Every day in my work as a therapist, I talk to people who just don’t like themselves very much. They say thing’s like:
- I know I shouldn’t say this but I never feel worthy.
- In my head I know it’s not true, but I always feel like a fraud.
- I’ve accomplished a lot, but it just never feels like enough.
Across genders, races, careers, education, and income brackets, many people suffer silently with low self-esteem. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to feel good about themselves.
The key problem for almost anyone who dislikes themselves is this: They’re afraid to live the life they really want.
Instead of going after what they truly want in life, they get stuck chasing after what they think they should want. Often, they’ve defined their life in terms of other people’s expectations and values for so long that they aren’t even sure what they want anymore, much less how to go about getting it.
If you lack the courage to live the life you really want, you’re going to be chronically disappointed in yourself.
Thankfully, you can learn to break out of the cycle of living someone else’s life. You can start to identify and go after what you really want, and in the process, learn to like yourself more.
What follows are four ideas for how to like yourself more, all of which boil down to this: Making small decisions each day to live your own life instead of other people’s.
1. Keep your promises to yourself.
People with low self-esteem are often exceptionally good at keeping their promises to other people and spectacularly bad at keeping promises to themselves.
They’re so concerned with other people’s wants and needs—their boss’ urgent request at 11:00 pm, their kids’ demand to learn a new instrument (again!), their spouse’s desire to take a weekend fishing trip with the boys—that they end up constantly compromising what they want.
And when this compromise becomes a habit, their self-esteem takes a serious hit.
Think about it this way:
If you had a friend, and you were constantly ignoring their suggestions, disregarding their recommendations, and flaking out on plans, what would they think of you? They’d think you were a pretty lousy friend! They’d quickly lose respect for you, start thinking poorly of you, and more than likely, they’d stop wanting to spend time with you.
Well, what do you think happens to ourselves when we ignore our own suggestions and desires, disregard our own recommendations and commitments, and flake out on the plans we make for ourselves? Yeah, we start to think pretty poorly of ourselves! We lose respect for ourself, and eventually, just plain don’t like ourselves. In other words, we develop low self-esteem.
Of course, a part of healthy self-esteem does come from doing good by other people. It’d be hard to have genuine high self-esteem if you were a jerk to everyone in your life.
But the mistake most people with low self-esteem make is to assume that taking care of other people’s wants and desires is all they need for self-esteem:
- They choose a prestigious career path because society admires.
- They choose to marry someone because they know their family would approve.
- They take on too much responsibility at work because they want to be a good employee and impress their boss.
True self-esteem comes from balancing the wants and needs of others with the wants and needs of yourself.
If you don’t have a solid foundation of keeping promises to yourself, all the noble self-sacrifice in the world won’t make you like yourself more.
Addressing your own wants and needs doesn’t mean you’re selfish or a narcissist or an ego-maniac. It’s just basic psychology: In order to feel good about yourself and be helpful to others, you have to make sure you’re putting fuel in your own tank. And one of the best ways to do that is to keep your promises to yourself.
When it comes to keeping promises to yourself, start small:
- If you told yourself you were going to workout today after work, hold fast to that commitment when your spouse asks if you can watch the kids while they go hang out with an old friend who’s in town.
- If you told yourself you were going to stop taking on so much at work, respectfully let your boss know that you can’t take on that new project now.
- If you promised yourself you’d start that new novel you’ve been meaning to read this Saturday morning, remind yourself that your spouse is perfectly capable of making breakfast for the kids and you’re allowed to spend a couple hours alone at the coffee shop with your book.
Look, obviously I’m not suggesting you stop doing things for other people entirely. But if you’re the kind of person who always compromises on your promises to yourself in order to accommodate other people, you need to rebalance the scales.
If you want to like yourself more, start by being a better friend to yourself—including keeping your promises to yourself.
2. Spend more time with people you genuinely like.
Jim Rohn famously said:
You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
Often this is interpreted in terms of success, productivity, and ambition: If you hang around with lazy, unmotivated people, it’s going to rub off on you negatively. On the other hand, if you hang around bright, curious, passionate people, you’re likely to absorb some of that enthusiasm and channel it in your life to be successful.
