Many people experience low self-esteem, but it can be managed with the right skills and practices. Here are 10 tips to improve yours.
On occasion, many of us experience poor self-esteem. Sometimes this way of thinking can become chronic and debilitating. It can get in the way of things, both in our professional and personal lives. By providing ourselves with the mental skills we need to manage our self-esteem, and our wellbeing in general, we can get on top of the problem before it gets on top of us.
Ideally, we’d learn about this from an early age. That’s why learning to build positive relationships and self-confidence is a key step in the Lego Foundation’s Learning to thrive through play course. If you’re reading this, however, the chances are that you’re a little bit older, and you’d like to know how you can handle your problems around self-esteem. Read on as we explore the issue and provide some strategies for doing exactly that.
What is self-esteem?
The word ‘esteem’ is rarely used these days without the word ‘self’ appended to the front of it. ‘Self-esteem’ refers to our perception of ourselves. Do we like the person we are? What do we think about our own strengths and weaknesses? Can we recognise our mistakes, and are we able to forgive ourselves for those mistakes and move forward?
Our opinions about ourselves can be complicated and multidimensional, but to begin with, it’s useful to place them on a single axis. We can place ‘high’ self-esteem at one end and ‘low’ self-esteem at the other.
In practice, people don’t always slot neatly into this simplified model. We might have higher self-esteem on some days than on others. If you’ve just finished a marathon, you might feel justifiably pleased with yourself; if you’ve had to bail out halfway, then you might feel pretty down in the dumps.
What’s more, we might consider some aspects of ourselves more highly than other parts. You might recognise that you’re good at chess, but also that you’re not so good with social situations. Or vice versa.
If you’d like to delve more into the psychology behind self-esteem, take a look at our Understanding confidence open step by Helen Kempster of Goldsmiths University. You can also look at our Positive Core Self-Evaluations open step from Paula Caproni at the University of Michigan. It will take you through not just self-esteem, but related topics like self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability.
What is low self-esteem?
Self-esteem isn’t something we tend to think about all that much unless there’s a problem with it. As you might expect, it’s people at the negative end of the spectrum who tend to suffer the most.
By definition, suffering doesn’t feel good. However, it has its uses. For example, physical pain helps us to avoid damaging our bodies. You might recoil from a hot surface, or something sharp. Feelings of low self-esteem can often prompt us to take corrective action in our lives. We feel bad about something, we change it, and then we move on. This is a healthy and normal mechanism.
Low self-esteem becomes a problem when there is seemingly no end to these feelings, and when they’re disconnected from reality. Plus, there are some situations where corrective action can’t be taken.
Why is self-esteem important?
The way we think about ourselves tends to feed into just about every aspect of life. If you’re constantly worried about how you’re going to fail at everything you attempt, then it might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast, if you have unduly high self-esteem, then you might try to do something that’s beyond your capability.
A lack of self-esteem can control your behaviour, preventing you from even attempting tasks that you don’t feel comfortable with. This is something that even highly-competent professionals have to contend with, as Professor Josef Hallberg from the Luleå University of Technology explains in this open step on Low self-esteem and failures. He’s speaking here as part of the University’s Workplace Wellbeing course, which you can join if you’re hoping to build confidence at work.
What is emotional wellbeing?
Related to self-esteem is our sense of emotional wellbeing. You might suppose that this is synonymous with feeling great most of the time. But this isn’t really a description of a healthy mind.
If you feel great even during life’s toughest moments, then you aren’t emotionally well. And if you put pressure on yourself to feel great all the time, then you’re unlikely to make the situation better. In fact, you’re more likely to make it worse!
Emotional wellbeing refers instead to your ability to handle the emotions that life throws at you, good and bad. You might see immediately how this links to your self-esteem. If you experience intense emotions, and you’re not really sure where they come from, then it’s easy to think of them as a part of your identity.
Taking care of your emotional wellbeing
However, emotional wellbeing is something that you can improve with practice. For some of us, doing this is a bit of a struggle. But the effort can pay dividends.
For example, if you take care of yourself emotionally, then you might be better at receiving feedback at work, or at college. You might also be able to have difficult conversations about subjects that give rise to negative emotions.
This will allow you to collaborate more productively with other people — even if you don’t see eye-to-eye with them. This is a skill that’s incredibly useful in just about every walk of life. And this is made clear in BF&F’s open step on How to be More Self Aware.
In many cases, it can be helpful to hear someone talk about their personal experience with bad emotional habits. Take a look at Josef Hallberg’s description of his bad habits in this video on emotional wellbeing.
Is low self-esteem a mental health problem?
Low self-esteem is not a mental health problem, but it’s certainly adjacent to many of them. If you find your self-esteem is kept low for a long period of time, then it might be a symptom of a mental illness like depression and anxiety. If you’re worried about your mental health, make sure you speak to a medical professional to get the right help.
Mind, the mental health charity cites a few symptoms which might indicate that long-running low self-esteem has become a mental health problem:
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Blaming yourself unfairly
- Hating yourself
- Worrying about being unable to do things.
In recent years, mental health has finally been taken more seriously, which is great. However, saturating yourself in information about mental health, and self-diagnosing with the help of Google can sometimes lead to problems.
Mental health is something we should be actively promoting for ourselves and others. Coventry University’s course on Managing Mental Health and Stress provides the tools required to do just that. If you’re concerned about your wellbeing, awareness-raising initiatives, like World Mental Health Day, can also be hugely helpful.
As a society, we still haven’t settled on an optimal solution for treating mental health issues. In 2014, Professor Peter Kinderman of the University of Liverpool proposed a fairly radical rethink of mental health, which moves away from the ‘disease’ model. Many of his proposals have since become fairly mainstream, and they’re worth considering.
