Self-esteem can make or break your life.
Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. —Lao Tzu
Lack of self-esteem can harm your happiness, relationships and joy in life.
Sad to say, most of my online e-mail therapy clients, or ones in my Sausalito office, have lacked good self-esteem. There have been very few exceptions. Mostly clients talk about issues and specifics that are on their minds and then, at some point, they admit they aren’t changing some unhappy situations because they lack self-esteem and/or self-confidence.
In fact, the feeling of helplessness, or lack of control, contributes very strongly to lack of self-esteem. Maybe it is hurting you?
Lack of self-esteem can damage virtually every part of your life, including even your health. Low SE can prep you for developing a mental disorder or addiction (to medicate those uncomfortable feelings) and that will lower your SE even further.
If you have low SE you are statistically more likely to view the world as unfriendly or hostile and see begin to see yourself as a victim, even a helpless victim, who cannot change their situation. As a result, sufferers tend to avoid setting boundaries, speaking up or expressing themselves effectively, they miss out on advancement, better relationships and end up feeling worse each year in many cases.
When you have increased your SE, you will be able to ACT. You will be much more able to do what is necessary to improve your life and perhaps the lives of those around you.
I’ve had a lot of clients ask how to increase self-esteem and I always say:
Commit estimable acts. Every day. In my opinion, that is the surest and fastest way to increase self-esteem.
There are other ways that build it too. Here are some.
1.Controlling your Thoughts and Feelings
One of the worst damagers of SE is negative thoughts that you haven’t learned to monitor and control. You may have even gotten in the habit of dwelling on them.
Buddhists teach that mindfulness is critical to life and happiness. So true.
The most anxious people I know are trying to do too many things at once, driving & talking on the phone or texting (oh yes, you are), in class planning the evening & on the phone, talking to someone & thinking of something else. I’ve even sat in Board meetings with members who had their phones on the table, unable to turn them off or fully listen to the invited speakers.
Mindfulness is paying attention to what you are feeling and thinking and whether you are breathing in a healthy enough manner for enough fresh oxygen to get to your brain for proper thinking and functioning.
Feelings cause Anxiety, which causes, or contributes, to low SE. Thoughts cause Feelings. Control your thoughts and you can control your Feelings and your Anxiety.
There is a simple action anyone can take (I’m willing to say that therapists use this several times a day) to turn this all around. I call it the STOP method. It’s fast, simple and free.
First you have to become aware of your thoughts and sometimes your beliefs, which is called being Mindful.
As soon as anything makes you uncomfortable, pay attention to your thoughts.
What just happened (the situation?
What are you Feeling?
Are you breathing? Not the shallow,” I can’t think” kind of breathing, but natural deep breaths.
What did you say to yourself just then, or what was your Thought about it?
If you are uncomfortable then, obviously, your Thought was negative, but was it true?Wouldn’t it be sad to torture yourself with untrue Thoughts and waste a good part of your life?
The first thing is to catch an uncomfortable feeling that caused an unhelpful Thought (meaning you have to be mindful and breathing deeply enough for your brain to get enough fresh oxygen to make great decisions), then vividly imagine a red, octagonal STOP sign and shout STOP!
If you are around others, I’d advise you to shout silently, but w/some emotion.
That should short circuit your problem thought for 2 to 5 seconds, so you need to immediately substitute it with an entirely different, positive thought, or even a problem such as, “Where did I leave the keys to ___?” “What do I really want to do this weekend?” “What do I have to do to get more peace/love/whatever in my life?” Give your brain something to actually work on and take a few deep breaths.
2. CBT = Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT was originally developed for depression, then found to be excellent for anxiety and a host of other problems caused by unhelpful thoughts that often are not even true.
The written thought record is one of the primary tools in CBT, but it is only one facet.
I like to compare it to Socratic reasoning method used way back in the 5th century (Is it true?).
An overly simplified version of CBT asks: What is your Thought (belief) that was brought up by your uncomfortable Feeling? Why do you think/believe that and is it even true? Are you aware of the additional uncomfortable feelings you cause for yourself when you think this way?
