How to feel a stronger sense of self-worth?
November 25, 2007 1:41 PM   Subscribe

How can a person overcome general insecurity, improve their self-esteem, and bolster their sense of self worth?

Objectively, I can recognize that other people seem to think I'm both relatively competent and relatively decent, and I generally coast along without consciously noticing any of what I'm about to describe. But lately, I've been noticing that I'm really susceptible to others' opinions of me. What I really want is for other people to reassure me I'm okay. Deep down, I actually feel somewhat desperate for approval and acceptance, but I don't really feel like I deserve it.

My relationship with my more judgmental friends is secretly about trying to do whatever it takes to be "good" in their eyes, and with friends who aren't judgmental, when I see myself through their eyes as an equal, I feel surprised, and relieved (and then occasionally I wonder if I'm just a pity case). Around people I don't know well, I feel like they will soon discover I'm not the kind of person they want to be friends with, that I'm bad -- nasty, petty, sleazy, bitchy, a slob. I keep wondering if they've figured it out already and are just politely tolerating me. When I screw up in little ways, it reinforces all my suspicions.

In general, both personally and professionally, I've started to notice I am constantly striving, constantly moving on to the next interest, and constantly interested in self-improvement in a way that has started to feel like just trying to outrun my own self. And I do feel like I'm constantly screwing things up (my papers at home are in total disarray which I regard as a personal failing, I get struck by guilt when I forget to call my friend who is going through a hard time, I feel constantly guilty about being behind schedule on a project) -- I feel really guilty, almost ashamed, about things like that.

Again, all this is balanced by the fact that I actually am somewhat successful professionally, and I do manage to be pretty good at being friendly with people, so I know I'm not a total failure at life or an immoral psychopath who should be shunned by all humanity. But over time this insecurity does probably undercut my relationships and professional progress, not to mention generally drain me, so I'd like to change.

What things do you do that have helped you come to feel secure in yourself? How have you come to believe that deep down, you are a good person? If you've overcome insecurity like this, what has helped you? I am in therapy and will work on it there, of course. But I've learned a lot from the insights, stories, and strategies people share on Metafilter, so I thought I'd ask.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you shouldn't worry so much about your self-esteem as your self-respect. Do you have strong moral principles? I expect not. Why not try making a concerted effort to cultivate some moral virtues such as generosity, empathy, loyalty, honesty etc... and stop analysing yourself so much. The rest should take care of itself.

Meanwhile, some simple behavioural tricks might help, such as standing straight and/or looking people in the eye more (whenever you remember).

Finally, the world needs dependent sorts as much as independent sorts.
posted by leibniz at 2:11 PM on November 25, 2007

Well, for starters, I'd spend less time hanging out with your more judgmental friends.

Everybody has insecurities, but that doesn't mean we're all looking to try to spot them in every person we meet. That's more the sort of thing kids do in high school. So people aren't constantly looking for your weak spots, or just tolerating you. And everybody feels guilt about not meeting personal expectations.

You sound like you believe yourself to a lesser person than your colleagues, but there is absolutely no reason for you to think that, based on what you've just told us.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:15 PM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

I totally understand how you feel - you sound like a perfectionist who is very hard on yourself. You likely regard others with a much more forgiving eye than you cast on yourself.

A few things that have helped me with these issues:

1. Pretend that you are regarding a friend of yours instead of yourself when judging yourself and your actions. Would you be so harsh? This often helps shift your perspective.

2. Know what is truly important to you and keep your mental eye on this ball, and check in from time to time. In other words, your life philosophy, your spiritual beliefs, whatever...the things that ground you can put things in perspective.

3. Try to be a person you would be proud of. I do this to keep myself from goofing off at work. When I have truly worked hard and done a good job, I feel great and other things don't affect me so much.

4. Remember that all of life is a learning process. Enjoy the process. Marvel at it. Laugh at how screwed up, yet beautiful all of life is. Always find the humor.

