Requesting strategies to help improve self-esteem.
July 8, 2012 8:13 AM   Subscribe

Low self-esteem has eroded my quality of life. Most personal issues I have seem to stem from this core deficiency. What are some strategies to combat low self-esteem?

As I approach 30, I've been thinking about the things that I want out of life and why I haven't gotten them yet. More specifically, I've been thinking about the personal struggles I deal with on a regular basis. Depending on the day, I focus on different things. Sometimes, it's self-confidence. I can be shy and this results in insecurities. Sometimes it's self-control. I scold myself for not being more disciplined in pursuing my goals. But I've concluded that, overall, my core problem is self-esteem. All other personal issues I have seem to stem from this core deficiency. And I'd finally like to ask for help.

This is a bit tl;dr. Basically my questions are as follows:

1. How do people/children develop positive self-esteem in the first place?
2. What are some strategies to develop positive self-esteem?
3. How does one retain positive self-esteem (Regular psychological exercises? Mantras?)?

First, this is a list of the ways in which low self-esteem has eroded my quality of life:

1. As previously mentioned, it results in shyness. There is nothing wrong with being shy. And being shy is not a sign of low self-esteem. But for me, low self-esteem manifests as shyness. I struggle to make conversation when I meet new people. I obsess over everything as conversations proceed. Even with people I know well, I am fearful saying something dumb or worse yet, having nothing to say at all. So the friends I have tend not to feel like close ones. And, while I don't actively avoid interactions, I tend to spend more time alone than not. This makes me feel left out.

2. I often feel self-conscious. Of the way I look or of what I have to say. I catch myself speaking quickly, like I want to get it over with. As a result, people ask me to repeat what I've said, which of course makes me more self-conscious.

3. I'm not as ambitious in action as I am in thought. There are plenty of things that I know I'm capable of, but due to a combination of indecision and inaction, I tend to stay in the same place personally and professionally. This indecision and inaction comes from a fundamental feeling that I don't measure up to others who have what I'm targeting. If it's a job, I believe that despite being intelligent and capable, I maybe lack the experience or knowledge required. If it's a hobby, I believe that I lack the skills. If it's a romantic relationship, I believe I lack the charm or the maturity. For any appreciably difficult goal, I'm convinced I'm not good enough. But it's not a fear of failing.

4. Except when it is a fear of failing. I won't try things unless I'm reasonable confident that I can succeed. Or at the least I won't make an embarrassingly novice mistake. It seemed better when I was younger because everyone was a beginner. But now, there are so many people doing amazing things and are my age but more often much younger. I know the cliche, "everyone has to start somewhere" or "everyone was a beginner at some point". Even "everyone has their own strengths", but maybe I'd feel better if there was something I felt I was exceptional at. Of course it's relative and I'm not "bad" at photography or soccer or snowboarding. But when I hope for expert, beginner or novice is disappointingly disappointing. I feel like, at this point in my life, I should have conquered something. But my photos are average or lucky, my programming is flawed, my athletics are mediocre, and I'm surrounded by people who are published, running their own companies and pursuing PhD's. How am I supposed to try anything when the bar is set so high? But of course who set that bar?

5. I can't seem to give myself credit for the things I do achieve. I do have a lot of things to be proud of, but somehow they never seem to be good enough. I'm unable to feel happy or proud of myself because anything I do is but a small step in the direction of a very remote goal. It makes me feel worthless and unaccomplished. And as a result, I feel ashamed and embarrassed.

6. I find it hard to celebrate the achievements of others. Every step forward for someone else is a reminder of how deficient I am. As a result, I pretty much shun Facebook which is essentially a hot spot of positive announcements. Births, marriage announcements or new jobs, all of it is grating. Sometimes, this even turns negative and I find myself actively wishing that someone would fail. I hate to admit that sometimes I dislike people because they're successful and happy. That says more about me than it does about them. I physically feel pangs when a friend announces an engagement. Even party and vacation pictures remind me of how much happier everyone else seems. That's the key word too, "seems." Because most people don't publish when they feel lethargic, unmotivated, lonely, or untalented. You self-select the good parts and edit the bad ones. I try to remind myself of that, but with such a strong concentration of other people's positivity in one place, it's easier to just avoid the whole thing.

