a point to do something kind for someone you recently were impatient with. The smaller the goal, the better, especially at first; we need to experience successes while we build up our resilience — resilience being an important part of what people call self-esteem. Once a goal or set of goals is achieved, make some new ones for the following week.

Step 3: Earn Your Own Trust

Earn Own Trust For Better Self Esteem

In beginning to carry out your plan with small but decisive steps in your valued direction(s), you are starting to earn back your own trust. Part of what people call “low self-esteem” is a realistic assessment that one cannot trust oneself to do things the way one in fact believes most earnestly that one “should.” Unfortunately, our mind tends to get stuck in the “should” statements and not move on to the “how I am GOING to do this” part! As you achieve small goals, you are rebuilding a relationship of trust with yourself. Trusting yourself comes from seeing yourself being trustworthy — just as you deem others trustworthy when you seem them behaving that way. We cannot hide from ourselves for long! Have the courage to jump-start this trusting relationship with yourself, no matter how damaged it’s become.

Step 4: Keep a Record

Take Notes To Improve Self Esteem

We are visual creatures, and we respond well to written records, charts and graphs that show us our progress. Think about how running apps help you track how far you’ve gone. Develop a way to measure your progress, even if it’s very simple, such as counting the number of small objectives you set and achieved for the week, then writing that number down week to week. (You can count writing down the number as an objective, letting you have at least 1 completed per week!) Refer regularly to your record to see how far you’ve come.

Step 5: Build Relationships and Community

Build Relationships To Improve Self Esteem

Having straightened out your values and planned your goals, it’s time to make sure you’re not falling into the trap of unworkable individualism. (I’m all for WORKABLE individualism; that could be a whole other blog post!) We are social animals and do not thrive in a vacuum. While as I mentioned before it’s critical to discern your own values from those of others, it’s just as important to consciously develop your own mini-community. Depending on whether you are introverted or extraverted, it could be a smaller or larger community. Either way, “self-esteem” grows as we build meaningful, trusting relationships with others, and find a meaningful place amongst our fellow Human beings. Sometimes it takes some brainstorming to think of ways we can do this — then we can add those to our objective lists week by week. For example, you might decide to frequent a nearby coffee house and become a familiar face there, in order to foster new friendships. Or you might choose a charity to volunteer for, or an activity group to join, or get back in touch with a friend you’ve become distant from. The possibilities are limitless! Again, if you find this step quite difficult, it can be a good idea to get help from a therapist or trusted friend or significant other.

Step 6: Cultivate Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion

Self Acceptance Self CompassionAs I mentioned at the start of this blog post, I’m actually not a big fan of the whole concept of “self-esteem.” It’s either too simple or too complicated, and few seem to really know what exactly it means anymore. However, the more specific terms Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion are more what the original meaning of Self-Esteem was when people like Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers first spoke about it.

Self-Acceptance is the practice of being open to however you are in this particular place and time. It’s not about being resigned to never changing; that’s just a mind-trap. It’s about being okay with where you are, even as you gather energy to move forward. When we’re okay with where we are, we CAN move forward, whereas if we reject where and who we are, it’s very difficult to move forward! (This was once known as Rodgers’ Paradox after early psychologist Carl Rodgers).

Self-Compassion involves being conscious of oneself as a Human Being who by our nature cannot be perfect, and who by our nature has sadness and joy, suffering and pleasure. It’s usually much easier for us to empathize with others and have compassion for them when they are suffering, or take joy in their happiness. It’s a lot more difficult for many of us to regard ourselves as we would any other Human being! Yet we can do it.

When we see that we are not the Center Of the Universe, that we are just like the “others,” we also increasingly see that we are just as deserving of loving kindness, compassion and care. In some ways this can be the most important step, and sometimes people skip straight to it when cultivating “self-esteem.” Indeed I’d recommend you work on this throughout the process I’ve laid out. You’ll have plenty of opportunities, for example, to practice Self-Acceptance when you don’t meet 100% (or even 50%) of your goals for a given week, for example. Being realistic about ourselves fosters realistic, stable, enduring “self-esteem”. In turn, this sense of a stable, acceptable self promotes our regarding others as acceptable even with their flaws.

If these 6 steps seem like a lot of work, that’s because they are! But it’s worth it to get one’s life on-track. One thing these steps won’t do is cure serious psychiatric illnesses such as anxiety disorders, major depression or schizophrenia. But even if you suffer from one of those conditions, developing a healthy sense of “self” — whatever that might turn out to be — is possible and desirable, not as a substitute for appropriate treatments, but as an important adjunct to them.

Build Success Toward Growing Self Esteem

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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  • ummon

    hi, nice article and I like your blog, but what if I reject the concept of the “self” altogether?

    • Then that’s awesome because none of this need be a problem! We reify “self” and so create an issue where none has to exist–we “cut unblemished flesh” or “put a head on top of our head”! 😉