5. Surround yourself with good people who don't gossip or talk behind your back and who are true friends. Accept nothing less.

6. Remember it is your actions that define you and act accordingly. What other people think of you is none of your business. They are probably thinking about themselves, anyway, not you!

Hope this helps.
posted by frumious bandersnatch at 2:18 PM on November 25, 2007 [24 favorites]

Seconding leibniz and frumious. Be a person you can be proud of, however you define that.
posted by Quietgal at 2:27 PM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think that most people, viewed from an uncharitable perspective, could be criticized mercilessly and all of the criticisms would be true. Lots of very fine, decent people could be viewed as "nasty, petty, sleazy, bitchy, a slob." That stuff is just part of being human.

But what redeems us is our good qualities.

I love what frumious bandersnatch says.
posted by jayder at 3:02 PM on November 25, 2007

Self-esteem is a trap. Essentially what you are doing is deciding that there is a rating of you which encompasses all of your qualities wrapped up into one. You are trying to then tell yourself this rating is high, compared to other people. You attempt to read other people's minds to find out where you "rate" in this "scale" of people on Earth.

But there is no such rating. No one can find it. Where could it possibly be written down? Somewhere in the stars?

Belief in such a rating system is often painful, because we are fallible humans. We do make mistakes. What are we to do then? Feel like we are worth less than before?

Of course the question is how to change this--how do we get off the merry go round? First we can decide to rate our behavior, not our "self," whatever that is. It allows us to figure out how we could do things better next time without making improvement putting one's entire self on the line (procrastination, anyone?)

Second, we can use Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy techniques to help us see how these beliefs affect our everyday life and to change these beliefs. I suggest reading anything by Dr. Albert Ellis or Dr. David Burns.

Find a competent CBT therapist in your area to really make headway on this.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:30 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Heh, I could easily have written this question myself, almost verbatim. It's always a little weird to realize that lots of other people feel the exact same way - but then again I think that that realization is key to how I best "handle" such feelings, in a few ways:

- I'm helped by something some middle school teacher said to those of us in her class when we had to do our first in-class speech, aaaages ago: our fears of being judged are almost always overblown, because on the whole most folks are far more focused on themselves than on others. It's so easy to assume we're the focus of everyone's criticism and evaluation simply because WE focus so much energy on criticizing ourselves - but the truth is that 99 times out of 100 nobody else could possibly watch and judge us as minutely or harshly as we judge ourselves, just because they're too busy harshly judging themselves. When I reflect upon that, it helps me in at least -trying- to forgive myself of all those infinite little things that sometimes pile up as "proof" of what a schmuck I am in my own blasted head - a lot of those things might not even be noticed by anybody else!

- Most people I've known who've been convinced that they were neither good nor worthwhile, have been among the people I would most unreservedly describe not just as good or worthwhile, but as AMAZINGLY good and worthwhile. Some of these friends have even come out and SAID things that mirrored the OP exactly; it never fails to astonish and baffle and sadden me when one particular one says she says she's afraid people only like her because they don't yet truly "know" her. I just can't quite understand how she could believe that about herself when in my mind she's such a good friend and all around neat person. When I can, I try to extend these types of observations to myself: if these special, incredible, deeply worthwhile people could be so utterly mistaken about themselves, maybe the same could be true of me, too - maybe they'd be just as baffled if they thought I didn't believe I could possibly be good or worthwhile.

- One other thing I try to glean from my experiences with these friends: I wish so much that I could help them see what truly amazing people they are, but no matter how often or how hard I try I just can't. Furthermore, I've seen some of them get INCREDIBLY positive (and honest) feedback from coworkers, friends, etc, and ride high on that for maybe an evening - only to completely forget those incidents the very next time they feel they've slipped up in the slightest or failed to get "new" positive feedback. From all of this I think I'm realizing how impossible it is to ever get "enough" proof of your self-worth from other people - when you're convinced that you really aren't good for much it's WAY too easy to forget positive feedback or even to reinterpret it as if you'd misunderstood it in the first place (surely they only said that to be nice, or they only meant it in a lukewarm manner at best - how stupid and egotistical of me to ever have thought otherwise!) ... When I remind myself of how "unreasonable" it seems when my friends can't "hold onto" honest, positive feedback, it helps me try to watch out for a tendency to do so myself. I'll never be able to convince my friends of their worth if they don't believe it themselves, but maybe I could convince me of -my- worth ...

