Most people think about self-esteem as something you can improve and build with the right positive self-talk or enough social support.
And while there’s some truth to that, I believe there’s a deeper truth to self-esteem that most of us don’t see:
Improving your self-esteem is often about what you do less of, not more of.
In my work as a psychologist, I see many people who look like they just don’t have much self-esteem at all:
- They put themselves down and beat themselves up for even small mistakes.
- They constantly compare themselves to other people.
- And they seem to self-sabotage anytime they start to improve.
But here’s what I’ve learned about people with supposedly low self-esteem:
People don’t lack the capacity for self-esteem—instead, bad habits interfere with it.
If you want to improve your self-esteem, learn to identify these unhelpful habits in your own life and work hard to eliminate them. I think you’ll find that higher levels of self-esteem aren’t far behind.
1. Trusting your emotions
It’s important to cultivate a healthy skepticism of your emotions.
Culturally, we tend to put emotions up on a pedestal. We all hear about how important it is to “follow your heart,” “discover your passion,” and “let your intuition guide you.” In other words, we grow up believing that how we feel is the best guide for living. But is this really true?
While your emotions can be a source of useful information—even wisdom—that doesn’t mean they always are.
To trust your emotions blindly is a recipe for suffering low self-esteem:
- When you get home from work, tired after a long day, your emotions are going to tell you to take it easy and relax on the couch. But how are you going to feel about yourself if you always “follow your feelings” and stay on the couch?
- When you’re in an argument with your spouse and your anger is nudging you to make that biting comment that will show how hypocritical they’re being, should you really follow your emotions?
True self-esteem comes from consistently aligning your actions with your values.
But as these two examples illustrate, our emotions are often in direct conflict with our values. And if you blindly “trust” your emotions every time, you’ll end up consistently giving up on your values. And that is the quick road to low self-esteem.
If you want to start building healthier self-esteem, learn to be skeptical of your emotions. Acknowledge them and listen to them. But before you decide to act on them, always ask yourself: Does the way I feel line up with my values—with what I really want in the long run?
2. Criticizing others
When we criticize other people, it’s usually an unconscious defense mechanism for dealing with our own insecurities.
Of course, we’re all critical of other people sometimes. And rightly so: the ability to think critically about other people and the world around us is key to cultivating a more accurate and objective attitude toward life.
But the habit of being critical of others can lead to exactly the opposite—it can make us blind and narrow-minded, especially with ourselves.
And the reason…?
Because criticizing others makes us feel good:
- When you criticize someone else for being simplistic or primitive in their thinking, what you’re really doing is pointing out how smart you are. Which feels really good.
- When you criticize someone’s taste in music, you’re really telling yourself how sophisticated yours is. Which feels really good.
But here’s the catch…
Being critical of others makes you feel better in the short-term, but in the long run, it only makes you feel bad about yourself.
Whatever brief ego boost you get from pointing out other people’s flaws, guilt is never really far behind. Because deep down we understand that really we’re just scared and insecure. And we feel ashamed that we can’t deal with it in a healthier way.
Being critical of others leads to low self-esteem because it’s really just a form of procrastination—briefly distracting yourself with a little pleasure but shirking your responsibility to address your real issues.
If you want to improve your self-esteem, face up to the fact that criticizing other people is wasted time and energy that would be better spent addressing your own fears and insecurities.
3. Making excuses
Making excuses is really a form of self-deception.
We all make mistakes from time to time. And we all fail to follow through on our promises and commitments every once in a while.
But for some people, avoiding responsibility is a way of life. And it’s enabled by the habit of making excuses:
- You told yourself that you were really going to stick to the new diet this time. But since your wife went out of her way to make your favorite dessert, you should probably just eat it… for her sake!
- You decided that this was the year you finally write that novel you’ve been dreaming about. But each morning, instead of getting up an extra 30 minutes early to write like you committed to, you tell yourself that you’ll be able to make up the 30 minutes easily this evening and roll back over to snooze a little longer.
Making excuses is just a nice-sounding way of lying to yourself.
And if you lie to yourself often enough, your self-esteem is going to suffer:
- Would other people respect you if you constantly lied to them?
- Would other people admire you if you never followed through on your commitments?
- Would other people be proud of you if you always wiggled out of your goals and dreams?
Of course not!
So how can you expect to be proud of yourself if you’re always making excuses for things that are important to you? How can you respect and admire yourself if you’re chronically lying to yourself and giving up on your most important values and aspirations?
Healthy self-esteem comes from having the courage to be honest with yourself.
The best way to undo the habit of making excuses is to contrast them with what you really want—with your values.
When you’re tempted to “get to it later” or tell yourself “it’s just this one time,” call to mind why it really matters that you stick with it. Remind yourself of how much better you’ll feel at a healthy weight or how proud of yourself you’ll feel when you type out that last sentence of your novel.
Overpower your excuses with your values.
4. Going with the flow
If you find yourself repeatedly “just going with the flow” it’s usually a sign of passivity and a lack of assertiveness.
Most people are terrified of conflict. As a result, they get in the habit of deferring their own wants and needs in order to “keep the peace.”
- Your spouse suggests Italian tonight. And even though you’d prefer something lighter, you know he’ll get sulky about you always choosing “hippie, health food restaurants,” so you decide to “go with the flow” and do Italian.
- You’re overwhelmed at work, in part because you’re seen as the guy who always gets things done. And because you want to keep up your good reputation, you say yes to everything, leading to more and more stress, anxiety, and burnout.
If you’re afraid to ask for what you want—or say no to what you don’t want—people are going to take advantage of you.
But worse than that, is that on some level you are letting them take advantage of you. And that’s why “going with the flow” is so detrimental to your self-esteem. It’s self-sabotage.
If you can’t stand up for yourself, how can you feel confident in yourself? If you can’t make reasonable requests and set healthy boundaries, how can you respect yourself?
The solution is to learn to be assertive.
Assertiveness doesn’t mean trying to be aggressive, pushy, or manipulative—it simply means having the courage to ask for what you want or say no to what you don’t want in a clear, respectful way.
If you want to seriously boost your self-esteem, practice asserting yourself in very small ways, gradually working up to bigger things as you become more confident.
All You Need to Know
If you want to improve your self-esteem, flip the problem around:
Instead of thinking “what can I do to feel more self-esteem?” Ask yourself, “What habits are interfering with my natural levels of self-esteem in the first place and how can I undo them?”
Don’t trust your emotions blindly.
Stop criticizing others.
Don’t let yourself make excuses.
Stop going with the flow.