Building Self Esteem through Self Care

Many people ask me how to build self esteem.  I think one of the most important aphorisms I’ve heard was spoken many years ago by Dear Abby, "We teach people how to treat us."  So this is where you begin, with good, healthy self care.  When you care for yourself you communicate to yourself and others that you are worthy of care.  What constitutes good self care?

Several years ago I wrote a checklist for childhood trauma survivors who needed to learn how to reparent themselves in healthy ways, as opposed to the neglect and abuse they had received at the hands of their parents.  These same rules apply to all of us.  That article is below and applies to anyone, whether you have been abused by others, or neglected by yourself. 

Self Care 101

A lack of self care can be the first indicator that the trauma is getting the best of us. Many survivors of abuse are taught to sacrifice their own wellbeing to satisfy the needs of an abuser. As adults some survivors act out the abuse they suffered as children by repeating the abuse over and over. In order to fully heal you have to rewrite the script that was handed to you. You are no longer a victim of abuse. You are not longer an object to be used for the pleasure of others. Replace the hurt that was inflicted upon you with loving, nurturing self care. This will communicate not only to yourself, but to others around you, that you are worthy of respect and kindness.

1. Sleep

Sleep is more important to your body’s ability to function properly than food or water.Your body repairs itself when you are sleeping deeply. Failing to get enough sleep impairs your body’s ability to function and, if severe enough can actually result in your system starting to break down. Your thinking and emotions are particularly susceptible to lack of sleep. Sleep is often a very big problem for trauma survivors, especially survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Many children are abused while they are sleeping. Making your world safe enough for you to be able to sleep is crucial.

2. Eat

The eating habits of the modern human are often deplorable. How many times have I been working with an anxiety ridden trauma survivor only to find that they are downing coffee and energy drinks all day? Caffeine and anxiety often don’t mix well! Neither do high sugar products. Sugar and caffeine will temporarily boost your energy and make your neurons fire a bit faster, but they both end with a crash. The crash can often leave you feeling worse than before and you may resort to more coffee or candy bars to boost you back up. Caffeine and sugar also artificially boost you way up. This boost can also boost your anxiety or your hypervigilance and may increase the changes of a panic attack.

For energy it is better to mix quality proteins with complex carbohydrates and quality fat so your body has a steady source of fuel throughout the day instead of a massive jolt, then a crash. The neurotransmitters your brain makes to calm you (like serotonin and dopamine) and to provide you with energy (like norepinephrine) are made from amino acids which are in proteins. Providing your body with enough water to be properly hydrated also insures that all systems are firing properly since dehydration results in clouded thinking and fatigue. Good self care requires a good healthy diet so your body has the nutrients it requires to function well.

3. Exercise

Exercise releases dopamine and endorphins which calm and soothe. However, I have found that different kinds of exercise work differently for everyone. Some people do best with high energy cardio workouts. The extra endorphins and the fatigue which results is very calming for them. Others are only agitated more by high energy workouts and find it increases their anxiety. Calming workouts like yoga, tai chi or qi gong work better for them. Some people like to workout best in the air conditioning, while others don’t like to be around other people and/or prefer fresh air and sunshine. Experiment with them all and see which works best for you. Whatever you choose, it should be enjoyable and pleasant and should calm you in the long run.

4. Socialize

Developing a support group is essential to good self care. Having people around you with whom you can confide and lean on during those difficult periods is important. It is also important to foster relationships built on honesty and trust. Having a friend or loved one who will pull you out of your shell and take you to a movie when you need it or confront you when you are not taking care of yourself is crucial. Friends and loved ones should be there when you are sad, help you see the light when you are lost and let you vent when you are angry. You should be able to get a “reality check” from them. They should be able to tell you the truth, with compassion. Cultivate relationships with people who give as much as they take – and be sure to reciprocate!

5. Play


Learn to play. Experiencing trauma is learning to see the world as a dangerous place. But the world can also be a tremendously fun place. Garden, play games with your kids or your dog, go to an amusement park, enjoy a special movie, play, opera or concert with a special friend or loved one. Take time to entertain yourself. Laughter is especially therapeutic. I once had a client in the throes of a devastating divorce. He purchased the entire DVD set of an old comedy sitcom he enjoyed and watched a few shows every night. In order to be healthy it is important to exercise your sense of humor. Laughter can truly be the best medicine.

