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The beginners’ guide to improving self-esteem

Self-esteem is a mixture of how we value ourselves and what we believe about how much others value us. Some wise person once said, “Take care how you speak to yourself… because you are listening.” Our self-esteem is not only responsible for how we let others treat us, but for how we treat ourselves.

feeling inferior

While our thoughts and feelings about ourselves vary from day to day and can be influenced by such things as romantic relationships or a grade on an assignment, self-esteem is a layer deeper than this. The way we handle these fluctuations in our everyday lives is a good indicator of how we feel and think about ourselves. For instance, if our self-esteem is good, these experiences affect us only to a limited extent; whereas if our self-esteem is poor, everyday experiences can have a drastic impact on us. People with poor self-esteem need constant positive external experiences.

Self-esteem contributes in a critical way to our sense of wellbeing. Having low self-esteem means that we:

  • suffer harsh self-criticism and discontent
  • view minor obstacles as insurmountable difficulties
  • feel excessive sensitivity to criticism and feeling personally attacked when criticized
  • feel pessimistic about the future
  • are indecisive and fear making errors
  • approach things with unhelpful perfectionism
  • retain intense concern over past mistakes

Taking stock of our level of self-esteem and what we may be doing to sabotage ourselves is very worthwhile. It’s only when we recognise the habits we get into, such as our thought patterns when we make a mistake (“I can’t do anything right!”) that we can finally do something about it.

Building and maintaining a good level of self-esteem means that life becomes much simpler and more pleasant. We develop an inner stability that is difficult to rattle because we’re not constantly sabotaging how we feel about ourselves. A by-product of this is that we become more attractive to other people too, because being close to us is much less dramatic and hard work.

But how do we start? Is it possible to actively set out to increase our own self-esteem? Generally speaking, the road to a good self-esteem can be a bit of a journey, but here is a good start:

  1. Write a list. Take an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses – at least 10 of each, even if they are as small as ‘I’m a pretty good listener’ and ‘cats really like me’. Keep in mind that there’s usually an upside to every downside: it’s not possible to be a good listener and be the life of the party! If you’re very creative, maybe you won’t ever be great at doing your housework. A strength usually has both pros and cons, so look at your weaknesses in a new light. They usually have a strength hidden in there somewhere!

    Remembering your list of strengths and telling your inner critic to ‘cut it out’ comes in handy when things go wrong, allowing you to put a situation into perspective. Nobody’s good at everything, right? However, when we acknowledge weaknesses we also have more of a chance (given the right planning and process) to change.

  2. Set realistic expectations. Setting expectations that are impossible to reach can be the source of someone’s poor self-esteem. Take a blowtorch to that long list of exotic places you must visit by the age of 30, and if you don’t you’ll be a failure. Want to be a millionaire? Great! But remember that most people are in debt. Not only do we set ourselves up for failure, but sometimes our expectations are completely beyond our control. For instance, we’d like our parents to stop being so critical. Guess what? If they have been critical all this time, chances are their attitude will continue to disappoint. Look at life realistically and then set a plan in place to achieve some realistic goals.
  3. Own your own mistakes. Absolute perfection is unattainable, so let it go. Even a highly trained athlete or world famous artist will tell you that. Instead, enjoy your accomplishments and own your mistakes so you can learn from them. Write a list of things you’ve achieved and make sure you revisit the list often.
  4. Stop comparing yourself to others. This is perhaps the most significant and difficult thing to do. When we become obsessed with comparing ourselves with other people, we live in a constant state of discontentment. We feel we need to prove ourselves all the time. External indicators of success tell us little about a person’s real life or who they really are. If you’re feeling depressed when you look at the lives of your friends on Facebook, remember that social media is just a carefully curated version of reality – much like a museum or gallery. We may think someone’s life is ideal, but the surface things may in fact only be a façade. Stop comparing. It really doesn’t help.
  5. Try something new. When failure leaves us feeling defeated and trapped by our circumstances, it’s time to consider our options. This is when our list of strengths and weaknesses comes into its own. Take a look at what you do well (be open-minded about this). Apply for a new job or branch out into a new course of study. Changing life direction can bring a freshness to life and the chance to start again. This is how you become the person you always wanted to be.
  6. Think about helping others! If you truly wish to achieve a stronger self-esteem, consider living every day with the intention of helping other people. Experts say that the best way for people to feel good about themselves is to think less about themselves and more about others. Why? When we are kinder to other people, we are kinder to ourselves. Considering the needs of others, allows us to:
  • solve problems and give opinions without badmouthing ourselves or other people
  • uphold morals, while also being flexible enough to alter them after certain events
  • perceive the emotions and needs of other people
  • conform to widely accepted social norms
  • avoid achieving success by abusing other people
  • have faith in our own judgment, and
  • learn from our mistakes without getting hung up on the past.

A positive outlook about who we are and our value to society leads to better results in everything we pursue. When things get hard (as they will) keep in mind why you want to make these changes: you want to feel confident and ready to tackle the things that life throws you. Be fair and realistic with yourself and you may just be pleasantly surprised!

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