Building Lasting Self-Esteem

I stumbled across a TED video the other day on Facebook which gave suggestions about a problem many of us have; low self-esteem. (TED.com is a website dedicated to helping people with the every day problems life throws at us. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics.)

This particular post got my attention, because I have a problem with low self-esteem. It’s improving as time goes on (now that I know how to manage it) but I think I will always lack confidence in certain areas of my life. It’s just who I am.

I definitely need to be reminded from time to time to take better care of myself physically, as well as emotionally. The author, Guy Winch (who is also a phsycologist), has some great suggestions:

“1. Use positive affirmations correctly
Positive affirmations such as “I am going to be a great success!” are extremely popular, but they have one critical problem — they tend to make people with low self-worth feel worse about themselves. Why? Because when our self-esteem is low, such declarations are simply too contrary to our existing beliefs. Ironically, positive affirmations do work for one subset of people — those whose self-esteem is already high. For affirmations to work when your self-esteem is lagging, tweak them to make them more believable. For example, change “I’m going to be a great success!” to “I’m going to persevere until I succeed!”

2. Identify your competencies and develop them
Self-esteem is built by demonstrating real ability and achievement in areas of our lives that matter to us. If you pride yourself on being a good cook, throw more dinner parties. If you’re a good runner, sign up for races and train for them. In short, figure out your core competencies and find opportunities and careers that accentuate them.

3. Learn to accept compliments
One of the trickiest aspects of improving self-esteem is that when we feel bad about ourselves we tend to be more resistant to compliments — even though that is when we most need them. So, set yourself the goal to tolerate compliments when you receive them, even if they make you uncomfortable (and they will). The best way to avoid the reflexive reactions of batting away compliments is to prepare simple set responses and train yourself to use them automatically whenever you get good feedback (e.g., “Thank you” or “How kind of you to say”). In time, the impulse to deny or rebuff compliments will fade — which will also be a nice indication your self-esteem is getting stronger.

4. Eliminate self-criticism and introduce self-compassion
Unfortunately, when our self-esteem is low, we are likely to damage it even further by being self-critical. Since our goal is to enhance our self-esteem, we need to substitute self-criticism (which is almost always entirely useless, even if it feels compelling) with self-compassion. Specifically, whenever your self-critical inner monologue kicks in, ask yourself what you would say to a dear friend if they were in your situation (we tend to be much more compassionate to friends than we are to ourselves) and direct those comments to yourself. Doing so will avoid damaging your self-esteem further with critical thoughts, and help build it up instead.

5. Affirm your real worth
The following exercise has been demonstrated to help revive your self-esteem after it sustained a blow: Make a list of qualities you have that are meaningful in the specific context. For example, if you got rejected by your date, list qualities that make you a good relationship prospect (for example, being loyal or emotionally available); if you failed to get a work promotion, list qualities that make you a valuable employee (you have a strong work ethic or are responsible). Then choose one of the items on your list and write a brief essay (one to two paragraphs) about why the quality is valuable and likely to be appreciated by other people in the future. Do the exercise every day for a week or whenever you need a self-esteem boost.”

I think the one that would help me most to remember is to focus on those things I do well (#5) and focus on that. It will be difficult, because I enjoy doing a lot of different things. The things that come to mind are writing, cooking, and crafting.  

Honestly, I should pay attention with # 4, too, because I’m not always the nicest person to myself. I judge, I criticize, and I’m not very patient when I make mistakes. The negative self-talk can be extremely damaging to one’s self-esteem. If you’re like me, we tell ourselves how stupid we are for making a mistakes, hoping it will help not make the same mistake again.

And though it might prevent us from making the same mistake, it also reinforces the fact we think we are stupid, and that’s something that’s just not true. We are all works in progress and we need to be kinder to ourselves.

I also loved the author’s reminder: “Whenever your self-critical inner monologue kicks in, ask yourself, ‘what you would say to a dear friend if they were in your situation’.”

Most of us would never treat our friends so harshly.

For more TED Lessons, visit the website or find them on Facebook.

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