6. Soothe

Touch is a very basic human need and it deeply affects us. Most survivors of abuse have experienced some form of violence against their bodies. Learning to enjoy the sense of touch again is crucial. Whether it is a massage, a yoga workout or a warm bath, take back the good feelings your skin and body are capable of generating.

7. Think

Minds need stimulation in order to be happy and content. Boredom is a killer to a healthy human mind. Expose yours to things which stimulate your five senses in a positive way and stimulate you to think. Computer programmers have a saying, “GIGO”, Garbage In Garbage Out. Be aware of what you put into your mind. I had a client who was having nightmares every night. Granted, she had experienced a lot of trauma in her life, but her nightly habit of watching a horror flick right before going to bed did not help. Graphic movies, violent music, loud or stressful work environments, working in a place with a nasty stench. Be aware of what you are exposing your mind to. People who have an endless string of complaints and are negative and draining? People who are violent, abusive or manipulative? Garbage In, Garbage Out. Go to an art gallery. Listen to beautiful, soothing music. Learn to cook beautifully prepared and healthy foods. Try foreign films instead of horror flicks. Attend a lecture on something that fascinates you.

8. Chill

Learn to take things in stride. So much of what we experience depends on our viewpoint. Be patient with yourself and with others. Allow for foibles, mistakes and human error. Address negative thought patterns that cause you to be frustrated, annoyed, irritated or angry with yourself and others. Look at perfectionistic attitudes which cause you to be too hard and unforgiving with yourself and others. Slow down, take things as they come and focus on living in the moment. Many abuse survivors are control freaks with relentless schedules. Learn to trust yourself, those you love and life just a little bit more as you get stronger and safer in your world. Trauma is about being out of control. There was a moment in your life when you were out of control and you got hurt. Being a control freak is your attempt to make your world safer, by insuring that you are never out of control again and therefore are not so vulnerable to being hurt. Learn to recognize this tendency if you have it and take back your ability to trust.

9. Feel

Get in touch with your feelings – and trust them. So many abuse survivors were told that what they experienced wasn’t real, it didn’t happen, they misunderstood it, or they were lying. They often grow up not trusting their own five senses. Get in touch with your five senses. Trust what you see, hear, feel (as in touch), smell and taste.

Then check with your emotions. I call this “checking with your gut”. Abuse survivors are taught to tune out their basic instincts which told them they were in danger or being hurt. Take back this valuable tool. Tune in to your “gut” or your emotions – and learn to trust it as well. Is your gut telling you that this is “wrong”? Then it is. Many survivors attempt to rationalize. “Well I don’t know exactly what is wrong or I don’t have stone cold evidence of what is wrong so I must be mistaken.” You’re not. If it feels “wrong”, it is. Trust yourself. If it feels sad, it is. If it feels infuriating, it is.

Once you tap into your emotions, take time to sit down and feel them. Learn to find creative ways to express them. Write, journal, paint, write poetry, sing, dance. Everyone learns to express themselves differently. Express yours emotions in a way that is comfortable and natural for you. Don’t distrust your feelings or bottle them up. This is what your abuser did to you. Take them back from the abuser and claim them.

10. Maintain a Spiritual Practice

If you are a spiritual person, notice if you’ve kept up your spiritual practices. If you are religious, you may use prayer as a major stress reliever and strategy for emotional health. Going to church may provide a place to socialize and glean support. If you are more spiritual than religious, you may prefer meditation, visualization, music, yoga, tai chi or qi gong for spiritual comfort. Not everyone is spiritual, but if you are, revive your spiritual practices to calm your mind and emotions.

You can read more about mental health on my blog:




  1. Dear Kellen,

    Good post, we really do teach others how to treat us. One of the key things is trusting our feelings instead of talking ourselves out of them all the time – usually to please others because we were taught that anger was 'bad' etc etc. Trust is a big one and self trust is essential for health. If we make a mistake so what? Only by going with our gut will we know that it's good for us! I'd add, especially for women, to be comfortable with saying "No" and not feeling selfish or guilty – people pleasing is exhausting. I remember watching Gavin De Becker on Oprah and hearing something very true "When men say no, it's the end of discussion, when women say no, it's the start of a NEGOTIATION". Our instincts are God given, follow them.