If you met yourself, do you think you would like yourself? For people with low self-esteem, the answer is a pretty straightforward ‘no’. Here, we look at some of the ways that you can transform your negative opinions of yourself and learn to like, love and accept yourself just as you are.
“Learning to love yourself – it is the greatest love of all,” sang Whitney Houston on her 1985 hit ballad Greatest Love of All. With the pretty piano chords and Houston’s beautiful vocals, you’d think that loving yourself was one of the easiest things to do. And yet, for many of us, liking ourselves just as we are can seem like an impossible task, never mind loving ourselves fully and completely.
The NHS describes low self-esteem as the opinion we have of ourselves. “When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general. It makes us better able to deal with life’s ups and downs. When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges that throws on us.”
One of the tricky things about self-esteem is that it isn’t something that is fixed in the first place. Your self-esteem can alter every day, if not by the hour. As well as external factors such as interactions with other people and the sort of media we are exposed to each day, self-esteem varies with our values. The things we hold closer to us will impact our self-esteem more. For example, someone whose self-esteem is linked to their career and success will feel a greater impact on their esteem from a job rejection than someone who isn’t as career oriented.
Low self-esteem – that horrible feeling of not liking yourself – can be caused by so many things. Bad childhood experiences, bereavement, heartbreak, redundancy are just a few examples of life events that can contribute to low feelings. We fall into the habit of believing the negative voice inside our head when it tells us that we are stupid, worthless, unlovable or a total failure.
When our self-esteem heads south, many of us will begin thinking that if we could just change a, b or c about our lives, then we could learn to like ourselves. If we could change our appearance or an aspect of our personality or our home décor or the job we do, then our lives would be better and we could stand in front of the mirror and be happy with the person staring back. The trouble with this sort of thinking is that we are constantly setting ourselves us to fall short of an unrealistic ideal of ourselves.
This concern with transformation is tell-tale sign of low self-esteem. So is a constant use of the word ‘should’ – people with low self-esteem have very high expectations of themselves and put enormous pressure on themselves to achieve this ideal. Some other signs include being highly self-critical, feeling irritable/impatient/frustrated, feelings of anxiety/depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, not attending social events, fear and avoidance of challenging situations, and physical symptoms such as fatigue, poor sleep, self-harm and low sex drive.
When your self-esteem is low, it’s easy to feel hopeless, helpless and like nothing will ever change. In fact, it can be difficult to recognise that we have struggles with self-esteem because we might believe our negative thoughts so completely. Thankfully, things can change.
One of the basic principles of positive self-esteem is learning to accept yourself just as you are. Not as you could be, not as you should be, but just as you as, flaws and all. This doesn’t mean that you’re free from (constructive) self-criticism, but it means that you take a kinder view of dealing with yourself.
And it’s incredibly important that we do all we can to nurture positive self-esteem. It plays a vital role in our personal and continuous growth, in the development of healthy relationships with others, and it helps us to face the difficulties and challenges that life throws at us, making us more resilient and optimistic. Studies of the brain have revealed that when we have a higher self-esteem, our feelings of pain when we experience emotional trials such as rejection or failure are reduced. Further, high self-esteem results in less cortisol being released in our bloodstream when we are stressed, meaning we are better able to cope with anxiety.
But how do we transform our low self-esteem and nurture a more positive view of ourselves? There’s a lot of information out there and sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming. Here are some ideas that you can try for yourself. It’s important to remember that you have to find what works best for you.
Treat yourself like a friend.
This is one of the most popular practices of supporting positive self-esteem. It can sound a little bit twee, but it’s proven to work. We often treat our friends with more kindness, compassion and empathy than we do ourselves. When you learn to treat yourself more like one of your friends, you change the language that you use, you’re more accepting of your shortcomings and more understanding to your situation.
Keep a note of your negative thoughts.
When your self-esteem is low, you judge yourself harshly and these critical thoughts come through in absolute statements such as ‘I’m such an idiot”, ‘No one will ever like me’ or ‘I’m a total failure’. Start writing down these thoughts when you catch yourself saying them and then take time to think about when you first start thinking in this way and how true these statements really are. Challenge your negative thoughts whenever they come up.
Write down your good qualities.
When you feel bad about yourself, it can be impossible to see any of the good things you’ve done in your life. It can be helpful to keep a journal of the things you like about yourself (e.g. ‘I’m thoughtful and empathetic’) and things you’re good at or proud of (e.g. ‘I call my mum often’ or ‘my friends trust me’). When you’re feeling down, read over these positive memories and remind yourself of how worthy you are.
Start to say ‘no’.
When your esteem is low, it can be difficult to assert what you want. You think that if you say no to someone that they will then think badly of you, which in turn confirms the negative thoughts you have about yourself. Start saying ‘no’ to the things in your life that might make you feel overburdened, resentful or depressed – it’s an empowering action that supports high self-esteem.
Catch your criticisms.
People with low self-esteem often believe that if they are harsher with themselves, they will do better next time. Studies have shown, however, that being very critical has the opposite effect, leading to demotivation and feelings of failure. Participants in the study who practiced self-compassion were more motivated to keep going, learn and improve.
Change how you feel about failure.
People with low self-esteem often feel like a failure and like they’re failing at (almost) everything. When you look at the things that you think you’re failing at, try to reframe them as opportunities to learn about yourself. It’s also important to recognise that failure is just a part of life, something that everyone experiences, and is not a reflection of who you are as a person.
Use affirmations wisely.
Positive affirmations are when we stand in front of the mirror and say statements of encouragement or intention, for example, ‘I am successful!”. The trouble is that for people with low self-esteem, statements like this can just seem too far from the truth and can make them feel worse. If you have low self-esteem, try affirmations that resonate with you, such as ‘I’m going to keep trying!’ or ‘Today, I will do my best!” More realistic affirmations can bolster your mood and, in turn, your esteem.
Write a list about yourself.
When your self-esteem takes a particular hit, psychologist Guy Winch recommends writing a list of qualities about yourself that relate to the situation that has made you feel bad. So, for example, if you get rejected from a date, write a list of all the qualities about yourself that make you a good partner. Then, he recommends choosing a couple of these qualities and writing a couple of paragraphs about why they are important and how other people would value them. It’s a reflective way to transform a negative experience into an empathetic exercise that you can learn from.
And remember, self-love is a continuous process. Doing any or all of the above doesn’t mean that you’ll have high self-esteem every day for the rest of your life – life is far too challenging, unpredictable and wonderful for that. But taking time each and every day (or most days, or some days, or whenever you can manage) will help you nurture that positive self-esteem and help you to learn to like yourself. You’re worth the effort.