“Without it, you can do little. With it, you can do anything.” No, we aren’t talking about money. We’re talking about self-esteem, a trait often understood as something you either have or you don’t.  Individuals who report high levels of self-esteem claim to be more likable and attractive, have better relationships and make better impressions on others than individuals who report low levels (though, objective measures show these assumptions aren’t valid). The good news is that self-esteem isn’t a fixed state as it may wax and wane through the lifespan. We also know it’s a lot like a muscle that can be trained to grow stronger.

How can you start training your self-esteem?  

Start by completing this reflective exercise. Take a few minutes to write a short description of yourself. Use adjectives to describe your mood, outlook, personality, and appearance. Set your self-description aside and be prepared to revisit.

“I’m unimportant.” “I’m a loser.” “I’m unlovable.” “I’m not good enough.” Everyone uses negative self-evaluation at times, usually in the context of challenging or stressful situations. However, if you often think about yourself this way, you might be experiencing low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is often deeply seated in basic, negative beliefs about the kind of person you are. These beliefs are taken as facts, or truth about your identity. Through various things that have happened in our lives, we conclude that we are “incompetent,” “unlovable,” “stupid,” or “ugly,” or some other negative judgment. These judgments are known as negative core beliefs, or the negative, broad, and generalized judgments you’ve made about yourself based on early life experiences. The following factors may influence the maintenance of negative core beliefs in adulthood:

  • Information processing allows us to make sense of what’s happening in our environment at any given time. However, we tend to give attention to things we expect and interpret events in a manner consistent with our current expectations and beliefs. For example, people with the negative core belief of “I’m a failure” will likely play down their successes, and phrases like “I did okay,” are unlikely to cross their mind. Negative core beliefs are self-fulfilling, and once in place, will only grow stronger until exposed as biased and inaccurate representations of yourself.
  • Unhelpful rules and assumptions guard you against the truth about your negative core beliefs, keeping them alive. Take, for example, assumptions like, “I must do everything 100% perfectly, or I’ll fail,” or “people won’t like me if I express how I truly feel or think.” These rules restrict your behavior to the extent that you never challenge your negative core beliefs and discover if they hold true. These rules limit opportunities to partake in experiences that contradict negative core beliefs and change them.
  • At risk situations put unhelpful rules and assumptions at risk of being broken or break them outright. Such unrealistic and inflexible rules and assumptions cannot be maintained, and in situations when they’re challenged, latent low self-esteem prevails. At-risk situations activate negative core beliefs, beginning a process of extreme internal criticism or thinking that things will turn out poorly. You may end up avoiding new experiences, trying new things and quitting when they get difficult, taking precautions to prevent adverse outcomes, or withdrawing altogether. These behaviors are unhelpful in your self-esteem building journey because they circumvent the underlying issue, and ignite feelings of anxiety, frustration, depression, or shame, further confirming negative core beliefs.

Healthy self-esteem isn’t about never thinking of yourself negatively. It’s about thinking of yourself in a balanced way. It’s appropriate, and sometimes necessary, to recognize our weaknesses, but these shortcomings cannot define us. Remember to consistently identify, acknowledge, and celebrate your strengths and successes and decide about whether you want to improve on your weaknesses at this time and how you can start.

Look back at your reflective exercise.

How did you describe yourself? What words did you use? Was your description balanced? What value did you place on yourself or aspects of yourself?

Did you describe yourself using facts (5’2”, 125 lbs, brown-haired female) or opinions (small, large, unintelligent)? Our opinions are judgments of ourselves that may not hold true. Still, we fall back to these opinions to maintain our unhelpful rules and assumptions. Remember that these negative judgments may keep you from forming positive associations with aspects of yourself, further perpetuating low self-esteem.

Since we cannot change our past experiences, we will always encounter at-risk situations that may prompt low self-esteem. Still, the effect of your past experiences on how you view yourself can be worn away over time. Practice exposing and challenging your negative core beliefs by examining evidence that contradicts your expectations. Instead of asking yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen?” also ask, “what’s the best that could happen?” Are your self-evaluations opinions of yourself or facts? What is the evidence for or against your evaluations? How else could you view your situation?  The idea is to become reflective and provide yourself the same kindness and compassion you would offer a friend or family member under similar distress.

Low self-esteem is a serious mental health problem that can exist alone or as a by-product of depression. Don’t let low self-esteem impact your work performance, personal relationships, lifestyle, or personal care. If you think you’re experiencing low self-esteem or depression, seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.