Self-Esteem, Part Four: Building Stronger Self-Esteem

The ideas and strategies below are necessary parts of a good life, self-esteem issues or not.  People with healthy self-esteem tend to have these bases fairly well covered just as a matter of course.  Fortunately, everything you see here can be chosen now, even if you’ve not chosen it before.  You don’t have to do everything here to have a better life, but every single idea you see listed here has the power to improve your life and nurture your spirit.  The more you do, the better it gets.  You will likely find that the easiest way to proceed is to take on small changes, just one or two at a time.

The Relationships You Choose

♦ Life feels far better if you have at least one connection (family, friend, partner, etc.) with whom you feel fully free to be yourself without being judged.  This is someone with whom you can be completely honest and have intelligent discussions about difficult issues.  This person unfailingly treats you with respect and regard, and you respond in kind.  This person will be honest with you even when the honesty may be difficult or controversial, but will always do so in a kind and loving way.  It is in relationships like this that we can get back accurate reflections of ourselves from others.  Any relationship that does not fit this description will give you back distorted reflections of yourself, making life confusing and unnecessarily painful.  Keep an eye out for someone who may be able to have this role in your life if you don’t have such a person already.  These relationships aren’t nearly as common as we might wish, but those who have them are much stronger for it.

♦ Seek people with whom you can share positive energy.  Relationships that are organized around complaints and problems tend to be draining and do not facilitate the growth of either person.  Anyone may have some times in life when problems are pronounced and demand attention, but limit your connection with someone whose life always looks like this.  If there are no moments of enjoyment, triumph, or wonder to share, the relationship may just be a way for you to be stuck in place rather than helping you both to better embrace life.  If you realize that you are the person whose life always looks like it’s nothing but problems, this is your wake-up call to start restructuring, not only so you can have a better experience but so that you will have something to offer the healthier people you’d like to have around you.  How do you restructure, or what do you look for in others?  An emphasis on enjoyable and/or meaningful activities, growth, learning, and periodic personal challenge.  Look for people who seem to be enjoying life more often than not, and increase the energy you spend on choices that help you feel that way.

♦ Spend your time primarily with people who clearly like you very much.  This may seem obvious, but it is shocking how many people do not do this.  Family is an interesting example where someone may love you (because you’re family) but not really like you if they don’t appreciate the ways in which you are unique.  Whether it’s family, friends, neighbors, coworkers or activity partners, skew your time toward the people who smile when you show up, who are interested in how you’ve been and what you’ve been doing lately, and with whom you feel warm and wanted.  Make sure these are people who are living lives that you find healthy and motivating.

Managing Relationships in a Healthy Way

♦ Be mindful of the sense of balance in your relationships, and seek out those in which the giving, caring, and support flow freely in both directions.  Low self-esteem steers you toward one-sided relationships in which you give far more than you receive; healthy relationships enjoy a rich exchange in which both partners are appreciated, acknowledged and supported.

♦ In keeping with mutuality and balance, it is healthy and necessary to say no to requests of your time, energy, money, etc. that will overstress your system.  People who care for you in a healthy way will not ask you to give in excess of what you can, and would not want you to if they knew.  Those who try to guilt you into acting against your health for their benefit are not demonstrating the sensitivity or mutuality that marks healthy relationships.  There are more choices available and demands on our energy than ever before; it is essential to say no to enough options/requests to be able to say yes to what really matters, and to always be able to do so.  Otherwise, your life will seldom feel like it is your own, and you will suffer regrets over the ways you wished you had used your time and energy, but did not.

♦ Healthy relationships may involve some amount of mutual admiration and appreciation and thus, the occasional compliment may be made.  Low self-esteem rejects compliments on the knee-jerk assumption that they are misplaced.  A challenge of being healthier and being with healthier people is to trust their judgment when they compliment you, and practice accepting it graciously.  Who are you to say they’re wrong?  If they see something of value or beauty in you and choose to express that to you, they are offering you a loving gift.  Practicing the acceptance of such gifts is a necessary part of working toward a stronger sense of self.  The first step is admitting that others may be right when they think you are kind, smart, talented, trustworthy, reliable, industrious, or whatever traits of yours they may appreciate.  The second step is to begin believing it of yourself, whether you hear about it from others on any given day or not.  You are unique in your gifts and strengths, and are therefore irreplaceable in this world.  The sooner you know and embrace that, the better.

