Improving your self-esteem

By Ida Cathrine Jakobsen, psychologist

You have to come to terms with your style of thinking if you want to improve your self-esteem. Negative thoughts are often a critical part of the problem.

We all have thoughts and feelings about who we are as people. A number of different terms – self-confidence, self-image, self-esteem and self-respect – are linked to the perception we have of ourselves, as well as how we judge ourselves.

Among the most commonly used terms in this context are self-esteem and self-confidence. The latter refers to your confidence in your ability to master a situation, and is linked to specific achievements. For example, a single person may be very confident on the football field, but can be completely lacking in confidence that he will make it unscathed through a speech at his best friend’s wedding.

Self-esteem is considered to be a more comprehensive concept, and often refers to your sense of worth as a person independent of your achievements:

  • It is about knowing and respecting yourself, including both your strengths and weaknesses.
  • It is possible to have great self-confidence in several areas, while at the same time have difficulty seeing yourself as a good and valuable person.

Low self-esteem

Unfortunately, low self-esteem is an all-too-familiar problem for many.

People who struggle with this issue are often very self-conscious, and get caught up to a great degree in what others might think about them, rather than paying attention to what they themselves think. People with low self-esteem will often subordinate their own preferences and needs because they don’t think they are as important as other people’s. This may manifest itself as when a person has difficulties making his or her needs known, or in setting limits for others.

People with low self-esteem may also have feelings of inadequacy in many areas.

And may be plagued by constantly making negative assessments of themselves, which in turn can make it difficult to start with tasks or assignments. Low self-esteem is often expressed socially, at school or at work, as well as in one’s personal life. In short, low self-esteem can have a profound effect on a person’s overall enjoyment of life.

4 tips on how to improve your self-esteem:

1) Set yourself concrete goals

Self-esteem develops over time, is influenced by experiences, and is not a static thing. Much like a muscle, it is possible to train and build up your self-esteem. However, this requires you to be willing to make changes when it comes to your thinking style and behavior. If you want to make changes, you must first of all decide what you want to achieve, and set clear goals for yourself. The more vague a goal is, the harder it will be to achieve.

Because self-esteem is such a broad term, you need to ask yourself what better self-esteem will actually mean for you.

  • Does it mean taking more of an initiative in social contacts with colleagues, for example?
  • Or perhaps it means just daring to say no to unreasonable demands from others?

Answering this question is an important step in the process of building up your self-esteem.

  • Your goals should also be realistic and broken down into specific objectives.
  • Unrealistic goals will quickly put an end to your progress and prevent you from getting the sense of mastery that you need to get ahead.

2) Your style of thinking

You have to come to terms with your style of thinking if you want to improve your self-esteem. Negative thoughts are often a critical part of the problem, and in that context it’s important to consider what are called core assumptions. Thoughts such as “I’m inadequate,” or “I’m a bad person,” are examples of core assumptions. These, in turn, often lead to self-critical thoughts in a number of other more specific situations.

People with low self-esteem will tend to have a habit of thinking negatively about themselves, an autopilot that constantly puts a negative filter on information about who they are. Thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” are often taken to be fact and take up a disproportionately large percentage of your self-image compared to more neutral or positive thoughts about yourself.

Introduce a balance

  • Take a step back, look at the flow of your thoughts and ask yourself, are you only listening to your inner critic?
  • Is there room for an inner supporting player to see what you have actually mastered?
  • It is important in this context to practice allowing yourself to make more nuanced self-assessments.

Use concrete examples

  • Force yourself to identify two to three things you’ve achieved in the course of a day, or positive qualities about yourself.
  • Write these down, and repeat this activity daily regardless of how small or large these achievements may seem.
  • This should be useful in balancing your internal image of yourself.

Shift your focus

People with low self-esteem are often caught up other people’s opinions or perceptions of them – but it’s important to shift the focus away from this concern. Ask yourself, is it really possible for me to fully know what other people think about me? Or to be able to control this at all?

  • This should help you to feel better about yourself, because fighting these duelling feelings is a losing battle.
  • Shift the focus away from thinking about others in relation to you, and try instead to be aware of what you want, think and need.
  • Take yourself seriously. Give as much space to your own desires, opinions and needs as you normally would to others.

It is much more useful to focus on what you actually have influence over, which is your relationship to yourself. It is also useful to reduce the time you spend comparing yourself with others. This is a common trap to fall into.

People with low self-esteem also often make strict demands on themselves, and feel that they are never good enough. In this respect it is important to work on accepting yourself and your accomplishments as good enough.

Voltaire once said that “perfect is the enemy of the good.”

This quote shows that perfectionism often stands in the way of many accomplishments that are usually more than good enough. Not least, this feeling creates high expectations, which often cause people to procrastinate and have difficulties in initiating tasks. For many, another important change in relation to improving self-esteem is to lower the expectations and standards that they have for themselves.

3) Behavior

An important step towards better self-esteem is having experiences that can help correct your behavior. Negative thoughts about yourself often lead to avoidance, which in turn helps to ensure that your thoughts are never disproved. The trick here is all about avoiding avoidance.

You also have to change your action plan, set specific goals and get started.

This could take the form of something like speaking out at least once at your next office meeting, or saying no to a friend who is always asking for too much. This is rarely a comfortable undertaking, but the discomfort and anxiety that you feel are often of the healthy variety. These feelings simply mean that you have moved out of your comfort zone. Continuing to push yourself will most likely allow you to expand your comfort zone as well.

Self-esteem does not improve on its own, so in the beginning, it can be smart to behave as if you have strong self-esteem, even if you don’t feel that way inside – in other words, “fake it till you make it!”.

Changing your typical patterns of behavior despite your discomfort is as important as the changing your style of thought, because of their tight relationship.

4) Throw yourself into it!

It is common to think that you should wait until you feel “ready” or confident enough before starting with challenging tasks. This is usually a bad strategy, both because this magic moment rarely shows up by itself, and not least because just throwing yourself into things actually helps to create confidence that will eventually lead you to feel prepared for anything.

The road to better self-esteem requires changes both in terms of styles of thought and behavior.

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