CBT likes to use thought records with columns to quickly identify what you are doing that blocks or harms yourself and gives you a record to keep and refer to. There are many free ones online you can access to help you:
- see the connection between thoughts and emotions
- identify negative automatic thoughts (NATs) and untrue thoughts and beliefs
- show the evidence for and against a NAT – is it true, what can be done about it, what is the plan
In therapy, my clients often need to practice catching the immediate difficult Feeling and then the Thought that feeds even more bad Feelings, before they can confront their Thoughts or Beliefs and begin substituting unhelpful/untrue Thoughts with more accurate and realistic ones.
After that comes making the changes in actions in order to live peacefully and happily.
Here is a super simple idea of a Thought Record before going to the more formal columned recording of evidence-gathering and thought challenging, which stems from Socratic Reasoning (is it true, is it always true, then is it false, is it always false).
What is your core belief (negative thought)?
List three reasons why it is true (or why I want “it”):
List three reasons why it might not be true (or why it would not be good for me):
What could you do to improve or eliminate this situation?:
Don’t confuse Feelings for facts. If you insist on all or nothing thinking, you will be unhappy for as long as you insist on this foolish course of action. You deserve better.
The way you are currently thinking about whatever is making you unhappy might not be the only possible way to view your situation — so test the accuracy of your thoughts. Anxiety responses can add to the feeling that there is nothing you can do, the situation can’t be improved and so on. This is one area where therapy is so valuable and why the clinician needs to challenge you. If you’ve been stuck in your thinking for quite a while your unhelpful thoughts may feel normal and yet be wildly inaccurate.
This, above, exercise might seem slightly awkward at first, but it is really fast and easy if you just try it and practice it a bit. As soon as you begin to see the Thoughts or beliefs that are harming you, you can STOP them and be free. This step alone will make you feel better. As your SE increases, your confidence, satisfaction with life and happiness should increase greatly.
And now for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy….
4. What do you do that makes you feel bad about yourself?
Examine whom you should avoid, who you need to stand up to and who you need to set boundaries with. Identify troubling conditions or situations and what isn’t working in your life. Actually make a list.
Pay close attention to your thoughts when you were making the list, then make a list of changes or solutions. Planning to do nothing invites depression.
Avoid all those people, places, events that make you feel awkward or bad about yourself. This might look like being more assertive, setting firm boundaries or practicing “Changing the Geography” when possible. Walk out, go around the block, go for a drive, go to the gym, go somewhere else – and say that is what you are doing when you are treated badly, if that is appropriate to your situation. If assertiveness is hard, then see a good therapist. This is your life – how much more of it are you going to spend unhappy?
5. Exercise regularly because you want to live and be happy and have some energy.
Do at least 30 minutes of something just for yourself, your body and your brain nearly every day (even if you are exercising while watching TV). Try to do something that makes you sweat at least three times a week to be really happy, healthy, and prolong your life and looks. Start small if you must, but there is no excuse. Refuse to put gas in your car or fix your tires and it won’t go – same with your body.
6. Do things for others.
I’m not referring to the people who make you feel bad about yourself. Every single day make a point to do something nice for a stranger, even if it is opening a door with a kind smile, contacting a sick or distant acquaintance, saying something nice to the person in line with you or the checkout person. This releases serotonin immediately for a boost in your mood. Try it and see for yourself. Getting involved in charity or a church charity is very good for mental health.
7. Manage your stress with meditation.
Meditate every single day if you want to be REALLY happy and content. Even taking five to ten minutes daily to be still and meditate can make a huge difference in your life. The more you choose to do, the greater the benefits. Some say they can’t meditate because they can’t make their mind be still. You don’t have to, in fact, you can’t hold onto a thought no matter how hard you try. You can say to your thoughts that interfere, as the Buddhists advise, “I see you. You can go.” and then let them. There is a wealth of free meditation apps and sites available on the web which can introduce you to many different styles of meditation until you find the one or two that you really like. Prayer works well also.
There is a saying: When you pray you talk to God. When you meditate s/he talks to you. Meditation is free, fast, simple. It is foolish not to utilize it daily.
8. Clean up and organize your home, office and car.
No, I’m very serious. A cluttered or dusty area contributes negatively to your physical and mental health. This one thing makes everything else easier because if your surroundings are clean and orderly, a level of peace is immediately felt and retained as long as you maintain it. Display only those items that remind you of what you have done/accomplished, where you have gone, when you were happiest. You can then devote your energy gained to something else. I advise going around your home and especially your bedroom for only 15 minutes each evening and putting everything away.
