There have been countless definitions and discussions on the meaning of self-esteem over the years.
And while these technical discussions of what self-esteem actually is are interesting, the general idea is not complicated:
When you have healthy self-esteem, you basically like yourself.
You might acknowledge certain flaws or mistakes, but you see these as the exception, not the rule.
On the other hand, people with low self-esteem basically dislike themselves. They acknowledge bright spots here and there—things they’ve done well or praise from other people—but they see these as the exception, not the rule.
Thankfully, no matter what the source of your low self-esteem or how long you’ve struggled with it, you can improve it and learn to feel better about yourself.
But here’s the trick…
You’re not going to arrive at genuine self-esteem by smiling at yourself in the mirror and telling yourself how great you are.
That’s because self-esteem isn’t a temporary feeling. It’s a belief built up over time.
I think Naval Ravikant put it best:
Self-esteem is your reputation with yourself.
And like any kind of reputation, self-esteem is earned.
So how do you earn better self-esteem? Not with schmaltzy mantras, or clever insights, or wise words from your therapist.
You earn self-esteem with consistent action—by regularly doing things you can be proud of.
Here are a few principles to get you started building better self-esteem.
1. Don’t make promises to yourself that you can’t keep.
A common trait among people with low self-esteem is that they over promise and underdeliver on their personal goals.
- You tell yourself it’s time you finally lost weight and got in shape.
- You then proceed to set a goal of losing 30 pounds by beach season.
- Wow! I mean, it’s ambitious, that’s for sure. And setting that goal probably feels inspiring in the moment.
- But how realistic is that? How likely are you to actually drop 30 pounds in two months after 30 years of trying unsuccessfully to lose weight?
By setting an unrealistic goal for yourself, you’re increasing the odds that you fail and then subsequently feel badly about yourself—which only reinforces your already low self-esteem.
On the other hand, what if your strategy with personal goals was to underpromise and overdeliver?
What if you set a goal to lose 2 pounds over the course of a month and keep it off for another month?
Obviously, that wouldn’t feel as exciting in the moment. But your odds of actually achieving it are way higher. And as a result, you’re much more likely to feel a genuine sense of pride and accomplishment in yourself, thereby improving your self-esteem.
The key to improving your self-esteem is to follow through on your promises to yourself. And the key to following through on your promises to yourself is to set modest, achievable goals.
This creates a virtuous circle where small goals lead to pride and confidence, which then help you achieve bigger and bigger goals.
2. Ask for help when you need it, not because you want it.
Another trait I’ve observed among people with chronically low self-esteem is that they ask for help… A LOT.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with asking for help. In fact, the ability to ask for help when you really need it is a powerful skill that more people should have instead of trying to lone-wolf every problem they encounter.
But there’s a big difference between asking for help when you really need it and asking for help simply because you want it.
- Suppose you’re assigned a task at work: to create a sales report for a new client.
- Problem is you’ve never created a sales report before. And understandably, this creates some anxiety in you as you imagine screwing it up and other people seeing the result.
- So to cope with that anxiety, you email a coworker and ask them if they can teach you how.
- Notice that you’re asking for help because of a feeling—anxiety, in this case. Not because you actually need help (how do you know if you need help if you haven’t tried yourself first?)
- You could, for example, spend 20 minutes online researching “sales report examples” or find a video on YouTube of someone walking through the process. Or you might take a first stab at the report and then ask for feedback, rather than putting the bulk of the problem onto someone else’s shoulders.
- You can only say that you really need help if you’ve taken reasonable steps to figure it out or learn yourself first.
One area where this asking for help because you want it, not necessarily because you need it, shows up a lot is in managing difficult emotions.
- Suppose you’re feeling nervous because your spouse was supposed to text you when they landed after a flight.
- It’s been 10 minutes since they were supposed to have landed and you haven’t heard from them.
- You start catastrophizing and imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios. And as a result, your anxiety is skyrocketing.
- So you immediately call your sister in the hopes that she will reassure you and help you calm down.
