A lot of people present self esteem development as simply being a matter of doing nice things for yourself. True self esteem comes from hard work and challenging yourself. Perservering through difficulties, facing fears, overcoming challenges, making difficult choices and changes. These are the things which truly develop self esteem. Here are 9 ways to do that.
1. Finding Meaning
I think a lot of efforts to develop self esteem involve focusing only on ourselves. Good self care is important and I will examine this further below. But it isn’t everything. Human beings are social creatures. We live in and are affected by the society which surrounds us. I believe that disconnecting from this and isolating ourselves leaves us empty and contributes to the depression which is so prolific in modern culture. To truly feel good about ourselves we have to feel part of our community in some way. We need to feel that we are making a contribution. The way in which one does this is unique to every individual. But connecting to and participating in something bigger than yourself contributes greatly to your own sense of self worth. Find a meaning. Find a cause. Find something which is important to you and create it, build it, defend it.
2. Self Care
Developing good self care techniques is necessary not only for developing self esteem, but for maintaining good mental and physical health. But good self care is not simply a matter of being “nice” to yourself. Sometimes it requires making some tough choices; i.e. changing your diet, starting an exercise regimen, etc.
3. Self Talk
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. If you are delivering a constant stream of name-calling, put downs, insults or negative language to yourself it’s almost impossible to have a good sense of self esteem. Developing healthy and appropriate self talk is almost as important as developing good self care.
4. Choose Your Heroes Carefully
Don’t let the television determine who your mentors are. Think for yourself and make your own choices. I think we are too passive about letting the media choose our idols or heroes. Beyonce, Brad Pitt, Kobe Bryant and Paris Hilton may be famous and may have millions of dollars, but are they really people we want to learn about life from? Personally I don’t find that I have learned anything from them or find their stories or words inspiring. I’m much more enlightened by the stories told by Aimee Mullins, a double amputee who runs track. While training for a race she realized she was having trouble with one of her prosthetics. She went to her coach, a tough old guy from Brooklyn and asked to be excused from the race. She was afraid if she continued running her leg might come off in the middle of the race. His response?
“Aimee, so what if your leg falls off? You pick it up, you put the damn thing back on and you finish the God-damned race.”
She handed him her fear and he responded not with pity, but with humor. And he handed her back courage.
See “Aimee Mullins on Running” to hear her story in her own words. Turn off “reality TV” and listen to Ted.com for words and ideas that will inspire and enlighten you. Read the biography of someone you truly admire. Feed your mind.
5. Choose Your Relationships Carefully
Choose your family
Yes, you can choose whether or not to have a relationship with family members. Just because you are blood kin does not mean you have to allow yourself to be in unhealthy relationships with them. If you have a family member who is demeaning or abusive consider what keeps you in a relationship with them. You may need to make some tough choices.
Choose your friends
You can also make choices about your friends. If you surround yourself with negative, hypercritical friends this cannot help your self esteem. I’m not suggesting that you surround yourself with people who won’t tell you the truth and give you nothing but positive feedback – that’s false. I don’t consider that a friend. In my opinion a friend is someone who will give you honest feedback when you ask for it, but do it with compassion and kindness. They tell you the truth, but they don’t attack or belittle you. They don’t bring you down, just keep you real. Look at who you spend the most time with and how your interactions with them affect you. You might need to make some changes.
Choose your partners
If you are in a relationship that is unhealthy you may need to take some time to work on it and make a clear decision to leave. You cannot lift your self esteem while being disparaged on a daily basis. Many people stay in relationships which are unhealthy out of a fear of being alone. It may be necessary to turn and face this fear before you can feel better about yourself.
You may also want to look at the patterns in your relationships. Do you always pick partners who are needy? Dependent? Partners with substance abuse problems? Abusive partners? See if there is a pattern to your picking and find what is behind it. You may need to work with a counselor to learn how to make different choices.
6. Find Your Passion
If you haven’t found what excites you, explore. We spend an awful lot of our lives working. If your work is not your passion, if it is only for the money, if it is only because your family expects it of you - think again. Work that is depressing or unfulfilling sucks an awful lot of energy out of your life. You spend all day at this. Choose carefully. Change if you need to.
7. Stop Dressing for Success and Dress to Express
Express yourself. I don’t wear what other people think I should. I wear what is comfortable. I wear what I feel good in. I wear things that express who I am as a person. If you live in a situation where you are not free to express who you really are, you may need to make some different choices. LIving a lie, maintaining a facade everyday also sucks a lot of energy and reinforces in your mind that you are not “O.K.”.
8. Challenge Yourself
If there is something in your life which is plaguing you, grab it by the horns and change it. I used to be horrible at managing my money. But I made some tough choices and some tough changes. My money is now much better in control and it makes me feel more mature and self confident. If there is some behavior which bothers you, i.e. procrastination, money management, being on time, being better organized, etc. tackle it. Getting a handle on something which has been handling you will increase your self esteem and make your life more manageable.
9. Face a Fear
I used to be terrified of guns. So I found an instructor who specialized in teaching women how to shoot. I now have a very healthy respect for the damage a gun can do, but I do not fear one, because I know how they work. I know how to disarm them and make them safe. I once knew a woman who was terrified of palmetto bugs. (If you’ve never seen one, imagine a giant cockroach, which can fly and is very aggressive.) Her fear became so bad it was running her life. She decided not to give in to it and signed up for exposure therapy (where you are slowly and carefully exposed to the thing you fear until you no longer fear it). It worked and she feels quite proud of herself for no longer being at the mercy of a bug. I had another friend who was terrified of speaking in public, so he signed up with Toastmasters. Now, giving a speech to a room of 500 people doesn’t even daunt him!
So often we are taught to run from or medicate our fears. This may work in the short term, but it doesn’t develop self esteem. Self esteem comes from overcoming something, from fighting your way through to the other side and knowing you beat it. Be sensible about the fear you choose to overcome and be reasonable in how you choose to overcome it, but try it and see if you don’t stand a little taller.
Originally published in 2010