Everybody experiences self-doubt from time to time. It’s a normal part of being human. When feelings of self-doubt last for long periods, however, you may have low self-esteem. “Low self-esteem is used to describe someone with a negative view of oneself, feelings of worthlessness and incompetence. Generally people fall on a continuum from low to high self-esteem, and this can vary from day to day and from situation to situation,” says Lori Ryland, a psychologist in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Fortunately, low self-esteem doesn’t have to be permanent. Recognizing symptoms of low self-esteem, understanding its causes and learning steps to thwart it can go a long way toward making you feeling worthy, valuable and confident.
What Causes Low Self-Esteem?
Low self-esteem can have many triggers and begin at any time in life. Some experts say low self-esteem is more the result of negative or traumatic experiences.
Others say low self-esteem stems from a critical inner voice. “Although it seems that our emotions and motivations result directly from the events and circumstances we encounter, they are instead reactions to our self-talk – the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting whatever we experience and creating our perspective,” notes John Tholen, an author and retired psychologist who practiced in Southern California for more than 40 years.
Symptoms of Low Self-Esteem
The symptoms of low self-esteem may be hard to recognize or admit to yourself.
Ryland says signs can include:
- Feeling inferior to others.
- Feeling timid in group settings.
- Being quiet or withdrawn in group settings.
- Being indecisive.
- Having a hard time accepting compliments.
Ways to Build Self-Esteem
You can build self-esteem with many techniques. Here are 17 to get you started.
- Get some perspective. Realize that many people experience low self-esteem, and you’re not alone. “Self-esteem issues are much more common than you might think,” says Noam Dinovitz, a therapist in Philadelphia. “It’s one of those issues that frankly is easy to hide.”
- Give yourself a break. “Maybe you are ‘just right’ how you are. Maybe this is a learning time. Maybe this is how it is all supposed to be. Be kind to others, and be kind to yourself. It is OK if you take a break today,” says Lynn Zakeri, a therapist in Chicago.
- Be aware of self-criticism. “Take note of what you are saying to yourself,” says Alyssa Friedman-Yan, a therapist in Wilton, Connecticut. “Demand proof for these harsh statements.”
- Get a second opinion. “First, list a few people in your life whom you value, and the reasons why you value them. Next, when appropriate, ask them why they value you. Then compare the list,” says Aaron Weiner, a psychologist in Chicago. “Is there any overlap? Do you agree with their judgment of you?”
- Redirect negative thoughts. “Reframe that critical voice into a more supportive one. Did you make a mistake? Well, instead of, ‘I’m so stupid,’ how about saying, ‘I learned what not to do,’” says Natalie Bernstein, a psychologist in Pittsburgh.
- Change your expectations. “Unrealistic expectations can set one up for failure and diminish self-worth,” says Dr. Rahul Gupta, a psychiatrist in Atlanta. “It is important to tell oneself that not meeting certain goals and expectations is permissible.”
- Write down your definition of worth. Be specific. “When we use general phrases, it’s easy to say we don’t feel good, because we can’t even truly define what we’re saying,” Dinovitz points out. “Furthermore, make sure that the worth is coming from a healthy place. If all of our worth is coming from a source like our jobs or how many followers we have on social media, that’s not healthy.”
- Set realistic goals. “Start small and start simple. Be proud of even the smallest accomplishments. Change is best when it’s gradual and not abrupt. I like to tell my clients, ‘We cannot get from point A to Z without traveling through the alphabet, so please stop trying to skip B and C. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs so you can see your accomplishment and feel it and find pride in it,’” Friedman-Yan says.
- Take control of negative experiences. “If we’re able to find purpose in the negative things that have happened to us, then we are able to use our negative experiences to our advantage and are able to feel like we have more control over what happened to us,” notes Brooke Aymes, a therapist in Haddon Township, New Jersey.
- Take stock of successes. If you’ve succeeded before, you can do it again. “Make a list of all your accomplishments and keep this handy. Review it and add to it often, especially when you’re feeling low,” Ryland advises.
- Try being assertive in conversation. “Say something that takes courage. It may just be chiming in or an opinion, but assertiveness can help you walk taller,” Zakeri suggests.
- Challenge Yourself. “Maybe you’ve always wanted to hike a mountain, sleep in a tent or go kayaking, yet you’ve never made time for the experience. The more we challenge ourselves to try new things, the more we see what we are truly capable of and it helps us to build self confidence in ourselves,” Aymes says.
- Surround yourself with healthy relationships. “Individuals that make up a social support system provide a mirror for one’s positive image. Healthy relationships and social support systems also provide an example of positive values that one can strive to embrace,” Gupta explains.
- Avoid social media. Many studies suggest that social media is harmful to self-esteem. For example, a review of 49 studies of college students or teens, published online Aug. 27, 2019, by Media Psychology found that comparing oneself to others on social media was often associated with lower self-esteem. “Whether what we see is accurate or not, it’s very difficult to see what everybody else is up to or accomplishing and then not compare that to ourselves,” Dinovitz says.
- Be in service to others. Aymes advises clients to volunteer or perform random acts of kindness, such as paying for the road or bridge toll of a person behind you in traffic. “Being in service to others helps us to naturally feel like good humans and also makes the world a better place,” she notes.
- Use affirmations. “Think of how easily you believe critical ones of yourself. Instead, try to choose a phrase or two that you want to believe about yourself. Write it down on a piece of paper and keep it in your pocket, or note it on your phone. When saying it, try to tap into the feeling of the affirmation, imagine what your life would be like if this were to be true. Practice is important here, so set a timer on your phone if you need help remembering throughout the day,” Bernstein recommends.
- Seek professional help. Consider reaching out to a professional such as a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. An expert can guide you through a number of types of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which utilizes many of the same strategies in this article, including identifying dysfunctional thoughts and refocusing them to be more positive. “We can improve both our outcomes and our state of mind by identifying – and shifting our attention to – reasonable alternative ideas that are more likely to inspire constructive action or hope,” Tholen says.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up if change doesn’t happen overnight. “A path to self-acceptance is often a long one and has many peaks and valleys,” Friedman-Yan says. “It takes effort and adaptation, and requires us to be mindful in our interactions with self and our world around us.”
By Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman reports on health for U.S. News, with a focus on middle and older age. She has over two decades of experience and her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including the Harvard Health Letter (where she serves as executive editor), the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.
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