As a psychologist, I hear from lots of people about how they would like to deal with their low self-esteem. But what I’ve found is that the best way to deal with low self-esteem is to figure out how to build high self-esteem.
If you think of yourself as someone with low self-esteem, that in itself makes it difficult to climb out of. But, if you frame the problem in terms of your capacity for building high self-esteem, then you automatically put yourself in a growth mindset and increase your odds of actually improving your sense of self.
Here are 7 specific things you can do to start cultivating high self-esteem.
1. Make Time to Clarify Your Values
Ultimately, high self-esteem comes from living your life in a way that aligns with your values. On the other hand, if you habitually compromise on your values in the way you think and act, you’re setting yourself up for low self-esteem, poor self-worth, and low confidence.
Have you made a plan to work out at the gym more regularly? Every time you follow through on that goal, you’re training your own brain to believe that you are trustworthy and reliable, the kind of person who does what they say they will.
But every time you forget or decide to stay on the couch watching Netflix after a long day of work, you’re teaching your brain that you’re not trustworthy and reliable, that you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. This is a recipe for low self-esteem.
Of course, following through on our best intentions and commitments to ourselves isn’t easy. And one of the biggest reasons people struggle to do it is because their values aren’t clear and compelling.
Having clear values means you have a well-defined and compelling vision for what matters most to you. The term values includes everything from traditional virtues like honesty and integrity all the way down to more mundane but still important commitments like maintaining your physical health through exercise or spending quality time with good friends.
Here’s the catch, though:
When our values are vague and unclear, they don’t exert much motivating pull on us. But the more clear, specific, and compelling our values are, the more drawn to them we are, like gravity.
And when our values exert more pull on us, it becomes easier to act in a way that lines up with them and therefore generates high self-esteem.
So, make a plan to spend time regularly clarifying and elaborating on your values.
Here’s how I recommend most people get started clarifying their values:
- Set a weekly recurring appointment in your calendar at a time that’s convenient and quiet (I like 4:30 on Friday afternoons before I leave work for the week). Set a timer on your phone for a fixed amount of time (20 minutes is a good place to start).
- Take out a notepad, open a Google Doc, or pull out your journal and just start writing about the things in your life that are most important to you. This could be big things like improving your relationship with your spouse or relatively small things like keeping your workspace organized.
- For each value you identify, try to be as specific and graphic as possible in describing what it is and why it’s important. For example, if you’re thinking about the value of staying more organized in your workspace, you might describe how calming and peaceful it feels to show up to a clean desk on Monday morning. Or even more specifically, your plan for moving those drawers of loose paper and documents to an organized file cabinet next week.
- Stick with your habit. Nothing needs to come out of these values clarification sessions necessarily. But if you commit to doing them regularly, you’ll find yourself much more motivated to follow through on your most important commitments and values. And as a result, you’ll find yourself getting closer to high self-esteem.
Knowing your values—really knowing them—means a habit of reflecting on them regularly. Once you know your values and begin aligning your thoughts and actions with them, high self-esteem will not be far behind.
2. Shift Your Focus from Outcomes to Growth
People with high self-esteem are usually process-oriented.
This means that even though they may have very specific goals and outcomes they would like to achieve, they don’t spend much time and energy thinking about them. Instead, they keep their focus squarely on the process of growth—small things they need to do on a regular basis that keep them moving in the right direction.
For example, successful entrepreneurs may have the goal of building a billion-dollar business, but they probably don’t waste a lot of time and attention imagining what it will be like to hit the billion dollar mark.
Instead, they focus on hiring talented employees, developing and refining their products, managing their employees well, etc. In other words, they focus on growing their company a little bit more every day, knowing that if the trend continues they will indeed hit their goal.
This focus on process and growth leads to consistently high self-esteem on a personal level because you’re regularly reminded of positive movement, even if that movement is modest in size. But if you spend most of your energy thinking about your outcome, all you’re going to feel is that you’re not there yet, which eventually becomes discouraging and leads to lower self-esteem.
A practical thing you can do to boost their self-esteem is to practice shifting their focus to the small routines and habits that, if performed regularly, will lead to the outcome. A great way to do this is to use something like The Seinfeld Strategy.
Remember, when it comes to goals and outcomes, take a Set It and Forget It approach. Clarify your goals initially, then spend the rest of your time and energy on the routines and actions that will slowly but surely move you there. Not only will you be more likely to reach your goal in the long run, but your self-esteem will grow along the way.
3. Eliminate Negative Self-Talk
Self-talk is exactly what it sounds like—it’s how we talk to ourselves in our heads. And how we habitually talk to ourselves has a profound effect on how we habitually feel, including our self-esteem.
We all know that self-talk is a thing, but almost no one is fully aware of the extent of their self-talk and how negative it can sometimes be:
- We mutter about how annoying our fellow drivers are at rush hour: These idiots don’t know anything about driving.
- We rationalize that off-handed comment we made to our husband and why it’s silly that he’s so mad: He’s way too sensitive. He always has been. I was just making an observation…
- We criticize our coworker for their performance at the sales meeting: That’s got to be the worst sales presentation I’ve ever seen.
