How to develop a strong, healthy level of self-esteem?
October 4, 2015 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 31 year old lady with the goal of developing an inner, natural sense of self-esteem. I've noticed some habits in myself that seem related to low self-esteem. I'm not entirely sure how these habits developed, but I want to change them.

I've always been a shy introvert, but I notice that I get energy from people looking at me / admiring me (at an event, for example, where I've taken time to dress up). I notice this when I ride the bus; I imagine / hope that others are looking at me or admiring my style. For about a year, I was part of a group that involved being onstage in front of about 500 people; I would get surges of positive feelings knowing that others were looking at me.

I get fairly obsessed with Instagram likes and follows. I notice when my number of followers goes down and it bothers me. I know this is unhealthy.

I think that because I'm so tuned into my own neuroses and so self-focused, I often inadvertently fail to engage with others in a way that shows interest. Like someone will ask questions about my art, or job, and I'll talk about myself but then not ask the other person about themselves. It's a strange mix of being self-centered but also self-critical. It's like I'm so zoned in on myself that I forget to look outward.

I know that I have good qualities. I'm kind, generous, creative, loving. But I need to really FEEL those things. I've recently gone through some really negative situations involving a social circle that I was involved in, and that social circle kind of disintegrated partly based on my romantic involvement with several people (that's another story, but I've lost a few friends lately). My really good friend and roommate recently moved out because of a big breakup. I'm finding myself very lonely at times, and very self-critical. I'm sensitive and I take things personally. I'm fragile.

My question is: what have you done to develop a strong sense of self-esteem that comes from within? Positive self-talk? Avoiding social media? Looking outwards instead of inwards? This is a big problem for me. I think it's linked to other issues as well, but I do believe that low self-esteem is playing a big role.

(I've been in therapy in the recent past, and plan to return this fall.)

Any insight is super appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Narcissism comes from an inner emptiness - it sounds like you have a hole of unfulfilled need that prevents you from being more interested in others than you are in yourself. This unfulfilled need could be a lack of sincere attention in your early years. No one saw and tuned into the authentic you, so you learned to relate to the superficial you and to get sustenance from that. Now you are hungry and you keep looking for more of the same emotional junk food. It's ultimately unfulfilling as you're discovering.

The Rx here is to fill your tank, not by shallow attention but sincere attention. Get in touch with your real feelings (body-mindfulness exercises are great for this) and give those feelings a voice; verbalize them. Be radically honest with yourself. Look within you for attention and acceptance.

When you engage with others, ask yourself: what can I do or say to leave this person feeling better than when they started talking to me? See them as beings towards whom you give your positive feelings, not sources of love or attention. Your mantra becomes: "I am full because I ate at home; because I am full I have love to give." Develop a personal code of ethics and abide by it. No lies, duplicity or manipulation.

I guarantee with this attitude you will have stronger relationships. And this attitude is what will leave you feeling good. Taking from others in the ways you describe leaves us empty, giving sincerity to others increase self-esteem.

Finally: therapy. Yes do it. You must. The feelings you describe sound like you're the type to get discouraged from therapy and quit; please stick to it. They sound like deep patterns that a professional could really help with. I cannot emphasize this enough. The mind likes to deceive itself and maintain the status quo and your issue sounds just sneaky enough to try to evade its own solution. Good luck.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:53 AM on October 4, 2015 [23 favorites]

Go do stuff. Learn some new skills. Sports. Get busy doing something other than thinking about you. Make jewelry. Bake. The more things you know you can do well, the more competent you'll feel. Then, use those skills for others.

Stop worrying it takes a long time to get it right. You'll figure it out. Get busy and forget whose watching.
posted by BarcelonaRed at 10:26 AM on October 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

Get rid of your social media habit (addiction, really). Does obsessing over a petty internet rating system really serve your goal here?

