Learn 5 Simple Ways to Improve your Self-Esteem
In our previous blog, “How Low Self-Esteem is Causing Your Anxiety” we introduced *Rebecca. A female in her late 30’s working as a Sales Manager but struggling with significant anxiety and low self-esteem. Central to Rebecca’s low self-esteem were the core beliefs about herself such as, “others are better than me” and “I am not good enough”. Core beliefs create our “rules for living” which determine how we face cope with various situations and experiences in our lives (e.g., “I will only be good enough if I am perfect”. Realistically, they are more likely to be opinions, not facts. Negative beliefs about the self are expressed in your:
- Thoughts: what you habitually say and think about yourself (e.g., self-criticism, self-blame and self-doubt)
- Behaviour: what you do (e.g., how you act in everyday life)
- Emotions: how you feel (e.g., sadness, anxiety, frustration, guilt)
- Body state: how your body reacts (e.g., tension, low energy, fatigue)
The following steps helped Rebecca improve her self-esteem and reduced her anxiety:
Step 1 – Understanding the origins of your opinion of yourself
The first step to change is understanding where your core beliefs have come from so you can learn to see that these beliefs are often nothing more but unhelpful. This will also help you to understand what keeps your low self-esteem going today. Rebecca’s core beliefs first developed at school. Although she got all A’s, she was never at the top of her class as some of her classmates achieved A*’s, which made her feel inadequate to her peers. This has transpired into her working role and she now feels inadequate to her colleagues.
The current beliefs we hold about ourselves may seem factual, powerful and convincing but remember, core beliefs are often based on your childhood experiences and reflect the messages we received during our early experiences. To build your understanding, ask yourself the following questions:
- What experiences have contributed to my self-esteem?
- What do I say about myself when I am being self-critical?
- What might be my core belief (e.g. “I am not good enough”)
Step 2: Awareness – Practice noticing unhelpful thinking habits and patterns of behaviour
When our core beliefs (“e.g., I am not good enough”) are “triggered” in different situations, our mind will create negative and anxious predictions. A crucial step in improving self-esteem is to begin to become aware of exactly what your mind is predicting when you become anxious and notice the precautions you take to stop your predictions from coming true.
Rebecca’s performance in her quarterly review has made her worry about failing and her colleagues “finding out” that she is not good at her job. She becomes anxious and nervous, predicting that she will be fired from her job. Rebecca also noticed she is focused entirely on her faults, which reinforces her belief that she is not good enough. What Rebecca doesn’t realise is that because of her low self-esteem she sees this as evidence of her incompetence rather than a normal and understandable reaction to her pressured work situation. She starts to isolate herself from her colleagues due to fear that she will be ‘found out’ and fired. While this seems safer, it maintains low-self-esteem because there will not be any opportunities to discover whether her anxious predictions are in-fact true.
To start to practice noticing your own thoughts and behaviours, keep a record of your anxious predictions and the precautions you take to stop them from coming true. If possible, make the record as soon as you can. Record what was happening (i.e., the situation / trigger to the anxiety), your emotions (with intensity rated from 0-10), your anxious predictions / thoughts (including how much you believe these thoughts from 0-100%), and the precautions / behaviour you noticed you took to prevent the predictions from becoming true (e.g., avoidance of the situation). If you struggle with this, it may be helpful for you to experiment with going into the situation to identify your predictions and precautions.
Step 3: Rethinking – Finding alternatives to your thoughts, predictions and beliefs
The next step is to rethink and develop a more balanced perception of yourself that incorporates all sides of you, rather than just the negatives. When Rebecca realised that giving up and isolating herself from her colleagues wasn’t going to help her self-esteem or her position in work, she took a step back and questioned her predictions, rather than accepting them as fact. This wasn’t easy at first and took some practice, but the following key questions she asked herself were helpful. It might also be useful to write down each answer or alternative to your anxious predictions / thoughts and then rate how strongly you believe it (0-100%):
- What evidence supports what I am predicting? What is the worst that can happen?
- What is the evidence against what I am predicting? Are these based on facts? What is the best that can happen?
- What alternative views are there? What would I say to a friend who came to me with the same concern?
Even if the worst happens, tap into your personal strengths and skills to help you cope with this. There may have been other similar situations you have dealt with that required you to do so. Remember, you might not have to deal with it on your own, can you get help, advice or support available from other people?
Step 4: Experiment – Checking out your thoughts, predictions and beliefs….in practice!
Now that we have practised finding alternative to our thinking, we can experiment with a new way of doing things that contradicts our original predictions and supports new perspectives. This will only happen if you take the risk of entering new situations that you have been avoiding and drop the precautions you have been taking to keep yourself safe. This wasn’t easy for Rebecca but she managed this by taking small, graded steps, as outlined below, and helped her to develop an alterative belief that she is good enough at her job.
- Before you enter the situation, state your prediction clearly and write down exactly what you think will happen, including the reactions of others, and how much you believe this will come true (0-100%). Work out in advance what you will do instead of taking precautions.
- Next, put yourself into the situation and carry out your experiment. Closely observe what happens; what outcome would support your anxious predictions, and what outcome would contradict them – that is, exactly how you will know if they were correct or not.
- Assess the outcome. What impact did acting differently have on how you felt? To what extent was what happened consistent with your original predictions?
- Reflect on what have you learnt. What does the outcome mean and what does it tell you about yourself. Does it support your core beliefs/bottom line or does it support a new, more positive belief? Can you use this method as a basis for other situations?
- And finally, give yourself credit for what you have done!
Step 5: Practicing Self-Acceptance and Compassion
We have been looking at unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns however, it is just as important to recognise and value your good points and treat yourself with respect and consideration. Remember we are not aiming to forget or ignore all your natural human flaws and pretend that they do not exist. It is about achieving a balanced, unbiased view of yourself which puts your weaknesses and flaws in context of a broadly favourable perspective and cheerleads for ‘good enough’ rather than ‘perfect’.
It is ok to be exactly who you are! There is often a taboo about thinking well of yourself. We can be known as “big-headed” for acknowledging our good points or fear someone will tell you that you are not good at something when you feel you are. But ignoring or undervaluing positive aspects of yourself is unfair and keeps low self-esteem going as it stops you from having a balanced view of yourself.
Using the same skills you have been practising above (i.e., awareness, rethinking and practising), start by practicing bringing your positive qualities into focus, and practice treating yourself with the same respect and kindness you would give to someone you care about. This might not be easy to do, but these strategies can help to ‘chip away’ at negative core beliefs and build the foundations of a new, more accepting and appreciative perspective on yourself. In essence, learn to be a good friend to yourself and treating yourself as you would a good friend – someone who values, appreciates you and accepts you for who you are.
Looking for more help / guidance?
If you have any further concerns regarding low self-esteem, anxiety and/or low mood, it may also be worthwhile to discuss this with your GP. Further information on low self-esteem and anxiety can be found at www.mind.org.uk and www.nhs.uk. If you would like further independent support with low self-esteem and anxiety, I offer online therapy sessions that may be helpful for you. Please find more information on my website (www.jvpsychology.co.uk).
*Rebecca is an amalgamation of a number of clients presenting with low self-esteem and anxiety.
Blog written by Dr. Jennifer Vaughan (Clinical Psychologist) and Tania Singla (Assistant Psychologist)