But it’s not just negative self-talk about other people and things that is problematic. Even worse is our negative self-talk about ourselves:
- God, I really blew it in that conversation. She probably thinks I’m an idiot now.
- Why am I always so lazy?! Everyone else seems to be able to go to the gym regularly. I just can’t get myself off the couch in the evenings.
- Don’t be such a jerk! I’m so critical of other people. Why can’t I be more compassionate with my friends?
When our self-talk is chronically negative and self-critical, it can lead to us feeling discouraged, anxious, guilty, and even depressed. And if we do this to ourselves for long enough, consistently enough, our self-esteem can take a hit.
Even though we may know intellectually that the overly negative things we say to ourselves aren’t true (I know I’m not actually stupid), if we say them to ourselves over and over again (I’m such an idiot), we’re going to feel pretty bad anyway.
How we habitually talk to ourselves determines how we habitually feel about ourselves.
And while many of us have developed overly negative, critical habits of self-talk that are leading to low self-esteem, the good news is that simply by changing your self-talk to be just a little less negative, we can achieve higher self-esteem.
The first step is to practice being more aware of your own self-talk, especially your overly negative and judgmental self-talk about yourself. Try to notice what situations or context are common triggers for this self-talk and what types of emotions tend to emerge.
Next, you can try to start catching your negative self-talk and changing it to be less harsh and critical and more realistic. It’s especially useful to ferret out any cognitive distortions that may be accentuating your negative self-talk.
If you can reduce your negative self-talk even a little, you’ll find that your self-esteem will increase naturally on its own. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that high self-esteem is really our default, but that we simply override it with years of negative habits like self-talk. Learn to undo those habits, and let your self-esteem rise on its own.
4. Cultivate a Habit of Gratitude
This one’s a little unusual, but a consistent pattern I’ve noticed over years of working as a therapist is that people who consistently acknowledge and express their gratitude seem to have fairly high self-esteem.
But more than simply expressing their appreciation from time to time, these people seem to be consistent, and even more specifically, they have certain small habits and routines of gratitude so that being grateful is just a part of their lives.
For example, I had a client who was the primary caretaker for her elderly mother who had severe dementia. Now, if you know anything about either dementia or being a caretaker, you won’t be surprised by the fact that this is one of the hardest, most stressful jobs anyone can do. In fact, when researchers want to study the effects of chronic stress, primary caretakers are the best test subjects.
Anyway, despite the stress and burden—both physical and psychological—of taking care of her mom day in and day out, my client made it a point to write down one small thing she appreciated about her mom every single day.
She explained that the small routine helped her more than anything else to stay both sane and compassionate in her very trying work. And it’s the second part, here, that’s important for the purposes of building high self-esteem.
My client’s habit of gratitude helped her stay compassionate toward her mother, and the ability to stay compassionate allowed her to maintain high self-esteem.
I think this connection between compassion and self-esteem is hugely underrated. When we are consistently compassionate, both with ourselves and others, we can’t help but hold ourselves in high regard. But consistency is the key, which means it’s the habit of gratitude that’s essential for building higher self-esteem.
Give it a shot. If you want a brief guide to getting started with building a gratitude habit, read this: How to Start a Gratitude Diary
5. Manage Your Expectations Effectively
Having your expectations violated is a set-up for frustration, disappointment, and other strong emotional reactions. And unless your emotion management skills are top notch, being inundated with strong negative emotion on a regular basis makes it easy to fall into self-esteem crushing bad habits like self-judgment, non-assertive communication, and avoidance or isolation.
On the other hand, one of the best and most often ignored ways to reverse the process above and achieve high self-esteem is to manage your expectations better. When we have fewer and more realistic expectations, we can simply avoid a lot of painful emotional experiences in the first place and all the self-esteem crushers that tend to go with it.
Here’s an example from my own work as a therapist.
How John cultivated high self-esteem by learning to manage his unrealistic expectations for his family
A client of mine we’ll call John always seemed to get frustrated and disappointed when he got home from work. He would walk into his home after a long day of work and almost immediately get upset because his wife and kids didn’t immediately rush over to him and shower him with appreciation and smiles.
At some point (maybe after watching a few Leave It to Beaver re-runs), John got the idea in his head that that’s what should happen when he got home from work. As a result, that became his expectation every day—that his wife and kids would literally run over to him and welcome him as soon as he walked through the door.
And every time this expectation got violated, John got upset and his behavior changed:
- His communication with his wife got terse and sometimes passive-aggressive
- He didn’t engage as much or as deeply with his kids
- He tended to withdraw and do his own thing in the evening
Of course, after the fact, John realized that all these behaviors were not what he really wanted. And in fact, they made him feel bad about himself, over time chipping away at his self-esteem because he started feeling like he wasn’t “a good father and husband anymore.”
John’s initial request in therapy was to work on managing his emotions better when he got home from work. I told him that while that wasn’t a bad idea, there might be another strategy that would be both simpler and more effective: Managing his expectations better.
What I had John do was start to notice and pay attention to what he was thinking to himself on his way home from work and right as he walked through the door. What sorts of thoughts and images were going through his mind? He explained that he imagined his whole family rushing into his arms with lots of hugs and smiles.