Now, getting reassurance from your sister might feel good, but did you really need her help to manage your anxiety?
In both of these examples, by asking for help before you’ve actually tried anything, you’re signaling to your brain that you can’t handle these difficult situations. Consequently, your brain starts to believe that you can’t handle any of these situations. In other words, you’re developing a reputation with yourself as someone who’s incompetent.
So is it any surprise that your self-esteem is low?
One of the best ways to start improving your self-esteem is to resist the urge to immediately ask for help. Make sure you’re doing your best to solve the problem or manage the situation yourself before you outsource that to someone else.
This will create a positive cycle of action and confidence that will keep your self-esteem at a healthy level—regardless of whether you were able to solve the problem yourself or with help.
3. Stop having conversations with unproductive thoughts.
I’m continually amazed at how few people grasp this basic fact of human psychology:
Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to keep thinking about it.
A few quick examples:
- Just because a memory of some traumatic event you experienced in the past pops into mind doesn’t mean you have to re-expirence that event over and over again, dwelling on specific details and trying to understand why it happened. You could just leave it alone.
- Just because a worry about what someone thinks about you pops into mind doesn’t mean you have to start imagining 15 other negative things they might be thinking about you. You could just leave it alone.
- Just because an offhanded comment from your spouse triggers a thought about a mistake you made 10 years ago doesn’t mean you have to replay the whole thing in your head, thinking about what you should have done differently, how badly it’s affected your marriage, etc. You could just leave it alone.
Now, easier said than done, of course.
When a painful thought or memory pops into mind, it’s tempting to start engaging with it—to have a conversation with it that leads to dozens if not hundreds of similarly negative thoughts.
But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means you need practice.
People with chronically low self-esteem often have a belief that they have little to no control over the contents of their mind—especially painful thoughts and memories. And while it’s true that you can’t control what thoughts pop into mind and when, you always have control over whether you choose to engage with them. Or, instead, whether you choose to refocus your attention and energy on something more productive and helpful.
Healthy self-esteem depends on your ability to manage your attention well. And a big part of that means not letting yourself be a victim of your own thoughts.
Notice your thoughts. Say hello to them. But don’t feel like you have to have a conversation with them.
4. Trust your values, not your emotions.
If you think about all the people you truly admire—from historical figures like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr to that neighbor who spends every Saturday morning picking up trash on your street—there’s likely one thing that all of them have in common:
They do the right thing, even when it’s hard.
They stand up to bullies and aggressors despite being in danger; they speak the truth even when it’s not popular to do so; they get out of bed and pick up other people’s garbage even though they feel like watching Netflix.
In other words, we admire people who are able to put aside their feelings and emotions (fear, discomfort, popularity) and choose their values instead.
This is the source of our admiration for our heroes and it’s also the source of our esteem for ourselves.
So if you struggle with chronically low self-esteem, it’s worth asking:
What do I do when my feelings and my values conflict?
A few brief examples:
- When you want to eat that second serving of ice cream but it conflicts with your value of health, which do you choose?
- When you want to make your point in an argument but it conflicts with your value of compassion, which do you choose?
- When you want to kick back and watch TV in the evening when it conflicts with your value of creativity and working steadily on writing your novel, which do you choose?
Of course, even if you recognize that you tend to compromise your values for your feelings, it’s still hard to choose values over feelings.
But much of the time, we end up unthinkingly compromising on those values and following our feelings because of a simple but dangerous belief:
It’s good to trust your emotions.
It’s good to listen to your emotions. But to trust them unthinkingly is a recipe for unhappiness and low self-esteem.
Your values, on the other hand, are far more trustworthy…
- Trusting your value of courage is much more likely to lead to healthy self-esteem than impulsively trusting your feeling of anxiety.
- Trusting your value of compassion is much more likely to lead to healthy self-esteem than blindly following your anger.
Look, we can’t be perfectly mindful and rational all the time. Which means we have to end up making quick decisions and trusting something much of the time.
The question is when your emotions are in competition with your values and you have to pick one, who’s it gonna be?