Eh, again I guess overall it just helps me a lot to realize that other people undervalue themselves too, that very often the folks I know who DO this are the very people I find most special and amazing in my own life, and that maybe if I feel that way about them, it's possible that other people might feel that way about me, too (heh, all of which is probably just a REALLY long way of stating what frumious bandersnatch said in Point #1 already! We're all our own worst critics, yeah?).
posted by zeph at 5:24 PM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]

A conversation that began with me GP and ended up with me getting treated for anxiety with depression did wonders for me when I was in your shoes.
posted by 4ster at 5:34 PM on November 25, 2007

my, not me. Egad.
posted by 4ster at 5:35 PM on November 25, 2007

I kind of feel like Buddhists have been discussing this whole question since.. I don't know. Forever. Except they phrase it more like, "How can I live my life more in tune with my very best self so that I can be truly, deeply happy?" That's not verbatim. But I think it's close. Obviously other religions ask that question, too, but I like this one because of all the emphasis it puts on the happiness part. (And I don't think anyone should just go be Buddhist, but I like their focus on the happiness goal. :)

And their method is first to recognize that you're not really happy just living.. Which is actually a big step and you just did it.. but then second to do what someone said earlier, which is to just work harder at those moral skills you pretty much already know. Compassion, generosity, right speech, right intention.. There are ten Paramitas and there's also an "Eightfold Path" if you care to google it, but their answer really is that you won't be happy until you put honest effort into being moral in speech, action, thoughts even.. Not perfection.. Just effort. The effort is the engine.

You're flawed because we all are. Live for something bigger. Give yourself the space and the forgiveness to see clearly the thousands of colors in yourself and work hard to share them with love and generosity and you can't go wrong.
posted by onanon at 8:22 PM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]

You should stop going to therapy because there is nothing wrong with you. Stopping trying to improve yourself is the first step towards accepting yourself as you are.
posted by dydecker at 9:33 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should stop going to therapy because there is nothing wrong with you.

Slow down.. You can't make that judgment based on a couple of paragraphs. Unless you are this person's therapist right now, that's some pretty irresponsible advice.
posted by onanon at 3:05 AM on November 26, 2007

Of course it is responsible advice. Anon's problem is an everyday issue in the normal range of human experience and emotion - people feel this way all the time in response to the various viccisitudes of life/other people. Therapy of course is based on the premise that there is something wrong with you that the therapist can fix - unfortunately human nature is only fixable through experience: the actual problem is that anon is not accepting his real self and trying to hide it from the world because he fears rejection. He needs experience of being accepted for who he is, warts and all.

What I would suggest is that he fix the world around him, ie, find friends who don't mind that he's a nasty, petty, sleazy, bitchy & a slob etc. These people exist. Lots of people get on well with non-perfect people, me included. Workplaces also exist which are more relaxed about deadlines. etc etc. Then slowly, he'll start to feel happier, because his world conforms more with his true nature.
posted by dydecker at 7:41 AM on November 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think we generally agree that anon's experience is relatively normal, and that it is irrational to have low self-esteem. I assume it is because he/she realises that irrationality that he/she wants to see a therapist. The question however is the best practical means to eleviate it. One cannot simply decide to accept oneself (and why should you? Why shouldn't you try to be a better person?) or even change one's environment so easily. Moreover, there has been a fair amount of stirrings in academic circles in the last few years that self-analysis can be more harmful than beneficial. It is precisely anon's relentless self-consciousness that is the problem as I see it. Hence my recommendation that one should in general try to deflate the 'problem' by a) giving up the belief that one 'deserves' self-esteem for no particular reason and b) generally focusing on more practical, outward looking issues such as one's moral behaviour.