Then we took a step back and examined how realistic an expectation that was. His wife had been home all day with their four energetic kids and was frequently exhausted from the day, so maybe it wasn’t totally realistic to expect her to leap into his arms full of affection and cheerful exuberance.
Similarly, his kids were, well, kids. And while they sometimes got excited when daddy walked through the door, they were often playing in the back yard, engaged in some sort of activity, or otherwise preoccupied. None of which was really a bad thing.
After all this, John acknowledged that maybe his expectations weren’t exactly realistic and we made a plan for how to manage his automatic expectations when he would come home from work. He made a point to 1) Notice his default expectations, 2) Question the accuracy of those expectations, and 3) Substitute some more realistic thoughts and images for what to expect when he got home.
As a result of learning to modify his expectations, John found that he got far less upset when he got home and removed the need to manage his emotions in the first place. And then more importantly, because unhelpful habits like avoidance and poor communication didn’t get triggered, he found himself engaging with his family in a much more positive way. Which, of course, started improving his self-esteem over time.
To sum up: Unrealistic expectations are a set up for excessive emotional reactions, followed by unhelpful decisions/behaviors, and then lower self-esteem as a result. A simple way to achieve high self-esteem, then, is to modify or even drop our unhelpful and unrealistic expectations in the first place.
6. Spend More Time with the Right People
The type of people we’re surrounded by, day-in and day-out, profoundly affects us, including our self-esteem:
- It’s not hard to see how low self-esteem gets perpetuated if most of the people around you are cruel, sarcastic, condescending, cold, judgmental, and manipulative.
- On the other hand, it should be obvious that high self-esteem is far more likely if most of the people in our lives—especially key relationships like spouses, partners, coworkers, best friend, etc—are supportive, encouraging, loving, kind, compassionate, and honest.
Of course, the details of how exactly other people affect our self-esteem are somewhat complex. And while a deep-dive into that topic would be interesting, it’s beyond the scope of this article.
But more importantly, getting lost in these details can be a distraction from a cold hard truth:
Simply making tough decisions to change the type of people you let into your life is key to generating high self-esteem.
For example: that “best friend” you’ve had since college who still wants to go out drinking every weekend and guilt trips you into it more than you’d like by leveraging your past relationship to get what they want.
This is exactly the type of relationship that is probably damaging your self-esteem more than you realize. Of course, altering the quality of that relationship or removing that person from your life entirely is difficult. So difficult, in fact, that most people aren’t willing to even though they know deep down it’s the right decision.
This conflict between what we know we should do and what we end up doing is exactly the kind of thing that maintains low-self esteem. When your actions are in conflict with your values, your self-esteem is going to suffer.
On the other hand, when you’re willing to make the tough choices in the moment to align your behavior with your values—including cutting out bad relationships in your self—high self-esteem may be a lot closer than you imagine.
7. Learn to be Assertive
In its most traditional form, assertiveness means speaking in a way that’s both honest and respectful by asking directly for what you want and saying no firmly to what you don’t want.
Assertive communication is the healthy alternative to 3 more common but ultimately destructive styles of communication:
- Passive Communication: Holding back on expressing what you really want in order to appease others. Passive communication usually takes the form of “just going with the flow.”
- Aggressive Communication: Expressing what you want in a way that is dismissive or disrespectful of the rights of others. Often takes the form of threats or manipulation.
- Passive-Aggressive Communication: Trying to get what you want in a way that superficially appears non-aggressive but actually is. Sarcasm is a common form of passive-aggressive communication.
When we habitually use any of the three negative communication styles above, we erode our self-esteem:
- In passive communication, it suffers because we constantly put off our own wants and needs.
- In aggressive communication, we end up hurting other people and eventually feeling guilty for it.
- In passive-aggressive communication, we typically end up alienating people and becoming isolated and lonely.
On the other hand, while it can be difficult in the beginning, assertive communication leads to high self-esteem because we are aligning our speech with our values (what we genuinely want and need) and we’re being respectful of the values of others.
The best place to learn more about assertive communication is a wonderful book called The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson.
As important as assertive communication is, it’s only one aspect of a broader concept of assertiveness as an overall way of being in the world. I know that sounds lofty and complex, but it’s really not.
It all comes down to the relationship between our actions and our values. If the way we habitually act—either in our physical behavior, our speech, or our thoughts—doesn’t match up with our values and aspirations, we’re going to feel bad. Whether it takes the form of anxiety, depression, addiction, or some other “issue,” the core problem is a misalignment of actions and values.
So, in a broad sense, assertiveness means acting in a way that that’s true to your values, including not just your speech and communication, but also how you think and how you behave.
You can learn more about this broad definition of assertiveness and how to cultivate it here: A Beginner’s Guide to Assertiveness
What Will High Self-Esteem Help You Achieve?
Of course, we all want high self-esteem because it feels good.
But I’d like to wrap this article up by leaving you with a question that’s far more useful:
What will high self-esteem help you achieve? What would you be able to do (or do better) if you suddenly had super high self-esteem?
I ask this question because, in the end, the best way to cultivate high self-esteem is by acting as though you already have it.