9. What truly makes you happy?
Do you even know anymore? Perhaps what used to make you happy has changed. Perhaps you have changed, but if you have low SE you probably are not doing enough of the things that you really enjoy (things that are just for you) to renew yourself for the challenges each day presents. You really need to do more of the things that you enjoy, whether those around you agree and choose to join in or not. It is very important to do at least one thing every day that you enjoy with no guilt. We all get so busy, that this can slip by. I have at the bottom of my journal every day – Fun:___ so I am sure not to forget what makes my life worth living and what I need.
10. Make a list of what you like about yourself.
Really. In writing. Reread it the first of every month and add to it. What have you accomplished in your life, and in the past month also? What are your strengths? If your SE has sunk really low, ask those closest to you for help. You deserve to live happily and feeling good about yourself. If you chose to have people or situations around you that have become untenable – you can change that or the interactions you have with them. Use this exercise to be kind and forgiving to yourself. None of us are perfect little robots who get through life without making major mistakes. So what? It is over. I had a professor years ago that, when an intern would run in, frantic with an emergency, who would slow her speech, look up confused and say, “Did anyone die? No? Well, then we have time to fix it, don’t we?”
10. Negative self-talk and criticizing yourself is like a cancer.
It is likely to grow and spread. STOP it. You know how. Reread #1, above.
11. Change your look.
It doesn’t need to be radical. Update your clothes, hair, improve your posture, book a massage or health treatments, get your check-up, see the dentist. Only wear clothes that make you feel good and confident. Donate the rest to help others. Be very, very kind to yourself and don’t start unhelpful thinking about what others might think about you taking better care of yourself. This is your one life. Unlikely you will get a do-over.
Therapy helps. It can save lives. Talk to your friends, your priest, your family (if appropriate) because abuse (whether verbal, emotional or physical), unhappiness and self-esteem issues can only live and grow in the dark. Air them out to survive and thrive. Greatly increase your support system all throughout your life, as this is critical for longevity, happiness and good mental health. Join a support group if you find one that might suit you and try it out.
If you don’t have good sleep, it is unlikely that you are as mentally healthy as you should and could be. I’ve written so much about this. Please go to my website: www.valentinotherapy.com and click on Therapy Blog because this article cannot become book length.
15. Monitor your personal space.
Only be with people who make you feel good about yourself whenever possible. Protect yourself, your SE and your happiness.
16. Make a To-Do List.
Make it realistic of what things you really need and want to do and not lots of things that don’t have to be done or that can be delegated. Do them. Get them out of your life and out of your mind. Let yourself feel great that you’ve accomplished these one at a time. Don’t start one until you’ve finished the last one and create chaos. This frees up your time, your freedom and the mental space devoted to having these tasks on your mind.
17. Eat very healthy every day – only if you want to feel good.
This is critical for mental and physical health. Go for at least eight glasses of pure, fresh water a day so that your body and brain can heal overnight and work properly during the day. When you eat mindfully, calmly and slowly you can actually enjoy the food and get the maximum benefit from it.
Journaling is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. Surveys show most responding therapists report they journal every day. I do. When you write long hand you can make sense of your day or see where adjustments need to be made. It also gets the negative events and thoughts out of your head and onto the paper. You have something to refer to and check back on. Journaling works best when you take a few minutes and reread your entries at the end of each month. You might be amazed at what you see and the insight you gain.
Therapy helps. Be kind to yourself and get support all throughout your life whenever you could use a bit of help, support or a neutral opinion.
Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change.
By Sharon Valentino, Valentino Therapy CA LMFT, MA, RAS, CATC, Psychotherapist,
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (51746), Serving individuals & couples in the San Francisco Bay Area – Registered Addiction Specialist, Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor, Masters Counseling Psychology, Stress, Anxiety, Relationships, Depression, PTSD, Pain, Family & Couples Issues, Parenting Teens and Pre-Teens, Aging -PRIVATE ONLINE EMAIL AND PHONE THERAPY AVAILABLE FOR CALIF. ONLY, 3030 Bridgeway, Suite 108, Sausalito, CA 94965, www.valentinotherapy.com , e: firstname.lastname@example.org