There are a lot of perspectives on self-esteem. I like the "self talk" model. This is the notion that you have a little inner voice that tells stories about who you are in different situations. Like, at work, your inner voice might be saying that you're a fraud, that you barely even got this job, that so-and-so from accounting hates you, or whatever. The idea is that you can change this inner voice by challenging its perceptions. Are you really being fair to yourself? Are you magnifying flaws in yourself that are really pretty common but forgivable in other people?
posted by deathpanels at 1:11 PM on October 4, 2015

The social interaction thing is relatively easy to fix. Just mindfully remember to focus on the other person in the conversation, have a goal to ensure that they feel valuable at the end of the conversation (assuming they are not a dick). This is tiring when it's not natural but you can definitely force yourself to do it. And eventually it will become natural.

But the underlying cause is harder. You need to feel that you are a valuable and worthwhile person (which you are). People will recommend therapy, and that will probably be useful and hard work. I think if you've been losing friends recently then therapy should probably move up into the essential part.

Otherwise, be creative for no other reason than your own joy in being so. Spend time in nature. Eat well. Stop engaging in things that feed your neuroses. Habits can be broken if you want to.
posted by plonkee at 2:20 PM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Self esteem is a chimaera. Your mind can sell you, in the most convincing manner imaginable, any perspective you like from the spectrum of laudable to odious packaged up as a perfect, self-consistent soap bubble with which to surround yourself.

The whole range of existential emotions, from egotism, hubris and vanity to depression, despair and nihlism can be conjured up from anything or nothing of relevance that your mind latches onto, and spun into an introspective whirlpool which, be it positive or negative, turns into a cocoon - a cocoon on which you depend - between you and the real world.

I strongly believe that the route away from this problem of neurotic self-focus is to come to realise and accept that what really matters is not your own perspective on who or how you are, but the day-to-day detail of what you do and how those actions which you choose to take have an impact on the lives of others.

Our life is inherently social, and as such esteem simply cannot emerge full blown from the inner self. Esteem fundamentally depends on the interaction and independent application of judgement of two or more parties, and you will only ever have control - or the illusion of control - over one of those.

What you are is the sum total of what you've done, and the interpretation of the echoes of those actions is forever beyond your control. The good qualities you have do not obviate the bad decisions you've made in the past. But equally, those bad decisions do not prevent you making better ones in the future.

Every time - every single time - you interact with someone, anyone, everyone, you will change their perception of you in some way. That constant, problematic, vital dialogue is vastly more significant than anything you can ever persuade yourself to think about yourself.

Acknowledging this is a way - the way I found, after various introspective life problems - to build a foundation not of illusory self-esteem, but of concrete self-awareness which would help me do better for myself, and by others, in the future.

What you say to yourself about yourself can be any myth you choose. Conscious attention towards and honest assesment of those things of import to others that you put into the world... that's what makes a real difference to how you feel about you.
posted by protorp at 3:23 PM on October 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

It sounds like it might be helpful to try to put the focus on others rather than yourself. Have you considered volunteering? I remember calling my grandmother when I was in a period of depression during college (I promise this is related). She listened very kindly to a lot of woe is me stuff and then she gently asked if I'd considered trying to get outside of myself by focusing on others. It was good advice. It sounds like you feel a level of shame about the feelings of self absorption. I bet it would make you feel good to put others first.

Also maybe counseling to work through some of the larger picture issues.
posted by mermily at 4:39 PM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think surrounding yourself with and developing friendships with people you admire, who are also positive and supportive might be the trick. You're a loving person, and being around people who are happy and comfortable in their own skin can help you feel good about yourself because they model it for you.

Also, cut out the people who are negative, judgmental, unhelpfully critical and who make you feel unsupported, because people like that are kind of vampires. They have poor self esteem and, since misery loves company, they will snip off any bud of self esteem you have out of whatever it is that makes them act the way they do. As Amy Poehler said,"Tell them to beat it."
posted by discopolo at 11:53 PM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

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