What people miss about this quote is that it applies to more than just success and achievement: The people we consistently spend time with affect our wellbeing and sense of self too.
If you constantly hang around people who don’t particularly like you, that’s gonna rub off and it’s going to be harder to like yourself more. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time with people who genuinely like you and enjoy spending time with you, it’s going to be much easier to like yourself more.
On one level this seems obvious: Spend more time with people you actually enjoy! But this can be a surprisingly hard thing to do because competing desires often interfere.
For example, while many people like the idea of hanging around people they genuinely enjoy, they also like the idea of hanging around people who will advance their social standing. And more often than not, the second desire outcompetes the first:
- Instead of going to dinner and a movie with your easy-going buddy from high-school, you commit to attending a dinner party with a co-worker who could put in a good word for you with the partners at the firm.
- Instead of joining that Tuesday evening mystery novel book club you’ve been so excited about, you commit to attending Tuesday night PTAs, a group you don’t mind but also don’t particularly jibe with.
If you find yourself chronically spending time with people you don’t really enjoy, take a moment to consider why that is. What’s motivating you to do this? Social pressure? Ambition? Fear?
Then, try experimenting in very small ways with spending more time with people you truly enjoy: Email your fellow PTAers letting them know you won’t be able to make it this week and get coffee with your best friend instead. Text an old buddy and grab lunch with them instead of a coworker.
Start spending a little more time with people you enjoy and who enjoy you back and you’ll find that you’re able to like yourself more and more.
3. Be gentle in the way you talk to yourself.
We all have people in our lives who are critical, negative, and at times, just plain mean:
- Maybe it’s your manager at work who’s always criticizing your performance and comparing you to other coworkers.
- Maybe it’s a spouse who’s perpetually sarcastic and judgmental about everything from your wardrobe choices to your parenting style.
- Maybe it’s a parent who tries to use harsh criticism to “push” you and motivate you, when really all it does is make you feel worthless.
If you have one or two of these people in your life, you know how draining and difficult it is just being around them. It’s as if they suck the life and energy right out of your soul, leaving you stressed, depressed, and empty.
Well, as much as we all dislike it when other people are like this to us, we rarely stop and consider how often we’re like this with ourselves!
We all have an inner voice that narrates our daily life. Some people call it self-talk, some call it their inner monologue, but no matter what the term you use, it’s something that’s present for all of us. All day, everyday, we are both the protagonist in the story of our life and also the narrator, continually describing and evaluating what’s happening at any given time.
But for a lot of people, this inner voice is a jerk. It’s harsh, judgmental, overly-critical, pessimistic, and sometimes downright cruel:
- You flub the last slide in your presentation at work and instantly your inner voice jumps on you: I’m such an idiot! I always screw something up. I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to lead the presentation for the team.
- You forget to give your kid a kiss when you drop her off at school and as you’re pulling out of the parking lot, your inner voice starts berating you: Oh my God, I didn’t even give her a kiss goodbye. She’s going to be so upset… I’m probably the only mom at school who forgets to give their kid a kiss goodbye. Maybe I really am just a bad mom?
Now, here’s the thing you really need to understand about your overly-negative self-talk: Even if you understand intellectually that it’s not accurate or helpful to talk that way to yourself, you’re still going to feel miserable if you keep doing it.
Self-talk is a behavior. It’s something we do. And sometimes, it’s something we do so often that it becomes a habit.
If you constantly talk down to yourself, you’re going to feel the same as you would if another person was following you around constantly putting you down.
Sure, you might not really believe that you’re the world’s worst parent or friend, but if you constantly tell yourself that in your head, you’re gonna feel like it. And if you do this enough—talk trash to yourself and about yourself—you’re not going to like yourself very much.
The best way to undo a habit of overly negative self-talk is to focus on one simple idea: gentleness.
Try to catch yourself speaking harshly or critically to yourself and ask: Is there a gentler way of talking to myself?
