What comes to mind when you think of self-esteem? For most, it probably involves a flashback to adolescence, in all its awkward glory. Yet, that doesn't mean poor self-esteem can't show up in adulthood, and the prevalence is even higher if you're navigating the waters of weight loss, aging or chronic illness. |
Self-esteem, also known as self-respect or self-judgment, is the perception and attitude of oneself. It's the way you look at your abilities, qualities and overall worth. Research has also shown that it's a major predictor of quality of life, so shouldn't it be a priority?
Unsurprisingly, it's easier said than done. Most people don't even know where to start, and we live in a world that profits off insecurity. According to Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC, a psychotherapist and executive coach in New York City, "The diet, beauty, fashion and pharmaceutical industries make trillions off the belief that you're 'not enough.'" Top it off with cultural expectations and social media, and you've got a recipe for low self-esteem.
For those on a mission to lose weight, it's also common to think that shedding pounds is a trade for self-esteem. This isn't the case, however.
Turns out, it's more about self-care. Granted, achieving a healthy weight can certainly play a role in overall happiness, but look beyond the waistline. "How we care for ourselves has a direct and powerful impact on mood, brain function and ultimately, optimal mental wellness," explains Dr. Amanda Baten, clinical and nutritional psychologist and founder of The Center for Integrative Therapies in New York City. "Prioritizing self-care moves us from feeling powerless to empowered—this is the core of self-esteem."
Poor Self-Esteem Versus Bad Day?
Before sowing the seeds of self-esteem, it helps to lay out the groundwork. Do you have low self-esteem, or did you just have a bad day? What's the difference?
The answer lies in perception. "Typically, people with low self-esteem cannot distinguish between [our natural] flaws and [external] demands for things to be in a certain way," shares Dr. Baten. In turn, those flaws and demands are thrown on the same barometer, even though their values are like apples and oranges.
Bruneau also adds that there's a high level of self-criticism, which makes way for anxiety and shame.
On the other hand, a "bad day" has an air of temperance. The concept that each day doesn't last forever is a game changer. "A bad day may be void of feeling as happy or successful as one wants to feel, but [someone with high self-esteem] recognizes that tomorrow is another opportunity to strive for better," Dr. Baten explains.
Most importantly, "off days" aren't seen as a definition of worth or success. Take a tip from Dr. Baten, who teaches her patients to avoid general assumptions of their worth based on flaws or mistakes.
Where do you fall? You might be somewhere in between, or maybe your self-esteem only wavers in certain areas of life. Regardless, there's always room for change, and it starts with making the first move.
Boosting self-esteem won't happen overnight. Much like healthy eating, it's a lifetime practice.
To start, focus on mindfulness, the mental state of acknowledging your feelings and thoughts. "A big part of self-esteem is waking up to your automatic cognitive or emotional reactions, [but] we can't change without awareness," says Bruneau. "And since we're constantly inundated with messages and media that undermine our self-esteem, we have to continually practice mindfulness." This is exactly what will help you understand the roots and triggers behind poor self-esteem.
Self-compassion is just as vital. By practicing sympathy and kindness toward yourself, you can better separate flaws and demands.
"As human beings, we have the right to have [those] flaws," points out Dr. Baten. "It's important to recognize that, and to learn from them through experience."
To apply these concepts to real life, check out the following tips. However, keep in mind that this journey will look different for everyone. As you adopt these habits, do it in a way that works for you and only you.
6 Ways to Boost Self-Esteem
1. Practice Yoga
A regular yoga practice that includes standing poses can do wonders for self-esteem, according to one preliminary 2017 study in "Frontiers in Psychology." While more studies are needed to confirm the direct effect, the study believes this works by increasing your subjective sense of energy, which then fuels positive self-judgment. Researchers think this is a result of how body alignment influences the autonomous nervous system.
But this doesn't mean you need to become a pretzel; simple, gentle poses are all it takes. The 2017 study also discovered that a two-minute session has monumental benefits, proving that a little goes a long way.
To cultivate mindfulness, you need the opportunity to do so. That's where meditation comes into play.
Sitting still is surprisingly powerful. A 2008 article in the journal "Psychiatry" explains that it forces you to do nothing except fully face an experience. This type of presence then allows self-confidence to grow, a stepping stone toward self-esteem.
Meditation is a major part of yoga, but it can be practiced on its own. Again, a few minutes are all you need. Follow a YouTube video, download a meditation app or simply concentrate on an object for 60 seconds. You can even sneak in a workout with walking meditation.
3. Build Quality Connections
Mindfulness doesn't stop at the self. "Be mindful of the people you're surrounded by," suggests Bruneau. "It's very difficult to build self-esteem if you're in an oppressive relationship, workplace, home or social circle." Meanwhile, high-quality friendships can nourish self-esteem, found a 2014 study in the "Journal of Personality."
You don't need a million relationships. Nurture the good ones, even if it's just a few. According to Bruneau, these quality connections allow us to be completely vulnerable and imperfect, an experience that lets us embrace flaws and foster self-esteem.
4. Cultivate Purpose
Bruneau also acknowledges the importance of meaning and purpose in the journey to self-acceptance and self-love. "When we see our relevance in this world unrelated to our appearance, bank account or relationship status, our self-esteem is more enduring," she explains. Once more, it's all about being mindful of where you find that purpose.
While many search for meaning at work, it's not the only source. Consider volunteering at a local soup kitchen, animal shelter or community center—this is a simple yet amazing way to promote a sense of purpose, especially if your job doesn't fulfill that space.
5. Set Smaller Goals
Epic, monumental goals are often placed on a pedestal. It's also easy to think that reaching said goals will unlock the gates of self-esteem. When you grasp for something too high, though, there's more space for disappointment.
Establish small and reasonable goals. Focus on practicality, however that may look for you. Dr. Baten pegs this approach as one that makes it easier to attain goals and feel successful. For example, committing to the gym twice a week is more realistic than striving for six days plus a marathon next month. Ease yourself into new habits and you'll be more likely to sustain them in the long run. Each little victory will do wonders for your self-esteem.
Every achievement is like a new step on the staircase. In fact, Dr. Baten incorporates this concept into her practice. "I teach my patients to [avoid getting] to the top of the mountain, [but instead] work on the steps that get them to the foothills."
6. Do Journal Exercises
Self-growth needs time and space to flourish. Journaling provides both, doubling as one of the best tools for improving self-confidence and self-judgment. It's also cheap, easy and doesn't require fancy skills or equipment.
Writing stream of consciousness is a great start, especially if you need to vent or unwind. But why limit yourself? Following journal exercises allows more room for mindfulness, and ultimately, self-esteem.
To get the juices flowing, Bruneau offers these expert-approved writing prompts:
Building self-esteem is an ongoing process. There will always be room for growth, even after the pounds are shed. And you know what? That's okay. Self-esteem is a multi-dimensional ball that can be caught in more than one way. Fortunately, it's never too late to reach out.
If anything, remember that we just have to work on ourselves every day. As Dr. Baten reminds us, "Being human, after all, is a practice."