How much of my life have I wasted because of this problem? How many opportunities for success and happiness have I missed because I won't allow myself to grasp them? I remember being 14 and hoping that if not today, one day I would feel ok. If, 15 years later, that still doesn't prove to be true, something's wrong.

Most of the time it's subtle. Day-to-day, I feel pretty good. Mostly content even. I have a high tolerance for discomfort to the point where I forget I'm uncomfortable. But sometimes, it's debilitatingly agonizing. I don't consider myself a negative person (though I may be becoming so), but rather than being pessimistic, I feel like I'm simply realistic. Do I need a healthy dose of separation from reality? I try to stay positive but, perhaps because I'm so used to this dejection, optimism feels false and undeserved.

Now here's the rub. Externally, one might not conclude any of these things about me. Externally, I'm a graduate of a very esteemed college with a stable job. I have a girlfriend and I own a condo. I'm friendly and easy to talk to, athletic, and talented in many different areas. If anyone even suspected that I have perpetually low self-esteem, they would question why when I seem to have achieved so much. But I guess that's the thing, it doesn't matter how other people view me, it only matters how I view myself (...unless of course they view me negatively in which case I take their opinions as valid).

Would love to hear about others struggling with similar issues and how you push for progress.
posted by ChipT to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I've been struggling with it for around 40 years. I don't know that it ever goes away. I am managing it. 40 years to create habits of thinking will be hard to counteract.

I manage it with antidepressants and working exercises like those in Feeling Good, the CBT stuff. It all helps. I also go to therapy which can be a financial burden, I'll admit.

As for how one gets this way in the first place, well, no one can point to repeatable examples, I don't think. One of my therapists believes that a parent's reactions to struggling can have the greatest impact. I tend to agree considering how many of my automatic reactions are similar to both of my parents' reactions in many ways.

Good luck to you.
posted by tcv at 8:47 AM on July 8, 2012

First, this is so common. I have certainly struggled with this, too. And you would be surprised at how many people who seem to have so much face the same insecurities. In my opinion, it's sometimes healthy to compare yourself to others, but only when it pushes you and not when it just serves to bring you down.

When your self-esteem is really low, I think that comes from focusing on aspects of your life over which you feel you have no control, and that feeling obscures the amount of actual power you have to create the life that you want.

What's helped me: First, learn to count and appreciate your successes. You have them, I'm 100% certain--even if you currently value them less than you do your perceived failures or deficiencies. (You are NOT deficient!) What else has may help is to create personal goals and work to accomplish them. For example, enroll in a class and learn something new. Go for things you personally value regardless of what others may think, as this is mostly an internal process. Eventually, the things you focus on learning and doing for yourself--your personal successes--will become more worthy of your energy than constantly comparing yourself to others. The confidence you gain also has some really great side effects, such as helping you appreciate the fortune of others, caring a lot less how you're perceived, being more accepting of inevitable failures, and improving the way you interact with other people.

Very good luck to you.
posted by sundaydriver at 9:09 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

First, I would describe myself pretty much the same way you did, with few exceptions - And I suspect most people who know me would say I have an excess of self-esteem. Just knowing that everyone feels like you do might help at least a little.

As for taking pride in your accomplishments - The planet has 6 billion people on it; Doing something one-in-a-million means 6000 others have done the same. So don't compare yourself against the superstars, try comparing yourself against a more local scale - How does your performance compare to that of your coworkers? And taking that further, averages require both sides of the spectrum to exist, not everyone can exceed the average in every regard. So look for areas that you personally excel in - Perhaps you suck at playing baseball, but can list off the RBI of every world series player since 1950. I couldn't last five minutes in a fast-paced soccer game without collapsing winded, yet I've climbed more mountains than anyone else I personally know. Strengths and weaknesses, we all have them. Try actually listing them on paper, if it helps, and don't minimize your "hobbies" as meaningless; doing a large jigsaw puzzle, for example, requires both extreme patience and huge amounts of wet-CPU time, both traits generally considered a strong positive in other contexts.

Finally, shyness may just come from an introverted personality. I tend that way myself, have few (but very close) friends, and avoid large social gatherings. Like everything else in life, social skills take practice, and some of us have chosen to focus more on different sets of skills. On the bright side, if you really do perceive that as a weak point, you can address it by simply forcing yourself to endure social situations; Try observing quietly at first (free tip from a hardcore introvert - Keep a drink in your hand at all times, it gives your hands something to do, and if you get nervous, it will banish dry-mouth), and work your way up to standing at the edges of group conversations (large ones actually take less effort than small ones, because someone will always dominate them, thereby taking the pressure off you). You can take that ever further if you want, but I've found that "face time" in a group usually suffices to satisfy most social obligations.

As for point #6, except for people you can partially "take credit" for (such as your kids), I would say that far fewer people really feel joy for others' accomplishments than would claim to. Yes, a noble aspiration that we should all strive for; keep in mind, however, that various philosophical systems (ie, religions) wouldn't bother to stress the value of such traits if they came easy to most people. :)
posted by pla at 9:13 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

People learn to value themselves through mastery, I think. Journaling, noting your successes, esp when you've struggled or had to learn new skills, paying attention to yourself. If you feel that you haven't really done anything noteworthy--take up a new sport, learn a musical instrument or craft technique, etc. When I was first out of college, I took cooking classes, photography classes, sailing lessons, tennis lessons, etc. because I was interested in those things but also because I wanted to enlarge my range of skills. Getting even halfway decent at something makes you feel a little better about yourself, I think.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:17 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't claim any actual psychological credentials, but from what I've observed of myself and those around me, it seems like many of the problems you describe are least suffered by people who must work to discharge significant obligations. In some sense, they're too busy to agonize over how they're measuring up. You mention that you're athletic, have a well-paid job, and a girlfriend: do you find yourself getting self-conscious, shy, or doubtful during games, in the office, or on dates? If not, you might see some benefit just by increasing the fraction of your life spent in those situations where you're not beating yourself up. Of course, if you then compensate by lying awake at night to make up for this time, that would be bad and you should stop this strategy, but I think it'd be worth a try.

By the way, that thing with Facebook is a documented phenomenon which can be easily explained as a response bias on the part of your friends leading to an availability bias in your head. Namely, people tend to announce happy things (weddings! promotions! vacations!) and keep mum about the bad ones, which falsely suggests to you that their lives are predominantly a sequence of happy things.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:45 AM on July 8, 2012

These are problems I share, in spades, but over the years it's gotten way better. While self-esteem boosts do help remind me my low self-esteem isn't reality-based, what really does the trick is spending as much time as I can outside the whole self-esteem paradigm.

Evaluating and judging your worth as a person isn't useful. Practice experiencing your life without bothering to do this.

(In case you're like yes, but how? and want explicit directions and activities: for me, the big paradigm shift as well as the routine unsticking exercises came from mindfulness-based therapy and meditation practice, including samu. But feel free to ignore this, since if there's one thing mindfulness practice teaches you, it's that everything is really already mindfulness practice.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:49 AM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

I recommend, if it's really self-esteem that's your problem, that you read/work through this book. My therapist has had lots of success using it with many clients.

HOWEVER. That book made me feel like crap. Because it turned out that my imparied self-esteem was a side effect of serious actual functional deficits. I didn't feel like crap because I thought I was worthless so much as I thought I was worthless and also felt like crap due to, e.g., the giant piles of trash I was drowning in at home.

Therapy has helped me feel less awful about myself despite my serious actual functional deficits. I did a lot of work on my inner critic in my last partial hospital program that helped a lot.

It took several months of therapy to sort out exactly what was underneath my particular self-esteem problems.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 10:18 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Something clicked for me. Yes, I was and am seeing a therapist but something clicked. I like to think it was automatic. Snap, just like that I was "cured". Realistically speaking it was probably a long process of healing and PRACTICE.

Here is my experience and thoughts: Negative thinking, poor self-esteem, worthlessness, etc. is something that was formed early on. The wheels started in motion as a kid. It didn't help that my parents thought poorly of themselves. One had a substance abuse problem ("functional" alcoholic) and both had family of origin problems. It's a cycle.

I started to think and believe a certain way and continued to think and view myself and world in a certain way. Through the years I experienced some bad things (like everyone else) and those bad things only solidified my negative thought process. I was a sensitive kid. Combined with early life experience, personality, etc. I just started to think a certain way and continued to do so throughout most of my life. I didn't have the tools or know-how to see things differently. Eventually I viewed my current life and past as shit. There were good times, good things, great things, but I was unable to recognize those things because my thoughts were so negative. Like you, people would probably never guess that I viewed myself so poorly. I had a lot of optimism, gratitude, and I was a good person. I was fairly smart. I went to school and had/have a good job. I had friends (People liked me. A lot of times I wondered why. If they knew the "real me" they wouldn't like me. Because my self-esteem suffered I never had the confidence or vulnerability to cultivate a friendship so a lot of my relationships suffered or fizzled out). I didn't go around thinking I was a worthless piece of crap. I had this continuous belief that I didn't belong. That I couldn't do xyz because I wasn't that kind of person. I was incapable. I wasn't the type of girl surfers wanted for their girlfriend. I wasn't the type of girl to be a leader. I wasn't' the type of woman to be the boss. I can't do that. My poor self-image was learned from my parents. They viewed life a certain way and I copied them. They passed their shame, lack of vulnerability, embarrassment, etc down. My parents (I no longer blame them) were not emotionally equipped to nurture their self-esteem so how were they to nurture mine? Don't get me wrong, they tried. They did a better job than their parents. My sister and I are successful, caring, loving people but we suffered from some bad self-esteem over the years.

I changed my thought patterns with practice. Life experience, getting older, and growing tired of my self-indulgent bullshit also helped me. There is only so much a person can take. Deep down you know you are lying to yourself. Those lies keep you comfortable in a way. Those lies help you stay were you "belong" and prevent you from experiencing life and taking risks. I have talked about this on AskMe before: my therapist told me I was addicted to my anger. I was addicted to my way of thinking because it allowed me to remain a victim.

So back to how it "clicked". Practice, practice, practice. You must practice changing your bad thought patterns. Bad thought patterns are bad habits. I will repeat myself. They are only bad habits and you can change the way you think.

1. Therapy

2. Keep a notebook. On the left page title it "Negative Thoughts". On the facing page, title it "Antidote", "Positive Thought" or "What is True". Any time you have a negative thought write it down on the left side. On the corresponding line, on the right-hand side write the antidote to that negative, untrue statement. After you get a list going, when you are feeling negative and worthless, read the antidote page only. These are true statements. With practice you will start to believe them and think of them instead of your old habit of thinking negatively. With practice you will snap yourself out of a negative thought very quickly. I am able to do this very easily now. I only spend a few seconds on a negative thought before I quickly think of a true, positive, and rational thought. I used to spend hours and hours on pity parties, on rumination, on replaying an interaction with a friend, how I wished I wouldn't have said this or that, how I embarrassed myself, how terrible my life was, I'm not likable, etc. I no longer think this way and I owe it to therapy, age, and the notebook. I can warn you not to spend your thirties thinking poorly of yourself. I can tell you how pointless it is and how sad that would be. A warning doesn't help. Practice does.

If you say to yourself: I cannot keep this notebook. There is nothing good. My negative thoughts are true... You are in deep. I have been there. This is depression. Try very hard to write the antidote. You must. Keep practicing and keep writing down anytime you have a negative thought. I think you will be able to do it because you sound like you know there are good things in your life. Deep down you know you are capable, worthy, and great.

3. Practice doing things that scare you. I would second guess a text message. I would think to myself: "Are they going to know I'm joking? Is that funny? Does that sound too forward? Is that polite enough?" yadayadayada. Now, I think, "hey this text is fine". I am going to send it without analyzing. I'm just asking her when we are going to meet at the movie for god's sake. I sent the text message and that person is still my friend. Nothing bad happened. I made that speech at the PTA meeting and I'm still alive. People still trust me and don't think I'm a freak. I invited that friend out and she said yes, etc.

4. I don't think too much of mantras and positive psychology. They are nice and can give you a temporary boost or relief but they don't do much to change thoughts and bad habits. Practice with the notebook, practice doing things that scare or intimidate you, and see a therapist who is trained in CBT.
posted by Fairchild at 10:26 AM on July 8, 2012 [23 favorites]

I love and often recommend this book: There Is Nothing Wrong With You by Cherie Huber. It doesn't provide a magic solution for working through problems of self-esteem, but it is both convincing and comforting in a way that feels very authentic.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:01 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

I identify with a lot of what you have written. I think that a lot of it does have to do with introversion in that even if other people think I'm smart, funny, successful or whatever, it doesn't have any impact on my self-esteem because my values and opinions come from within. I guess there are two choices: either do some new stuff from which you'll gain self-esteem or find a way to take self-esteem from the stuff you already do. But of course the tricky bit is actually doing it.

For me, a big problem is that I feel like the things which I do and say don't quite match up with the 'real me' inside. So I'm judging my real world accomplishments against some kind of ideal, optimised version of myself. But I'm not sure there's anything wrong with striving to be the best you can be.

A few months ago I went on a one day networking event for new joiners of my new workplace. I don't know exactly how or why but on that day I thought to myself: "I have to do this thing so I'm going to make the most of it and I'm going to act the way I want myself to act and be seen the way I want to be seen". And I did. I was confident, positive, happy and engaged. It was pretty awesome. I enjoyed it and - crucially - my self-esteem at the end of that day was pretty high.

I think that's 'faking it to make it'. I played the role of a person who had high self-esteem for a day and magically I became that person. If I could summon up the willpower to do that every day I'd be sorted.

It's good that you recognise the selection bias in Facebook posts. Everybody, everybody, no matter how they appear, has some kind of issue or problem going on in their lives. I find focussing on that thought helps me not feel so jealous when seeing public exclamations of success and joy. That and hiding the over zealous people from your Facebook feed of course!
posted by neilb449 at 11:43 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Find people to talk to. 12 step programs are great if for NOTHING else.
posted by Nighthawk3729 at 1:27 PM on July 8, 2012

>>I have talked about this on AskMe before: my therapist told me I was addicted to my anger. I was addicted to my way of thinking because it allowed me to remain a victim.

To add to what Fairchild said, it's very interesting to consider that you might be addicted to your low self-esteem. A therapist once mentioned that to me as well. I considered it and I think it's true.

Recently, my therapist mentioned this again and noted that often when someone is coming off of dependence of, say, alcohol, they find they have a lot of free time that they used to fill up with drinking. This is a difficult moment for someone in recovery because they come face-to-face with their mind. It's easy to sink into your thoughts and start ruminating.

So, the therapist said that often recovering alcoholics will be assigned busy work. The example given to me was, "Clean your bathroom with a toothbrush." The point is to keep yourself busy and occupied in mind and in body. I think this speaks very well to Fairchild's suggestion of challenging your fears.
posted by tcv at 5:17 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two things.

1) Be forgiving of other people. And learn to look at yourself the same way you judge them. If you usually recognize other people's virtues but insist on holding yourself to a higher standard, you're sort of insulting them - it's OK for THEM to be only 'good' at things, or even be bad at some things, but YOU should be good at everything... why? Because you're inherently better and must be held to a higher standard? (I say this as someone who suffers from same, and only realized how annoying it is after getting over-exposed to it in a few friends.) Your achievements - would you think they were cool if someone else did them?

2) Listen to other people when they compliment you. If your friends don't give a lot of compliments, you can work to create an honest environment where people do that, or you can make some new friends; an environment of one-upsmanship can make that really tough but it's kind of painful for everyone to be honest (even those of us who are really good at it). They are your friends. You should trust their judgment.
posted by Lady Li at 9:38 PM on July 8, 2012

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