How can I build my self-esteem?

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We know self-esteem is important for our mental wellbeing, but nurturing it can be difficult. Livi Psychologist Dag Härdfeldt shares the simple ways we can help build ourselves up

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We all have times when we don’t feel good about ourselves or doubt our ability to do things – like when we’re trying something for the first time. Persistently low self-esteem can take a toll on your mental wellbeing, but there are plenty of ways you can boost it.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself, including your strengths and weaknesses. It’s based on your opinions and beliefs about yourself rather than facts.

Self-esteem can involve a wide array of different factors, including:

  • How you look
  • How you feel
  • How you behave
  • How you measure your successes or failures

‘Your self-esteem may also be shaped by how you think others perceive you,’ says Livi Psychologist Dag Härdfeldt. ‘Our thoughts are influenced by biases, which aren’t always rational and logical.’

Self-esteem may change rapidly, too. ‘It can vary from day to day and even hour to hour,’ says Härdfeldt. ‘When we feel like we’ve succeeded at something, our self-esteem might get a boost. When we feel like we’ve missed the mark, it might take a knock.’

Healthy self-esteem means you value yourself and believe you deserve respect from others. It helps you feel positive about yourself and accept your strengths and weaknesses for what they are.

What’s the difference between self-confidence and self-esteem?

We often use the term self-esteem alongside other terms including self-worth, self-respect and self-confidence. ‘Self-esteem and self-confidence overlap, but they’re different things,’ explains Härdfeldt.

‘Self-confidence is one part of self-esteem – it’s your belief in your skills and abilities. You can be confident in your ability to succeed in some aspects of life, like finding a partner or doing good work, but you can still have low self-esteem and experience feelings of worthlessness.’

Why do we need self-esteem?

Self-esteem impacts many aspects of your life, including your mental and physical health, your relationships, the decisions you make and your overall wellbeing.

Having low self-esteem is associated with mental health issues like anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and with learning disorders, antisocial behaviour and eating disorders.

On the other hand, research shows that high self-esteem helps you develop healthy coping skills, make stronger relationships and even perform better at school and work.

On the other hand, research shows that high self-esteem helps you develop healthy coping skills, make stronger relationships and even perform better at school and work.

What causes low self-esteem?

Triggers may include:

  • Bullying, abuse or neglect
  • Mental or physical health problems
  • Losing your job or having trouble finding one
  • Relationship problems, divorce or separation
  • Criticism from parents or teachers during childhood
  • Body image issues
  • Discrimination, including racism and sexism

What does low self-esteem look like?

‘Low self-esteem can manifest as a negative emotion,’ says Härdfeldt. ‘For example, children with low self-esteem may be overwhelmed with fear. Some may freeze in panic and withdraw themselves, and some may act out.’

For some people, low self-esteem can manifest in negative thought patterns. They may say things like:

  • ‘No one likes me’
  • ‘I’m a total failure’
  • ‘This job interview is bound to go badly’

‘People with low self-esteem can get caught in a vicious cycle of negative thinking,’ explains Härdfeldt. While this cycle can be difficult to break, there are things you can do yourself and professional support that can help.

How can I improve my self-esteem?

Here are some steps you can take to feel more confident and boost your self-esteem.

1. Challenge negative thoughts about yourself

Identify the negative thoughts and beliefs you have about yourself, then try to challenge them.

‘Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that cause people to see their reality inaccurately,’ says Härdfeldt. ‘A common one is mind reading. We’ve all assumed that we know what others are thinking – and we’re often wrong. If you have low self-esteem, there’s a good chance you’ve misinterpreted a facial expression or another interaction.’

One helpful technique you can make is to try labelling your thoughts instead of yourself. For example, instead of thinking: ‘I’m not smart,’ switch to: ‘I’m having a thought that I’m not smart.’

2. Talk to yourself like you would to a friend

‘People with low self-esteem tend to be more critical about their appearance, personality or abilities than they would be about others,’ explains Härdfeldt. For example, if you were disappointed with your performance review at work, you might say to yourself:

  • ‘I did so badly today’
  • ‘I’m worthless’
  • ‘Why am I even trying?’

‘One way to tell if you’re being fair to yourself is to imagine yourself using the same language with someone you love,’ says Härdfeldt. In most cases, you’d show them empathy and understanding. It’s important to treat yourself with the same compassion.

3. Compete with yourself, not others

‘Competition can be a good thing,’ says Härdfeldt. ‘But when you compare yourself to others, it’s easy to focus on other people’s strengths and achievements while forgetting your own.’

Try picking something you’re good at and developing that skill. For example, if you’ve got green fingers, challenge yourself with a new gardening project. If you’re a good runner, train for a race. Competing with yourself and breaking your own personal records is a great technique to boost your self-esteem.

4. Practise body neutrality

It’s not always easy to feel positive about your body – instead, try working towards body neutrality. Practise seeing your body in a neutral way, rather than good or bad.

If you find yourself focusing on the way your body looks, try thinking about the way it functions. Appreciate the things your body allows you to do, like see, hear or move around your environment.

5. Try talking therapy

Talking with a therapist can help you work through the issues you’re facing. It’s a good idea to book an appointment if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Your self-esteem is interfering with your daily life, including work, studying or relationships
  • You’re having persistent negative thoughts that are affecting your ability to focus
  • Your self-esteem has led to mental health problems, including anxiety and depression

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that can help you recognise unhelpful patterns in the way you think or behave and find ways to change them. ‘It’s also important to remember that low self-esteem can be a symptom of underlying disorders, like anxiety and depression, which can be treated,’ says Härdfeldt.

This article has been medically reviewed by Dag Härdfeldt, Livi Psychologist.

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