Importantly, changing your self-talk isn’t about positivity or vacuous affirmations. Telling yourself you’re the world’s greatest mom after forgetting to kiss your kid goodbye isn’t going to do you any good either because it’s equally untrue.
Instead, by focusing on gentleness, you will find yourself being more realistic in your self-talk. And when you habitually become gentler and more realistic in the way you talk to yourself, you’ll start to feel much better about yourself.
You wouldn’t be friends with someone who was constantly putting you down, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that you don’t like yourself very much when you’re constantly putting yourself down.
Be gentle with yourself and you’ll find it a lot easier to like yourself more.
4. Make time to do things you actually enjoy.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people give up doing what they love in order to do what other people love.
Take the case of a 31-year-old former client of mine we’ll call Jenny. There are two things you need to know about Jenny: She loves her family and she loves tennis. Unfortuantely, her love for tennis isn’t getting much love.
In Jenny’s mind, her job is to raise her kids and support her husband in his demanding, high-pressure career. And almost anything outside of these two activities feels selfish to her.
She has lunch with friends occasionally and tries to make some time to go to the gym in the evenings when the kids are asleep, but she rarely carves out time to do things she loves—including play tennis.
Jenny lives under the belief that to be a good mother and wife, she needs to be utterly devoted to her family. And any deviation, no matter how small, feels like a betrayal.
The problem is, deep down, Jenny knows this isn’t true.
She knows she needs to make time to do things that she finds genuinely enjoyable and meaningful outside of her family. And this conflict between what she truly believes and the “rules” she’s living by is destroying her self-esteem:
- She’s constantly comparing herself to other moms on social media who seem to be able to “do it all” and then feeling bad about herself.
- She routinely feels flashes of resentment toward her husband who gets to follow his passion as an attorney while she’s stuck at home with toddlers all day.
- She often finds herself fantasizing about “running away” and how she would recreate her life without any of her current responsibilities—for which she almost immediately feels profoundly guilty.
In short, Jenny is conflicted: If she even considers doing more for herself, she instantly feels guilty that she’s taking time away from her family; but when she devotes herself entirely to her family and ignores her own interests, she feels resentful and disappointed.
The core mistake here is one a lot of us can relate to: black and white thinking. For Jenny, she’s either a good mom and wife or an independent person. It’s a zero-sum game where one side winning means the other side loses. And because she’s unwilling to let her family “lose,” her confidence and self-esteem end up losing.
If you can relate to Jenny’s dilemma, the way out is to prove to yourself that making time for what you want doesn’t mean an automatic negative for other people you care about:
- Taking a vacation day because the snow’s awesome and you haven’t been skiing in a couple years doesn’t mean you’re a lazy employee.
- Settling for 4 hours of studying instead of 5 and catching the last hour of your favorite team’s big game doesn’t mean you’re a bad student or that you’re going to fail your exam.
- Leaving the kids with your husband for the evening and catching a movie by yourself doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom.
Doing things for yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish. It means you have enough self-respect to take care of yourself.
And a big part of taking care of ourselves is making time to do things we genuinely enjoy and find meaningful. Of course, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. And the reason is, we have to be willing to tolerate some uncomfortable feelings:
- Yes, your spouse might feel a little more stressed if you went to yoga tonight and left the kids with him. Well, guess what, he’s a big boy and can handle it. Just because he feels bad doesn’t mean you’re doing something that is bad.
- Sure, your manager might be a little irritated that you left work right at 5:00 so that you could make sure to make your softball game by 5:30. Just because your manager might feel irritated with you, doesn’t mean you’ve actually done something wrong.
If you want to like yourself more and raise your self-esteem to a healthy level, you need to make time to do things you genuinely enjoy. It’s as simple as that.
You wouldn’t like a friend who never made time for you, and you can’t expect to like yourself more if you never make time for yourself.
Have the courage to take a little time for yourself and your self-esteem will thank you for it.
All you need to know
There’s no great mystery when it comes to liking yourself more: Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
Keep your promises to yourself.
Spend more time with people you genuinely like.
Be gentle in the way you talk to yourself.
Make time to do things you actually enjoy.