If you were asked to describe yourself, what sort of words would you choose? Would they be positive and uplifting words, or would they be critical and harsh? How we think about ourselves, and the value we place on ourselves, forms our self-esteem.
Self-esteem can be influenced by others in our lives. Comments about our character made by parents, teachers, friends or siblings can affect the way we see ourselves. Someone who is heavily criticised by others may form a low self-esteem, as their opinion of themselves has been heavily influenced by negative comments. Bullying, moving school, glamorous images in the media and traumatic events can also affect self-esteem negatively.
While it’s natural to sometimes be critical of ourselves, if criticism and harsh judgements often outweigh any positive self-assessment, this may indicate a low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can cause people to constantly compare themselves with others; it can impair confidence, and create thinking errors such as catastrophising and all-or-nothing thinking (more on this in the Thinking article).
Self-esteem is often built up over long periods of time, but can also be affected suddenly, often by an upsetting event such as abuse, parental separation or loss. When Steven*, 16 years old, was dumped by his boyfriend, his self-esteem took a large hit.
Steven said he thought his boyfriend had broken up with him because he wasn’t clever enough, and not attractive enough. He put a lot of time, energy and thought into the things he didn’t like about himself, and attributed his own flaws to his boyfriend’s decision to end the relationship.
The way Steven was thinking started to affect his behaviour. He began avoiding social situations, not wanting to be - as he assumed was happening - judged by others based on his looks. He found he was doubting himself, asking for others’ opinions and never really trusting his own ideas. He stopped standing up for himself, acting passively and not speaking up when he disagreed with someone (see more in the Assertiveness article).
Steven wanted things to change, but wasn’t sure how. I challenged him to imagine what things might be like for him if his self-esteem were to improve, and be more positive. Steven replied that he could see how things would be better if he could think better of himself, but felt so far away from reaching this goal.
*name has been changed
Ways to work on your self-esteem
Indeed, it took some time, and real commitment, but Steven was able to work on his self-esteem and create a more balanced view of himself. Below are some of the methods he worked through. If you recognise that you may have low self-esteem, work through these techniques and see if you can improve how you see yourself.
1. Picture having positive self-esteem
While Steven’s self-esteem was knocked by one big event in his life, many people experience years and years of low self-esteem. It may be difficult for them to even perceive what it could be like to think better about themselves, and perhaps even scary to imagine something that is so unknown.
To help overcome this hurdle, try answering the question What would it be like to have positive self-esteem? You can answer by writing down short sentences; writing a story or song, or by drawing a picture.
Steven’s responses to the above question were: “Celebrating your achievements”; “Knowing yourself - the good and the bad, and being ok with it”; “Being happy with YOU” and “Seeing that everyone has flaws, even the people you thought were perfect (there is no such thing as perfect)”.
Once you have imagined the sort of feelings that could arise from having positive self-esteem, you can start working on creating it for yourself.
2. Challenge Negative Thinking
People with low self-esteem will often have negative self-talk. They may tell themselves things like “I’m stupid, so shouldn’t even try” or “I’ll never get a girlfriend in a million years”. Sometimes the messages people tell themselves are similar to messages they may have been told by overly-critical parents, or by bullies, and have somehow cemented these messages as true in their minds.
To challenge negative thinking, you need to first be aware of it. Ask yourself (and perhaps write down) what words you use when you talk about yourself to other people. What thoughts do you have about yourself? How do these words affect you emotionally?
Now consider what evidence there is to support the messages you have about yourself, and what evidence there is that does not support them? What would be an alternative, or more realistic message? Perhaps a more balanced message?
Steven had grown accustomed to putting himself down following his breakup. He told himself he would never have another relationship as he was too ugly, and that nobody respected him as he was stupid. When he wrote down his thoughts on paper, it was a bit of a shock for him to read how harsh he was being with himself. He reflected that he would never say something so cruel to a friend of his, and so questioned why he would talk to himself this way.
Working through the evidence exercise, Steven came up with a more realistic message to give himself: “I will have another relationship, when the time is right. I have many attributes that make me good boyfriend material, and the ones I’m looking for in someone else are not all to do with appearances. I’m not brilliant at some subjects, like History and English, but I’m good at Maths and and enjoy Art. I’m not stupid.”
3. Change the things you can, and accept the things you can’t
We all have things we don’t like about ourselves, things we wish could be different. Sometimes it is possible to do something about these aspects of ourselves. For example, if you feel you are always late to meet friends, see if setting your watch ten minutes early helps you leave home a bit earlier.
It’s not always possible to change an aspect of yourself. For example, skin colour, sexuality, your past history are all pretty set. Instead of wishing you could change things about you that are not possible to change, think about how you can alter the way you see those things. Can you think of any role models who may have similar attributes? Can you challenge your thinking (as in Step 2) to create an alternative, more positive outlook?
4. Be proud
Often we are encouraged to be modest or humble about ourselves. While there is merit to this, sometimes the sentiment spills over to “I shouldn’t feel good about myself”. We all have a right to feel good about ourselves, in the same way we notice and appreciate good things about people we are close to. What are two things you can name that make you feel good about yourself?
Can you think of a time you did something kind for someone else, and felt good about it? Try writing a paragraph about the experience, draw or doodle about it, or write a song about how it felt.
List three things you achieved in the last week, or ticked off a ‘To-Do List’. They don’t have to big things - clearing out some junk emails, finishing a school assignment and trying out a new recipe at home are examples of achievements, as are getting out of bed on time or returning a library book.
5. Be Inspired
Think of some positive words you’ve heard from a movie or a song, write them out and put them somewhere you’ll see every day, like on a Post-it on the bathroom mirror at home, or in a frame next on your bedside table.
Bring to mind someone who has been a positive influence on you (this can be someone you know, or someone you know of, including a character in a book!). Reflect on what qualities they have that you admire, and what you could learn from them. Can you think of any times when you showed similar qualities, or can you imagine an occasion when you might like to display similar behaviour?