How to Improve Your Self-Esteem to Live a Happier, Healthier Life
Yesterday, we featured an interview with Lisa Schab—psychotherapist and author of Self-Esteem for Teens: Six Principles for Creating the Life You Want—about what self-esteem really is and why it's so critical.
But how does one actually get to a state of having healthy self-esteem? Today, we share her incredible insights into improving your self-views, and how to counter and release the negative messages we receive to live our happiest lives.
Sweety High: How can someone effectively improve their self-esteem?
Lisa Schab: The most important first step is committing to being kind and gentle with yourself! Treat yourself the way you'd treat your best friend—someone you love tremendously. Commit to allowing yourself to work on your self-esteem imperfectly and over time. Commit to loving yourself through it all.
The next step is paying attention to your self-messages. These are the core of your self-esteem. Listen to what you tell yourself over and over again every day. Write down what you say. Notice how many messages are positive and how many are negative. Look closely at those negative messages. Identify where they came from—you weren't born with them! Ask yourself if you want to keep letting those messages drive your self-esteem and your life.
Remember, even though these messages may be strong habits in your brain, you can now make the choice to change them. You can choose to keep believing them or you can think about letting them go. It may take a while for you to work through this change in beliefs because you've had them for a long time, but if you're patient and gentle with yourself, it is definitely possible to change.
The third step is to just keep going, because if you do, you'll eventually get there! You'll make progress, and when you see and feel that progress, it'll encourage you and give you the energy to keep going for one more day and one more day after that. Remember that every tiny baby step helps you move closer to your goal. Neuroscience backs this up. Every time you even observe your thoughts, you start loosening the current negative neural connections and forge new pathways in your brain.
This is the physiology behind habit change. It's real and it works! Even though it doesn't happen overnight, there comes a day when you notice that you feel better about yourself. You'll like yourself more, and realize that you have value and worth and that it feels great.
SH: What changes might you see when your self-esteem rises?
LS: You'll feel more at peace with yourself and your life. Since you're not constantly criticizing yourself, life feels easier, and you experience more joy. You become friends with yourself! You'll also feel more comfortable with other people. When you truly recognize your equality to others and theirs to you, being with other people becomes more fun and interesting instead of intimidating or anxiety-provoking. As you like yourself more, you begin to enjoy others more as well.
You may also notice yourself feeling more free-flowing than rigid. When you truly love and embrace your authentic self, it feels good to speak and act from that person who is now your friend instead of your enemy. You don't worry as much about being criticized so you can just let yourself be you. You'll also have more successes in all areas of your life—school, family, friends, work—because you're confident enough to put yourself out there, try new things and stand up for yourself. When you do this, you'll get positive results, and that will feed your healthy self-esteem as well.
You'll also feel happier overall. When you spend less time berating yourself for making mistakes—or what you consider mistakes—or being a mistake yourself, you'll lighten up and let go of your strict inner critic. Every situation will be easier and more fun. When you like yourself, that positivity spreads to every other corner of your life.
SH: How can we maintain self-esteem when we're receiving negative messages about ourselves from outside sources?
LS: This can make things harder, but it's still completely possible to maintain healthy self-esteem. Remember that your self-esteem comes from your thoughts, not someone else's. This means someone could tell you you're the greatest person in the world, but if you don't believe it, it doesn't matter. Likewise, someone could tell you you're the worst person in the world and if you don't believe it, it doesn't matter. You hold the key to your self-esteem, not other people.
This doesn't mean we should always immediately discount what other people say. If 10 different people tell us we're rude and overbearing, we need to look at that. Ask them what they mean and how it gets in the way. Then think about how we might make positive changes. But if only one person tells us that, we shouldn't immediately get down on ourselves. Maybe that person took something the wrong way, or they're overly sensitive.
Healthy self-esteem means we celebrate our strengths, but we also accept our imperfections and do what we can to make things better. When negative or devaluing messages come from outside sources, it's important to remember we have a choice about what to do with them. Hearing a negative message about ourselves doesn't mean we should immediately and automatically believe it's true. And, even if it is true, we need to evaluate it and put it in context so we can know what to do with it.
SH: How can we healthily process these messages?
LS: Start by evaluating negative messages. How many other people tell me this? Are they reliable? Are they biased? Would anyone else agree with them? If so, how many others? What is the hard evidence for this being true? What unbiased impartial observer could I ask for their opinion about this?
If the message is true, it's very important to accept it without self-judgment. There is no one on the face of the earth who is perfect. We all have strengths and we all have imperfections or vulnerabilities. Healthy self-esteem means we recognize our equality to everyone else; we celebrate our strengths, and we accept our imperfections without feeling bad about ourselves or letting it damage our self-esteem.
We then decide if we want to work on making a change. Some things may be important to change, some may not. For example, if ten people say you have poor artistic skills but you plan to become a mathematician and don't care for art, you may decide it's not too important that you improve your artistic skills! However, if you love art and plan to make a living as a graphic designer you might decide to take some more art classes.
If the message isn't true, we need to recognize and remember that, and not let someone else's opinion interfere with our own knowledge that this is a false statement. We can work on this in two main ways. One is to have a calm conversation with the person who gave us this message. We can explain why we believe their message is false. We can share how we feel when they tell us this. We can ask them to stop giving us this message. If they don't understand or comply, we can calmly let them know we don't agree with their opinion and won't be taking that message to heart.
If it's not true, and yet it really bothers us and sends our self-esteem crashing, the second thing to do is to recognize that it is our job to work at letting go of the distress and change how we respond to the message. That's something that in our control. We can make a conscious decision to not let that message have a negative impact on our self-esteem anymore. This can take a while to change, because we may have been affected by it for a long time, but it is possible.
SH: What are some good ways to release negative messages?
LS: Make a list of any devaluing messages you carry with you such as, "I drive people crazy," "I'm a pain in the neck," "I'm always ruining things," "It's my fault they got divorced," or others. If you can remember, note who each message came from. Then, write a short letter to each of these people explaining how you understand they didn't mean to hurt you, but their message was damaging and you're going to release it. Writing this letter is only to help you let go of the message. The goal isn't to criticize the sender, but to work on your own thinking habit. If you think about actually delivering the letter, first talk about this with an adult you trust.
Next, write each devaluing message on a piece of paper and choose a way to destroy it. You might put it through a shredder, tear it into pieces, cut it up, block it out with marker or white-out, tack it to a dartboard and throw darts at it, crumple it up, throw it in the garbage, or anything else safe and appropriate. As you destroy each one, think or say, "I'm releasing this devaluing message and building new thinking habits of healthy self-esteem."
Then, as you go through the following days and weeks, notice when this thought comes in again and remind yourself (over and over) that you are no longer believing this—you have released this thought. And then put your mind on something else.
Want to learn more about the subject? Click HERE to find out more about the meaning of self-esteem, and why it's so important.