How to Get a Healthy Grip on Your Self-Esteem

My clients come to therapy for many different reasons: they may be unhappy with their careers, lack of perceived success, they may be struggling in relationships, feel overwhelmed by sadness or anxiety, have difficulty expressing themselves or showing up authentically in front of others. Many of my clients believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them: that they are damaged in some way, or not good enough, or wish that they were more like somebody else, or that they deserve to suffer because of the way that they are.

One common thread among my clients is that their low self-esteem can be traced back to childhood-- to a time when their self-worth was undermined by another person or group's words or actions. Children are vulnerable and often impacted by influential or critical voices (such as a parent, peer or teacher). Whether or not the criticism was overt or subtle — or was actually a misinterpretation — these voices can become internalized and play like a recording over and over again. Eventually, these voices can solidify into more concrete beliefs, gaining traction over time, embedding themselves into a person's core identity and psyche, and traveling with them through adulthood. Left unchallenged, these voices can become omnipotent and corrosive: running negative, self-defeating scripts over and over again -- impeding my clients from feeling at peace in their lives and moving towards authenticity and their potential.  

When I read articles about self-esteem, it is often linked to pubescent teenage girls or middle-aged women struggling with body image issues. While these are certainly examples, this narrow focus is limiting. In reality, self-esteem issues are present across all demographics -- culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomics. It is not simply a women's issue. Oftentimes, self-esteem is at the root of high-risk behaviors, such as various types of addictions, suicidal thoughts, self-harming behaviors, and abusive relationships. However, it also impacts people in more subtle ways in their daily lives, as they try to go about their business, but struggle internally.  People find ways to cope with their pain and do the best that they can in their circumstances. 

Some people may seek external validation from others in order to feel better (e.g. compliments, approval, romantic relationships)--because they struggle to accept themselves just as they are. This does not work in the long-term because it is disempowering: their self-worth hinges upon others' actions and beliefs. People will use alcohol, drugs, or risky behaviors to escape or quiet negative beliefs about self. These methods are ineffective (as well as dangerous) because they are temporary "fixes" and do not address the deeper issues.  

If you would like to feel better about yourself and more confident in who you are, you can start a practice to support these goals. However, as you will be addressing deep-seated feelings and beliefs, it will take some time and commitment. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Identify what makes you feel good about yourself: your unique strengths, hobbies, and support system. Create a personalized list and be sure to refer to it often. As an art therapist, I invite my clients to create an identity collage or vision board, which can act as a daily reminder of who you are, what you stand for, and what is important to you --which can help to boost your sense of self.

  2. Notice when your inner critic takes over. Be curious, but try to detach from it. It is not you.  Counter this voice with a compassionate reframe. For example: "There is something wrong with me" might become "I can be hard on myself, but it is important to remember that I am a good person and there is nothing wrong with me." This practice will start to chip away at your negative self-talk so that it no longer carries so much weight. 

  3. Carry around an object, photo, quotation, or letter, which reminds you of your self-worth in some way.  If you know you are about to enter a vulnerable situation, take a moment with this special object beforehand, to bolster your confidence.   

  4. Remember that you are not alone! Join a support group with like-minded people or talk to someone (it could be a friend, family or community member, or professional)-- the key is finding support in which you feel listened to, respected, and understood.

  5. Language is powerful.  Write your own story and share it with others. Out of vulnerability comes strength.

For more on self-esteem, I was interviewed for this article on PsychCentral: