Path to better self-esteem
December 20, 2012 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone here genuinely moved from a sense of low self-esteem to a sense of high-self esteem? How did you do it?

I am 27 and male.

1. I have read Burns' Feeling Good, and seen several therapists. I work-out regularly and am in the best shape of my life. My diet is reasonably good.

2. I have no sense of self-esteem that is not contingent on approval or success or achievement.

3. In moments of sanity, I recognize that I am - in very plain terms - doing well for myself. (i.e. most people would say that I am on track for a great career)

4. When I see someone doing better than I am (or so I perceive), I feel a tremendous sense of envy.

5. My girlfriend is a few years older than me, and doing very well for herself. In my dark moments, I am cripplingly envious of her and I hate myself for this.

6. I believe that a lot of these feelings have their roots in my own poor sense of internally generated self-worth.

7. I know that whatever I do, there'll always be someone, somewhere doing better than me. I realize that my self-esteem needs to come "from within", otherwise I am doomed to a life of depressed "comparison-shopping".

But how do I do this? Has anyone ever done this? Does this come with age?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
...and seen several therapists.

Are you seeing one now? Because if you can describe any of your common emotional states as "crippling" and there are moments when you genuinely "hate yourself," you ought to be seeing one now.

4. When I see someone doing better than I am (or so I perceive), I feel a tremendous sense of envy.

Depending on your personality, there are two ways to square this. The first is to want, with all your heart and soul, to be the goddamn best at something and work your ass off, day after day at it. The people who are doing better at the thing you want to be the best at should inspire you to beat them at whatever it is you're doing.

The other way is to realize that you will never, ever be the best at anything, and trying to find a sense of fulfillment in winning is an utterly lost cause. Find your happiness in doing a good job, regardless of how it compares to others. If someone is doing better, good for them, they probably have some tips for you and are probably willing to share them if you ask nicely. Otherwise? The reasons their doing better are opaque. Maybe they're smarter than you. Maybe they're more determined. Maybe they have more free time. Maybe they have less free time to do the stuff you like doing with your free time.
posted by griphus at 7:16 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Spend some time volunteering for a good cause working with people who are down on their luck. You'll start to get a much better appreciation for how well things are going for you, and you'll be helping people who need help.
posted by markblasco at 7:27 AM on December 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

But how do I do this? Has anyone ever done this? Does this come with age?

It can. Or it can come from a sudden flash of insight, or a dozen other ways. Me personally, it coms and goes, and sometimes I'm better at tamping it down than others. But overall, I'm with griphus -- if this is affecting your life to the extent it seems to be, you need to speak to someone qualified to help you with it, whether that's therapy, clergy or whatever.
posted by Etrigan at 7:32 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Me! Me! I did this! I mean, sort of.

That is, I tend to be very focused on external approval, find it difficult to access my own intrinsic motivations, have fear (instead of envy), and have difficulty having self-esteem. (Actually, I hate the term "self-esteem" - I think it's a poorly thought-out phrase that does not express the issue, which is basically one of self acceptance.)

So anyway: I went to a therapist. I was very, very lucky in finding a good one - I was able to ask a friend whose judgment I trusted about finding a therapeutic practice which shared my (radical, left-wing, anti-racist/anti-white-supremacy) values and the talented woman who did their intake suggested that I see my very, very suitable therapist. That's key. I would have been much less well off if I were seeing a therapist I had to fight just to get recognition for my values and priorities. I would also have been much less well-off had I gotten a therapist who was a generic CBT person.

My therapist has pretty much let me direct my own therapy - I can tell that we are handling things in a way that is not their typical style, which is much more embodiment/meditation/accessing-old-memories focused. This has been great - I think you really need to find a therapist who will use a method that works for you, even if it's outside their normal approach.

How has this led to self-acceptance? Mostly I've just talked a lot about a lot of stuff, and that's helped me think it through and helped me see a bunch of patterns. I've come to really recognize some assumptions I was making and can see and accept a lot of stuff about my life that I did not recognize before.

Part of this has been figuring out the childhood roots of a lot of stuff - I was bullied pretty seriously, I had a weird upbringing that put me out of sync with regular people even though it gave me many strengths, I had some childhood experiences of embodiment that were traumatizing. These were all things I "knew" about but they were sort of open secrets - I could have told you about them, but I hadn't really processed them. Talking about them as much as I needed helped me with that.

Part of it was having my therapist point out certain patterns that I had never recognized - which is so weird, you go along thinking of yourself as ridiculously feebly enmeshed with others and your therapist is like "look at all these things you're telling me, it looks like you're actually kind of a loner!" And you're like, whoah, I see that now like the picture of two vases reversing to be two profiles.

Anyway. Therapy has been, for me, sort of an invisible process. It's like I've been able to release a lot of fears and a lot of pain just slowly over time...I feel like I don't look or talk differently, but I am so much less twisted up inside.

Here is a thing: I think that right now everyone is all "don't do talk therapy, just do CBT; don't introspect, just learn techniques of managing/redirecting/realigning your thoughts and feelings". Now, for some people that's awesome - and certainly I've incorporated some "noticing" and "redirecting" stuff into my daily practice - but it has been talking, thinking outside of therapy and writing outside of therapy that has helped.

Ask yourself what kind of a person you are - if you're really word/logic/narrative/memory oriented, you may need more than the baseline/CBT/Feeling Good approach to therapy.
posted by Frowner at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2012 [20 favorites]

Me! I started keeping a gratitude journal, writing stuff down before I went to bed each day. Some days it's a list of specific things - grateful for a certain friend, for having the financial means to pursue my goals within reason, etc. Other days, I write a lot about a specific moment I cherished a lot. This has been so great because:

a. it reminds me to that there's a lot to like about myself. It's natural to fixate on rough moments because there's so much stuff you're thinking about that you could've fixed or done better. And then it's also easy to experience good moments and forget them later, because there's not as much need for reflection. I find that actively documenting the good moments allows me to remember them more vividly and also shields me from bleak times. When I'm upset with myself, I can pull those up mentally and think, would I trade these to be someone else, someone "better"? The answer has always been no :)

b. It has genuinely shown me that life isn't a zero sum game. Everyone knows rationally that the successes of their friends do not hinder their individual chances of success. But if someone around you (like your girlfriend) is doing really well and getting recognition, it's easy to compare yourself to her and feel worse about your own position. However, being mindful of gratitude lets me think, this is proof hard work pays off, (if we're in the same field) isn't it nice that I have her as a resource if I need to ask questions, things like that.

c. It stops me in my tracks whenever I start mentally comparing myself to others. "My friend just won the Rhodes, god why am I so dumb -- hey, that's not true, I wrote a very solid essay that made me proud last week!" (completely true example). By documenting my own achievements, I can honestly start to compare myself now with who I was before, which is the most important - and the only fair! - comparison to make. Otherwise, you lose track of the huge strides that you have made personally and forget all your effort and talent that got you to where you are now.

I've only been keeping this journal for about a month, and it's already helped SO MUCH with accepting who I am and feeling happier about myself. I highly recommend it - it's free, doesn't take much time each day, and would make a great New Year's resolution!
posted by estlin at 8:23 AM on December 20, 2012 [19 favorites]

I used to suffer from horribly low self esteem. Now, not so much.The two things which have helped me the most with this are meditation and spending time getting out of my own head. Meditation has helped bring an awareness of the thoughts I was feeding myself with. Once I realized that they were just thoughts, a particular take on reality which was then creating my reality, I could decide to change them. And upon reflection, I realize that I had worse self esteem when I was thinking about myself a lot. Now that I am older and have a child and a job helping others, I simply don't spend as much time thinking about myself. For me personally, therapy and talking and trying to get to the bottom of things just fueled the obsession with self, it didn't help me step out of it.
posted by Jandoe at 8:26 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

You have to realize that self-esteem is for wimps.

If you tell yourself you are doing great because x, you will immediately remember that x+1 is achievable and why haven't you done that? Also, yeah, x, but not-y. How can you be pleased with x when not-y?

Self-esteem is a chess game you play against yourself. Every move suggests a countermove, for every White piece there is a Black piece. It is easier if you aren't rating yourself at all.

A good book on this is "The Happiness Trap" which is a self-help book based on ACT. However I do think you need actual therapy on top of this, considering the way you say you're feeling.

Plus, congratulations. Most people deal with this by trying to slap others down to their level and it never even *occurs* to them that envy is their problem.
posted by tel3path at 8:30 AM on December 20, 2012 [12 favorites]

One thing that has helped me is to shift from thinking about "self-esteem" to thinking about "self-compassion"... not "I have to be perfect and please everybody," but "I am fine the way I am." Here is a great article by Kristin Neff.
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:31 AM on December 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

Get to be good at something, or at least better than average. Just pick something and practice and practice at it until you're good. I don't care if it's playing starcraft or lifting weights. Knowing that you're better than most people at anything does wonders for your self esteem, imo.
posted by empath at 8:47 AM on December 20, 2012

Your question resonated with me in a few ways. We're the same age and gender. When I read your above-the-fold question, my answer was yes, I have moved from a place of low self-esteem to one of high self-esteem. But when I read your more inside, I thought that a lot of your numbered points described me as well -- I still want validation from others, I still compare myself to other people and feel envy, I still get depressed sometimes even though I'm doing very well "on paper."

And yet, in general, I feel great about myself, and those negative things affect me a lot less than they did at one point in the past. So maybe this makes me unqualified to give you advice, or perhaps it makes me uniquely qualified.

So having said that: I think that broadly speaking, the primary means through which I've improved my self-esteem has been by continually setting and then accomplishing concrete, ambitious (but attainable), measureable long-term goals for myself.

At any given time, being engaged in this process allows me to feel a sense of pride for the ways in which I've improved myself and for the things I've achieved recently, and simultaneously a sense of hopefulness that I'm still on my way to becoming an even better person who will achieve even greater things, just as long as I keep walking the path I've set out on. The cliche goes "it's about the journey, not the destination," but you need to pick a destination before you can have a journey, and picking the right type of destination is important in terms of your self-esteem. Specifically, I try to choose goals that I can accomplish on my own, that don't necessarily depend on other people's input or the luck of the draw or what have you.

The biggest example for me personally has been physical training. You said that you work out and you're in the best shape of your life, so maybe this is old hat to you, but maybe there's another way you could be approaching it. So if perhaps you don't have clear, long-term goals for your workouts, or you're not documenting your progress, I would recommend doing so. Goals can take many different forms, just pick something specific that you'll have to work at to achieve, come up with a plan to achieve it, and document your progress.

To give another personal example, I'm a songwriter. In the past I've been frustrated with my slow output and jealous of other musicians who have more successful careers. At the beginning of this year I made it my goal to record and release one song every month for a year. It's totally abritrary and not necessarily meaningful to anyone else, but it was something I could sink my teeth into. I knew it would take effort but I knew I could do it and that I'd feel proud of myself if I did. I still want to have a successful music career, and I still don't have one, but that's not what the goal was about -- it was about producing something, which I did. And I do feel good about it, and that achievement has motivated me to keep going.

It's possible that this sort of approach would be totally counterproductive for you, but I've found it useful.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's exceedingly rare for someone to be the best at anything. There is always someone faster, stronger, bigger, taller, smarter, prettier, handsomer, nicer, etc. And even if there isn't today, there is tomorrow since being the best is temporary - tomorrow someone else will come along who is better. Even "supermodels" feel flawed and have flaws. Same with super scholars and super anything else. Once you realize that achievement is relative to your own inputs and capabilities, it's easier to accept not being the best compared to some other person. Best should be, and really can only be, about being your own personal best. Now, if you need acknowledgement of that from others, make sure you are with people who provide that. Does your girlfriend provide that?
posted by Dansaman at 9:00 AM on December 20, 2012

Therapy, non-CBT therapy, for YEARS (5). Sometimes twice a week!

And wow, I came out a completely different person. When I started I sort of secretly figured I was a failure for a LOT of reasons. And, sure, thanks to therapy some of those things changed (because I was willing to think maybe I deserved more income, so I applied for that seemingly-out-of-reach job). But some of them didn't change, and I still feel pretty great about myself sometimes. Sure, I'm still overweight and not as smart or successful or young as the next person... but I am Much better at realizing that what they are has no bearing on what I am. We can each only be ourselves, ourselves tend to be pretty awesome, when we pay attention. So: therapy, with the right person for you.
posted by ldthomps at 9:02 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've moved from a place of no self-esteem to moderate self-esteem (I wouldn't go as far as high yet).

Mine was a combination of hitting rock bottom in terms of just giving up on what others think of me and moving to a moderately hostile work environment with a lot of prima donna personalities (who have fortunately since left) where you had to speak up and you had to stand up for your ideas because otherwise no-one would listen.

Finding the thing you can honestly say you are good at is a good start. For me, it was my work. I'm very good at my job so I can defend being good at my job which allowed me to speak up in terms of my professional skils which then extended my self-worth to other areas.
posted by Wysawyg at 10:08 AM on December 20, 2012

There was an article years ago about the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence. The author posited that self-esteem is something you can just have but self-confidence must be earned. You can judge the value of each by the cost.

Focus on earning self-confidence, forget about self-esteem. Earning confidence requires time, effort, practice, and patience.

Confidence is independent of external approval. You will know how good you are at something regardless of what others think they know.

You can work on earning confidence in any given area (socially, recreational activities, work activities, etc.). Decide what level of mastery you want to achieve in that area and plan a route to it.

Your confidence will grow along the way, even the fact that you are actively working to improve will boost your confidence and morale.
posted by trinity8-director at 10:24 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think there might be something to your use of a double-negative in #2.
posted by rhizome at 10:44 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

What helped me was to achieve something that required genuine effort and struggle.

I skated through good grades for most of my school experience because I can easily memorize, regurgitate, and sling words together. I got great marks but the accomplishment felt hollow and didn't help with my super-low self-esteem.

Then after college I enrolled in a night school program focusing on art and design. I couldn't just memorize. I couldn't just slap something together the night before a deadline. And though I enjoyed it all, the skills and insight didn't come easily to me. I wasn't the best in the class, not by a long shot. I had to really put in time and work. I had to TRY harder than I'd ever done.

I made it through that program, and for the first time in my life I felt like I'd earned good marks honestly. They reflected the actual work I put in, not my innate skills that let me slide effortlessly through all other kinds of schooling.

That was a turning point for my self-esteem.
posted by cadge at 11:02 AM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went from active self-loathing to relative serenity thanks to decades of therapy (eclectic psychotherapy, though I did do cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias) and finding spiritual practices and a community that worked well for me. Also treating my depression and anxiety with medication.

When I say "active self-loathing" I mean I woke up every morning hating myself, and although I knocked myself out trying to be perfect (working 60+ hour weeks, volunteering at soup kitchens and hospices and suicide hotlines, being an over attentive friend who would drop everything to help in the slightest crisis, etc.) whatever positive feedback I would get for that would just drop into the void of "can't they see I'm a terrible person?"

Books that have helped me: Alice Miller's work, particularly The Drama of the Gifted Child, Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, Facing Codependence by Mellody, Miller, and Miller, Erving Goffman's work , particularly The Performance of Self in Everyday Life, and some spiritual works, particularly Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron, The Cloud of Unknowing, the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, and the work of Matthew Fox (contemporary Christian mystic, not the Lost star of the same name).
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:44 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I accomplish useful things, I get a boost. Fixing stuff in the house, doing a kindness, having a good job and good friends, being close with my family, all give a sense of esteem.

Make a list of your good qualities and achievements. Make a list of goals, both large (get a degree) and small (learn to make schnitzel). As you achieve goals, your esteem for yourself grows. I've had a few accomplishments that I don't typically share, but that I can review when I feel bad about myself. Even better, if I feel bad about myself, I try to do something good for someone who needs it. They get the benefit of the good thing, and I get to feel better. It can be as simple as making soup for a sick neighbor.

Work on feeling joy for the accomplishments of others; that will make you feel better, too. You get better at it by practicing.
posted by theora55 at 12:42 PM on December 20, 2012

For me there were three pieces that helped a lot with this. (And I could've asked your question myself years ago.)

One thing that has helped me is to shift from thinking about "self-esteem" to thinking about "self-compassion"... not "I have to be perfect and please everybody," but "I am fine the way I am."

This was one major component for me, too. I went through a hard time and had to stop "trying" (to be perfect, to please everyone, to never "bother" people, to have everyone like me), because I just couldn't do that on top of dealing with the life challenges that'd been thrown my way. I just did what I needed to do for awhile. And nobody rejected me. It was a revelation.

Second, or maybe first, was self-protection. I was psychically cowering in relation to certain people and letting bad stuff happen to me. I had to find the cognitive framework ("I deserve better"), the communication tactics, and the courage to stop doing that. The inner-me suddenly saw the me-in-the-driver's-seat as someone powerful and caring enough to protect it. (Sorry, this is all a bit hard to explain, but hopefully that sentence made sense.) It boosted my self-respect and self-trust. And it meant I was no longer getting emotionally injured, which helped a lot.

Third, was to suddenly notice how often I was assuming I was inferior to those around me. This felt like a major discovery, because it occurred years later. I didn't think I was inferior. But I realized that I felt inferior at times. And that feeling combined with a lot of innocuous facts to generate a lot of thoughts that I had to address with various CBT tools. (E.g., I wasn't invited to the meeting x inferior feeling = "why don't they think I'd make good contributions to this meeting??"). I found where in my body I could notice that feeling. Once I knew how to recognize it, I could reassure myself and let go of it when it arose, rather than just managing the thoughts that followed. But I don't think I could have done that without the self-compassion piece above.

All this required various kinds of therapy, meditation, whatever. People recommend "therapy," but it's not a singular, unified field at all. Saying "get therapy" is as vague as saying "see a health care professional." There are chiropractors, ambulance techs, nutritionists, surgeons, physical therapists, family doctors, optometrists... So if what you're doing is not helping you, keep trying different things.

Last thing: almost none of these shifts happened solely in my mind. They became real to me when I did something different -- stood up for myself, temporarily stopped performing a number of social niceties, and so forth. So if therapy alone isn't helping, maybe think about what it would look like to physically carry out some of the changes you're working towards, and take a few risks in the real world.
posted by salvia at 1:23 PM on December 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

Self-esteem is a chess game you play against yourself. Every move suggests a countermove, for every White piece there is a Black piece. It is easier if you aren't rating yourself at all.

Seconding this. I spent years trying to bolster myself back up from a place of low self-esteem by trying to list all my good qualities/achievements etc, but it was always a bit of a losing battle. Then I started seeing an ACT-based therapist who advised that I got rid of the idea of self-esteem all together, and instead realise that we're all a collection of many different strengths and weaknesses in countless areas (e.g. you might be better at bowling than me, whereas I probably know much more about mid-90s rap music), but there's no way that one person can be better overall than another person, so there's no point at all in comparing.

Also seconding The Happiness Trap as a great book to learn more about ACT and letting go of unhelpful thoughts and comparisons that might be holding you back, so you can spending your time being more focused on the things you really value in life instead.
posted by amerrydance at 1:44 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I want to repeat two things said upthread:

If you tell yourself you are doing great because x, you will immediately remember that x+1 is achievable and why haven't you done that? Also, yeah, x, but not-y. How can you be pleased with x when not-y?

One thing that has helped me is to shift from thinking about "self-esteem" to thinking about "self-compassion"

I'm not there yet. But one of the things that has made a big difference is switching from a mindset of having self esteem/confidence to practicing self kindness/compassion. I say this partly based on accuracy, (your mind is much more a process than a container) but also on helpfulness: It's pretty overwhelming to think about finding this nebulous self esteem thing, which I'm not really sure how to describe or where to look or...

But being kind to oneself is just a skill that I (and presumably you) don't have yet. I can learn a skill. I can't magic 'self esteem' into existence. But I can learn how to be kind to myself. I mean, I can be kind to others, so how hard can it be to turn it around? (That was a joke. The answer, sadly, is 'very'.)

Good luck.
posted by PMdixon at 2:47 PM on December 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

I developed in my teens as someone with a lot of self-hatred, largely situationally enforced (via neglect in one of my parents' homes) but which persisted until very recently.

A good chunk of the "cure" was finding a place where I approved of what I was doing; my job being something I am proud of is an important thing, but so is the fact that my job is one where my psychological weaknesses get highlighted in a variety of ways.

Barring getting your Masters in psych and working in Social Work, I'd say these things might help; they are part of what I noticed I was doing which has led to me feeling like I'm a valuable person who might be better around than not.

1. Identify what about me I like. I started out with very superficial things - e.g. I liked the shape of my mouth, I liked my singing voice, I liked some of the things I chose to buy, etc... - but it ended up getting deeper over time - e.g. I like how I can understand people even when they are very far from the norm, I like my intellect, etc...

2. I praise myself when I do something difficult for me. This varies widely from person to person, but for example I suck at cleaning, so when I clean something I spend some time doing an internal victory dance - and this is important - even if other people would think it was silly. (I am still marvelling over a clean sink. TWO DAYS. It was clean for TWO WHOLE DAYS. I rule.) This has its roots in a habit my mom and I built up with each other where we would specify we only wanted positive comments because we'd worked hard, and became something I practiced regularly with my clients - not superficial or false praise, but true, enthusiastic praise for something they/I am struggling to do.

I'd say this was the biggest factor in my changing self-view; after learning the fantastic effect that saying to someone who is impatient, "I really appreciate how you waited for me, I know that's hard for you" or saying to someone who has motivation issues, "I'm really impressed by your getting to those doctors' appointments on your own, good work!" I began to do it for myself and I was astonished to see how it would make me want to do more. My experience in the past had been that I found trying things I was bad at crushingly difficult and demoralising; when I started hosting my own cheerleading squad it started to become more fun, with a side effect that I liked myself more.

3. Identifying where the roots of your self-dislike come from. This is something that can come through either therapy or self-introspection. I self-introspect like a fucking pro (and I am a fucking pro), but even so an outside perspective can really, really help with this. Once you know where it came from, when it started, etc... than it can be easier to come up with strategies for how to manage it. The self hatred of "when I spoke everyone acted like I didn't" is very different from the "every time I was noticed I was screamed at" is very different from the "everyone told me I could do anything I wanted, so I spent a decade drunk and high" is very different from the "People have written world changing novels and are younger than me, I suck" is very different from the "I am a depressing, horrible, selfish person no one will every love DON'T LEAVE ME!!!!". Once you can identify what the self-hatred is made of, you can start noticing when it's popping up, you can start arguing with it.

Good luck. If you're experience is anything like mine, you'll be halfway to, "I'm a decent person" before you notice.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:24 PM on December 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

4. When I see someone doing better than I am (or so I perceive), I feel a tremendous sense of envy.

I'm working on this too. The mindset I have right now to deal with it is either "there's enough improvement slices for everybody; ie. Person X doing well does not = you forever sucking. I mean, there is no quota! It's not like college grading where only a certain number of people can achieve A. If you think about it in a big-picture context, you'd realise that you have ample opportunity to improve, and at your own pace too.

The other mindset I'm cultivating is one which is adaptive, rooted in admiration towards people who'd otherwise be the recipient of my envy. Not everybody's born with inherent abilities (most are nurtured eg Mozart, Tiger Woods). There are many things at play in regard to someone's success at any given task, most of which stems from consistent practice, a dose of belief and a genuine desire to improve. How do I know this? Because I'm proficient at internet-stalking (not talking about the endangering kind), and my journeys have led me to person X's teenage blog, 43things, etc.. and I was able to sort of draw a trajectory between their habits at Y age and their success today. Of course, realising that person X seemed more advance in Z than I was at Y age has also caused me to be depressed lol. At the end of the day, I realised that it's all about attitude. The world is a vast place, and I should think that a minor difference in (perceived) ability would not make too much of a difference.

Additionally, some of the most successful people are know are either the most confident (inherently, whether or not they deserve to be), the most prepared, or both. So maybe work your way to being both?

Another thing, slumps/downs build character and resilience, and teaches you to not take anything for granted.

6. I believe that a lot of these feelings have their roots in my own poor sense of internally generated self-worth.

Read the above and forget about 6.! There's only so much self-digging one can endure! At the end of the day it doesn't matter what causes it. What matters is your sincere desire to want to improve. Being retrospective will only help so much.

7. I know that whatever I do, there'll always be someone, somewhere doing better than me. I realize that my self-esteem needs to come "from within", otherwise I am doomed to a life of depressed "comparison-shopping".

An excerpt taken from the Guru Granth Sahib:

"God first created light [...] The whole world came out of a single spark; Who is good and who is bad? The Creator is in the creation, and the creation in the Creator, He is everywhere. The clay is the same, the potter fashions various models. There is nothing wrong with the clay or the potter. God the true resides in all [..] There is only one breath; all are made of the same clay; the light within all is the same. The One Light pervades all the many and various beings. This Light intermingles with them, but it is not diluted or obscured [..] Reckon the entire mankind as One"

Believe that you are unconditionally loved and that life on earth is temporary.

More from the Guru Granth Sahib (the translation never fails to make me laugh!):

"Give up your envy of others, you fool! You only live here for a night, you fool! You are intoxicated with Maya, but you must soon arise and depart. You are totally involved in the dream." (I invariably imagine this being said to me by a rapper lol @ fool)

"Tastes and pleasures, conflicts and jealousy, and intoxication with Maya -
attached to these, the jewel of human life is wasted."

"Those whose minds are imbued with the One Lord,
forget to feel jealous of others"

'maya' means illusion.
posted by thespiritroom at 5:12 PM on December 20, 2012

Hey, one thing that I truly believe helps is charity.

Seriously, let me explain. If you expend a lot of effort on charity, I don't mean volunteering at homeless shelters (though I'm not excluding that) so much as every day things, like charitably finding that awkward person and giving them time, choosing friends who are not as popular, who are a social step down from you, stuff like that. Then you are constantly surrounded by people who are not as well as you, and not only do you get the do-good boost (read the research: people who do good deeds feel better about themselves and feel more self worth), but you also are looking at people who (by definition) are less fortunate than you and you won't have to work through that envy. In fact, you'll see how well of you are doing, and you'll start to believe it and understand it intuitively, not just in moments of clarity.

Even if you're not religious, you can stop by a local church and see what volunteering opportunities they have available (larger churches have more opportunities than small ones). Or just take on charitable disciplines in your daily life, as I mentioned before: befriend the friendless, talk to people who are annoying to talk to, make eye contact with homeless (don't give them money), stand up for the weak, etc.
posted by brenton at 5:34 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


1. Pharmaceuticals. By which I mean, antidepressants. I could not shut up the whiny, envious, despairing, self-pitying voices in my head alone, so I got help. It helped.
2. Finding a personal form of meditation/spiritual practice. I'm agnostic, closer to atheist, but I need some ritual/concentration/spiritual connection with other people that I can't get through simple meditation, so I joined a UU church. Also helped with socializing/feeling like I'm helping the world, in general.
3. Learning how to pay attention to what I thought (mindfulness if you like). For example, when people would compliment me, I would immediately think to myself of some major flaw, failing, or defect. I don't know where I got this dumb habit, but it was destructive, and once I started paying attention to it, I was able to stop doing it, and just accept the compliment. And then, my own opinion of myself rose.
4. Accepting certain limitations. I am introverted. I will always feel awkward at parties and not terribly good at chitchat all the time. That's just how I am. So I work to my strengths and don't hate myself for my quirks. Most of the time.

I still have bad days, but I have started to learn to treat them kind of like a cold; you deal with it, treat it as best you can, and wait for it to withdraw. And they do.
posted by emjaybee at 6:19 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was reading earlier today and it improved my self-esteem by giving me a chance to feel superior to people. Dunno how well this would work as a long-term strategy.
posted by astrofinch at 7:10 AM on December 22, 2012

On a more serious note, during periods of my life when I've averaged over 10 minutes a day of meditation, my ability to take life as it comes and not care how I'm doing relative to others has been a lot higher. Sam Harris on meditation.
posted by astrofinch at 7:13 AM on December 22, 2012

Move to NYC. It will make or break you.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 4:51 PM on December 26, 2012

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