How to build self-esteem and value yourself
Let’s run through a few practical steps you might take, and habits you might get into, in order to build up your self-esteem. The strategies you pick out for yourself should suit your personality and lifestyle.
1. Look out for confirmation bias
If you’re dealing with chronic low self-esteem, then it can be difficult to accept compliments or to notice your successes. By contrast, failures might jump out at you, and stick with you for days, or weeks, afterwards.
This is often a result of something called confirmation bias. You’ve told yourself a story — that you’re dreadful. Your mind is hunting for evidence that confirms that story. Take a step back and try to be objective, and recognise this impulse for what it is.
2. Accept praise
Your confirmation bias might get in the way of you accepting praise. Therefore, you should be proactive about recognising praise and your impulse to dismiss it. If you’re struggling with confidence in the workplace, then it’s worth bearing in mind that you are valuable to your employer — if you weren’t, they wouldn’t be paying you!
3. Write a list
If you’re struggling to keep track of the things that you like about yourself, then it can be helpful to write them down in a list. That way, when you’re tempted to talk yourself down, you’ll have a physical reminder of all of the things that you actually do like about yourself.
4. Practise mindfulness
You might think of meditation practices as a little bit flakey and impractical. But they’re actually immensely beneficial — provided that you actually practice regularly. The point of the exercise here is to become aware of what’s happening in your consciousness in the present moment. To begin with, you might be slightly startled by what you discover.
This is something that self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff notes in this video from Monash University on Practising self-compassion, which is part of the university’s course on Maintaining a Mindful Life.
By developing your sense of compassion, you’ll also build broader mental toughness and resilience, as explained in this open step on Compassion for self and others. On the other hand, you might look into practising gratitude with the help of the University of Michigan’s Gratitude Teach-out.
Daily stress-management activities of this kind are covered in the first week of the University of Edinburgh’s course on Self Care and Wellbeing — which is well worth checking out.
5. Challenge yourself
Taking up a hobby can often be a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you’re actually quite capable. Set yourself a goal, and aspire to achieve it. It doesn’t have to be something spectacular like running a marathon. It can instead be something that you’ll enjoy doing regularly, and that you can track your progress with.
You can apply this goal-oriented thinking to your professional life, too. In Luleå University’s course on surviving the workplace and managing stress — specifically the sections on developing yourself and your skills — they suggest that forming long-term and short-term goals is an essential step.
6. Exercise regularly
As advice goes, it might sound a little bit folksy, but ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ is difficult to argue with. Regular exercise has a whole range of benefits, and it’s even been proven to bolster mood. Even if it’s something low-intensity, like walking, the effects can be profound. Plus, it’ll get you out in the open air.
7. Sleep properly
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, then you’ll suffer from all kinds of knock-on consequences — many of which will lead to poor self-esteem. Make sure that you form the right habits for good sleep. Keep a regular schedule, and avoid screen time in bed. This is covered extensively in the University of Michigan’s Sleep Deprivation: Habits, Solutions and Strategies online course.
8. Build a healthy diet
If you aren’t eating properly, then you can expect to feel lousy. This is especially true if your eating habits are associated with a weight you’re unhappy with, or an unhealthy perception of how you look. Learn how to cook a few healthy meals, and develop a taste for whole foods. If you’re eating more than 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, then you’re likely to get everything you need.
If your perception of your own body is skewed, you might feel dissatisfied with it. In some cases, this can develop into an eating disorder. The good news is that if you’re in this position, there is help available.
If you suffer from poor body image, you might look into Jameela Jamil’s course on body neutrality, presented in collaboration with Tommy Hilfinger. However, if your relationship with your body or appearance feels debilitating, a medical professional can offer you support and treatment options.
9. Address your weaknesses
If you’re uncertain of your competence in a specific area, it might be tempting to simply avoid it. You might think of a football player who always wants to bring the ball onto their stronger foot because they lack the confidence to shoot with the weaker one. If this reluctance extends to practice sessions as well as competitive matches, then it’s difficult to see this player ever overcoming this particular shortcoming.
By throwing yourself at the areas where you lack confidence, you might determine that they’re not as intimidating as you supposed.
10. Look for support
Low self-esteem is something that lots of people suffer from. Sitting down to have a chat with a friend or a family member can often provide you with a well-needed mood boost or a feeling of solidarity.
If you find that your feelings are persistent and strong, then it might be time to get more formal about the support you seek. Visiting your GP, a counsellor, or a psychiatrist might be extremely helpful.
If you’d like a few more tips, or you’d like to be more proactive about caring for your mental health, then take a look at our blogs on how to take care of your mental health and 12 simple self-care tips.
How to help someone with low self-esteem
In many ways, it’s more difficult to watch other people struggle with low self-esteem than it is to deal with your own — especially if it’s someone you care about. In this situation, you might want to act like a personal cheerleader, or just provide an attentive ear, or a shoulder to cry on.
Offering this kind of support doesn’t require a professional skill set, but it is something that you can get better at with the right basic training. We cover some of it in our blog on Psychological first aid: How to provide mental health support.
If you’re in a leadership position, then developing your own self-esteem is critical to helping others. You can learn about self-esteem in a leadership context with the Awareness and Confidence for Effective Leadership course. This uses the Savoir-Relier method, which will allow you to Build Trust and Grow your Self-Confidence.
Low self-esteem is something that nearly everyone struggles with at some point in their lives. Learning to manage these feelings is therefore something that just about everyone can benefit from.
Ideally, you’ll want to learn about these things before they actually become a problem. Much like the notion that it’s a good idea to exercise regularly to prevent health problems, it’s a good idea to form healthy habits before you start to suffer from poor mental health or low self-esteem.