♦ Healthy balance in relationships is also shown when you apply a single standard to both yourself and to others.  Low self-esteem tends to operate on a double standard: Everyone is deserving of more respect and kindness than you are, for example, so you tolerate from others treatment that you would never inflict on anyone, yourself.  The you with healthier self-esteem recognizes that everyone is deserving of respect, kindness, and basic consideration, and that you are fully included.  This means you treat others well, and only allow in your space those who treat you well in return.  Those who don’t are challenged or avoided; either way, they don’t get to stay near you if they don’t earn the right to be there.  Period.

Creating a Better Life for Yourself, Inside and Out

As you go about creating a higher emotional standard of living for yourself, remember to do so in small enough steps that you can tolerate the change.  Trying to change too much at once will result in an internal reaction of, “No!  This doesn’t fit me.  This isn’t the life I’m meant to have.”  This reaction will cause you to abandon or sabotage all attempts at improvement, leaving yourself stuck.  Seek change at a level that stretches your comfort zone a bit, but which does not overwhelm you.  With that measured pace in mind, here are some things to start building into your life as you’re ready:

♦ Plan and spend some regular time at activities that allow you to just be you, having an experience just for you.  In those moments, you are not somebody else’s child, parent, sibling, lover, employee or whatever, you are fully and only you.  It is in these moments that you begin to truly know yourself as a separate entity.  This will strengthen you in those life challenges that you must face alone, and will give you more to offer in your relationships with others.  If you don’t know how to get ideas for this, talk to the healthiest, happiest people you know and see what they like to do.  You may not prefer their activities per se, but perhaps they can give you some ideas that get the thinking process started.

♦ Regularly participate in some pursuit or activity in which you feel competent, so that you are never far from living your strengths, and are always aware that they are there.  If it’s initially too hard for you to identify your competencies so that you can more actively practice and enjoy them, ask for feedback from those who care about you the most.  If you have no one close enough or trustworthy enough to talk to about this, consider seeing a therapist who can help you discover these unseen treasures in yourself.  We all have them; if you are unaware of yours, it is because you can’t see them, not because they don’t exist.

♦ Seek out opportunities for mastery experiences: opportunities to discover that you can do more than you realized.  Only when you sometimes test your limits can you know who you are and feel comfortable in your own space.  You can experience mastery in any of numerous realms, i.e., mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, relational, social, occupational, etc.  Discovering and expanding your skills in any of these areas will give you a stronger sense of self and greater appreciation for your value and capabilities.

♦ Always practice quality self-care.  Each time you take the time to choose, prepare, and consume quality food, you are showing that you are worth the effort.  Each time you exercise, knowing you’ll feel better for having done so, you show that you are worth the effort.  Each time you create quiet time and space to just relax and catch up with yourself, you show that you are worth the effort.  Each time you make space in your busy life for something that is simply enjoyable to you, you show that you are worth the effort.  You must show yourself this, or you can never know it.  This is a case where “fake it ‘til you make it” can give you a good start.  If you believe that others deserve this quality of life, then it is your job to work hard at convincing yourself that you do, too. 

♦ Learn to practice fact-based self-talk that acknowledges the totality of who you are, not just your perceived failings.  Celebrate your strengths while acknowledging your weaknesses as proof that you are human.  Be grateful for awareness of your weaknesses because each one presents an opportunity for growth, strength, mastery, or compassionate acceptance.  We’re all just flawed beings trying our best to get by in this world.  We all have beauty, and we all have areas in which we notably do not shine.  We are all works in progress, and that is as it should be. 

Copyright © 2011, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Related articles:

Self-Esteem, Part One: What Self-Esteem Means and Why Yours Matters

Self-Esteem, Part Two: Challenges to Self-Esteem as You Grow Through Life

Self-Esteem, Part Three: Common Signs of Low Self-Esteem



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