Clinical Psychologist

Sydney CBD

Building self-esteem

We all want to feel good about ourselves. When we have good self-esteem we feel valuable and we don’t allow others to define us or treat us poorly. We understand that everyone makes mistakes and we don’t belittle ourselves. We stand strong in the belief that we’re worthwhile even if we lose our job or someone rejects us. Sure, we still experience painful emotions, but we’re resilient, we know we will get through things and adjust, without it taking too much of a toll on our emotional or physical well-being.

What is self-esteem?

Put simply, self-esteem reflects how we see ourselves and how we evaluate our worth. Our beliefs in turn, can influence our feelings and behaviour.

Those of us who have healthy self-esteem are comfortable in our skin, we’re okay that we’re not perfect and we’re aware of the impact we have on others. Research has shown that high self-esteem is associated with happiness, mental well-being and the ability to adjust to changes.

What is low self-esteem?

Those of us with low self-esteem might rely heavily on external sources of validation to feel good, such as our partner, our boss or how much we earn. The problem with relying on things outside of ourselves is that it’s often not sustainable. At some point, our relationship might breakdown, or our partner might get tired of reassuring us, or we might earn less money, lose our job or lose our looks. As such, healthy self-esteem needs to be developed from within. That doesn’t mean that we can’t draw on external validation to grow our self-esteem, but at some point, we also need to internalise it. We do this by working on how we feel about ourselves.

How much self-esteem do we need?

While there’s no real measure of how much self-esteem is enough, our self-esteem doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s useful to have enough of it to be able to feel good about ourselves, to look after ourselves, to be able to say things like ‘no, it’s not okay to treat me like that’ or ‘I’m sorry I don’t have time to help today’, or to be able to ask for things we need, like a hug or a chat.

Where does our self-esteem come from?

Our core self-esteem comes from our family of origin and is developed over our lifespan. Caregivers give their children verbal and non-verbal messages that help form their self-worth. Not surprisingly, a safe, consistent, loving and supportive environment is conducive to high self-esteem. Negative parenting practices, such as neglect, maltreatment and critical parenting, can leave a child vulnerable to low self-esteem. Early traumatic experiences can also affect someone’s self-esteem.

How our experiences influence self-esteem

Self-esteem is not something that we develop overnight, or that can disappear because of one bad experience. It’s something that gets strengthened or weakened over our life-span, depending on our life experiences and the beliefs that we form about ourselves.

Every experience we have, has the potential to increase, or chip away at, our self-esteem. How this comes about may depend on many things including how we perceive and make sense of the experience, as well as our past experiences.

Sally was heavily criticised as a child. When her boss gave her feedback, she would shut down and obsess about not being good enough. Harry, on the other hand, welcomed other’s feedback. He saw it as an opportunity to grow and collaborate ideas. When Sally’s boss tried to talk to her about it, she became upset and started to cry. That night, Sally’s felt so embarrassed and hopeless that she wrote up her letter of resignation.

The above example highlights how our experiences over a life-span, positive and negative, and how we interpret them, affect our self-esteem.

Below are some suggestions that might help build self-esteem over time.

Quieten your internal critic

Our internal critic is that inner voice that judges us harshly. It puts us down and undermines our confidence and makes us feel inadequate. Before we know it, our self-esteem has decreased and we feel anxious or depressed. Try to be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that that critical voice is an old tape that’s getting replayed. If you can, try to reframe negative thoughts into positive or neutral ones that are more realistic. For more on this, see my previous post on challenging negative thoughts.

Try not to compare yourself to others

Generally speaking, measuring our worth by comparing ourself to others, is not healthy. We all have our own story and journey and comparing ourselves to someone who we perceive is better in some way, more successful, more attractive, smarter, etc., is likely to make us feel bad.

When we feel okay about ourselves, we don’t tend to worry as much about what others are doing and how others are faring in life.

Get comfortable in your own skin

I’ve written previously on authenticity and being true to yourself. When what we say, do and feel are fairly consistent, we feel better about ourselves.

Develop self-compassion

Most of us are harsher on ourselves than we are with others. Try to ensure that your self-talk is similar to how you might talk to a good friend. Embrace how and where you are right now and remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect.

Develop healthy boundaries

When you have healthy boundaries you don’t allow others to treat you poorly and you don’t shut down. Caring relationships, including those with partners, family and friends, are built on mutual respect and consideration. Being able to say ‘that’s not okay’ or ‘no’ to things is important in terms of respecting our boundaries, while still considering others.

Surround yourself with people who appreciate you

No one’s perfect, but when you’re around people who constantly criticise or exclude you, or make you feel like you’re not good enough, it’s likely to impact on your self-esteem by reinforcing existing negative self talk and self-doubt. Surround yourself with people who appreciate, welcome and care about you.

Self-esteem is important to mental health and well-being. Building self-esteem is not a quick and easy process. Each one of the few points that I’ve written about, in and of themselves is likely to take time to develop. Positive experiences can help, as can seeing a psychologist.

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Maria Scoda is a clinical psychologist in Sydney CBD.

This post is an opinion piece and is for informational purposes only. It does not address people’s individual circumstances or needs and it is not a substitute for professional help. Please see a health care professional if you are struggling. External links have been provided for convenience. They are created and maintained by other organisations and I cannot control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this outside information. 

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