Obviously without context we do not really know how bad anon's anxiety is. If it is of a destructive or self-destructive variety, then it may well be worth seeing a (good) therapist who could put things in perspective a little etc.
posted by leibniz at 11:17 AM on November 26, 2007

I'm another person who could have written this post. Wow. I'm actually getting a lot of help from the answers.

Anyway, here's what I do to keep from crying about my own perceived suckiness:

1. Have somebody you can open up too, completely and honestly. Or several people. I know that my husband, my mom, and my best friend will always reassure me. Often times describing my concerns is the only way for me to realize they're irrational.

2. Write things down. I blog, which helps a lot. When the issue makes me feel too vulnerable to go public, I write a very specific Ask Mefi post about my problem/concern, then I answer it as if I was an impartial third party. This is a powerful tool for getting outside of your own head. We are soooo much harder on ourselves than we would be on strangers....

3. Use humor to express honesty. I am also reasonably successful professionally, but I don't always feel it. Case in point--last year I won an award. My immediate, overwhelming reaction was "Oh crap, now people are going to pay attention to me and discover what a fraud I am!" I mean I lost sleep over this. My solution? I said that exact line to my boss, completely deadpan. When she laughed, it was a tremendous weight off my chest. She said "you know, many people respect you, you have to give us a little credit for knowing what we're talking about." This made me realize it isn't all about me. Now I use humor/sarcasm whenever I feel overwhelmed. I try not to over-use it, but it lets me issue a little disclaimer when I'm not sure I can live up to expectations. Interestingly, there have been no negative repercussions to this. Colleges don't think I have a confidence problem, they think I'm motivated and too hard on myself. I don't know about your field, though, YMMV.

4. If you're prone to fiction/daydreaming, think Fight Club. Invent the fictional caricature of who you want to be and pretend you are that person. Useful and fun!

5. Don't start thinking you're going to feel like this for the rest of your life. In my experience this sort of thing flares up during stressful episodes of one's life an then dies down. Tomorrow is a new day.
posted by lisaici at 8:55 PM on November 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

anonymous, I've felt similarly at times. There's such good advice here so I can only think of two small things I'd like to say. And the first will be said in an inelegant way, because it's just how I remember first articulating it: Not everything is a sign. If we go through the world unsure of ourselves, doubting that we really are okay as we are, I think we start looking for signs and confirmation of that everywhere. Every event and interaction becomes laden and heavy with meaning, given so much power, and so everything can become a sign of how we are awful or nasty or any of the things we dread we are. We really don't want to be, so we spend all this energy trying to keep ourselves in line through all these heavy moments, and then when we "slip up" in some way, there's that part of us that says, aha! gotcha, see it's true! But you know, what the hell is that for, because that's really mean. We wouldn't want to treat anyone we love like that. We wouldn't make every little thing they do a test for some kind of proof about them. We're so complicated as human beings that we can't just sum ourselves up in these all-or-nothing ways, we change slowly and we're complicated and messy like everyone else we love. Doesn't always work but it's part of the reminder that lets me off that hook and be myself.
posted by onoclea at 1:35 AM on November 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

I forgot about the second thing I thought to say. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke had things to say about what to do with a critical inner voice, way before cognitive-behavioural therapy as we know it. This is from Letters to a Young Poet, Letter 9 (apologies if poetry isn't really your thing):

"And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers - perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life."
posted by onoclea at 1:55 AM on November 27, 2007 [15 favorites]

I would take some time and really think about who you want to be. What are the things that are most important to you? If you died tomorrow, what would you want your friends and family to say about you? Seriously, write it down. Start with this because it helps you define who you really are so that YOU can make judgments on your self-worth, not rely on your perceptions of how other people perceive you.
posted by Silvertree at 12:19 PM on November 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

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