The magical last part of my 3-part series on self-esteem! The topic of this blog post entails actually increasing your self-esteem levels from a scientific perspective.
Who doesn't benefit from more self-esteem?
Well, many people do.
But before I dive deep into today's topic, let me first recap the argument I made in the previous two blog posts:
So let's go over the previous 2 blog posts I wrote on this topic:
In the first blog post, I gave the following definition of self-esteem:
Self-esteem is how you judge your own self-worth.
Of course, nobody values themselves completely independently from other human beings. So, in a sense, self-esteem is how you value yourself in relation to others as well.
I can understand if that definition still sounds vague though!
So let me dig deeper:
Self-esteem does not originate 100% in the eye of the beholder, in my opinion. Instead, you gain self-esteem with successful interaction with the world.
Your esteem of your competence, for instance, should go up once you start performing better on a task.
But, self-esteem is much more than just validation about performance. In the first blog post about self-esteem I distinguished between the following types of self-esteem:
"Self-liking" and "self-competence" self-esteem.
Self-liking signifies how much you like yourself. Self-competence, however, denotes how competent you see yourself in certain activities.Self-liking and self-competence are not the same.
I can like myself really well, for instance, but I can also assess that I'm really incompetent in certain activities, such as repairing a car.
My inability to repair a car does not entail that I don't like myself, however - that difference is simple.
"Defensive" versus "secure" self-esteem.
In the former situation, you've got high self-esteem but you're actively defending that self-esteem towards others when it's challenged. The "secure" self-esteem entails that you worry less about what others think of you, even when challenged.
The defensive variation is one of the reasons why self-esteem has received a bad rap in the last few decades.
To me, defensive "self-esteem" is not true self-esteem because there's still a deep underlying insecurity expressed within this variation.
With defensive self-esteem, you'll also have a higher desire to be famous, and less forgiving towards others, and more prone to take vengeance. If you're less secure in your self-esteem, you're also more prone to be socially anxious, self-conscious, aggressive, and to avoid social situations.
The defensive variation of self-esteem basically entails overcompensation for your own instability and insecurity.
"Implicit" or "explicit" self-esteem.
The first entails that you have high(er) self-esteem on a subconscious level, while the second instance means that you're mostly expressing the behavior externally without necessarily having (or believing you have) high self-esteem on a deeper level.
If you score high on explicit self-esteem and low on its implicit variation, you might fill out a questionnaire as if being a very high self-esteem person, but when challenged by a colleague, your first impulse will be behavior that's associated with low(er) self-esteem.
Explicit self-esteem is thus more imitative and forged. Scoring high on explicit and low on implicit self-esteem is also related to "defensive" self-esteem again - which was still insecure.
Ideally, you'll have high implicit and explict self-esteem (but not excessively so of the latter), high secure self-esteem and high self-liking, and exclusively high self-competence if you're actually competent!
Next, let's consider some of the health effects of both low and high self-esteem, which I laid out in the second blog post about this topic. In that blog, I described 6 psychological attributes of a person who has low self-esteem:
Low self-esteem is not always up to you, however - at least in the short term.
Circumstances during your youth, or drug use, or poor performance at school or work against your expectations, failed relationships, and many other factors influence this dynamic.
Nevertheless, having high-self esteem is advantageous for more than economic and career outcomes alone. With higher self-esteem, you're experiencing more well-being and have a lower depression risk on a consistent basis, you've got lower risk of giving in to self-destructive behaviors, may help you cope with disease, and much more.
Again, read my second blog post on this topic to get the full understanding!
My main goal with these blog post was to demonstrate that self-esteem does matter for health. The topic is rarely talked about in the health & wellness space, however, which is why I decided to dedicate an entire blog series about it.
Now that I've given you a recap of the previous two blogs posts, let's move over to today's topic: building rock-solid self-esteem:
Nowadays it's sometimes claimed that self-esteem is a cause rather than an effect of life's outcomes. The assumption is that you thus first need to increase your self-esteem so that you can only then reap the rewards in other areas of your life.
I do think that statement is overly simplistic.
Waiting for the right circumstances to improve self-esteem is nevertheless a devastating strategy.
What to do instead?
Realize that it does not always matter whether self-esteem causes competence or the other way around. What you'd want instead is to strategically tackle problem areas you might have, so that you at least don't have (very) low self-esteem - which always holds you back.
Follow (some of) the strategies listed below and you'll become your own action hero in no-time.
Well, maybe not an action hero but an improved you instead.
The first strategy to consider:
Realize that buildings self-esteem is not just psychological - there's a biological basis to self-esteem as well.[396-403]
When you're looking in magazines and in psychology papers, you'd get the impression that self-esteem is purely in your head. The subsequent advice entails that by changing your mindset you can change your life.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, biological factors such as your hormones play a massive role in your self-esteem levels. Genetics can be vital as well.
Let's consider these biological factors - which you can fortunately influence:
Simply put, If you sleep well have higher self-esteem--with poor sleep the opposite effect is achieved.
As mentioned earlier, your general food choices also affect your levels of self-esteem--preventing (and reversing) disease accomplishes the same.
Although there are many studies demonstrating a link between the primarily male hormone "testosterone" and self-confidence, the self-esteem is not yet established beyond reasonable doubt.
The link between testosterone and self-esteem is really plausible though.
Overall I'll keep this first strategy relatively straightforward:
Improving your overall health is probably one of the greatest bets you can place to keep your self-esteem levels higher.
The happiness journal I'm referring to is often called a "gratitude journal".
I don't like the term "gratitude", however, because it often denotes an undeserved or indebted attitude. There's actual evidence to back up my claim: gratitude often signifies that you've received something you should pay back or something didn't really earn.
Nevertheless, your overall gratitude has a direct effect on your overall happiness levels and self-esteem. As a result, you'll be less likely depressed and fewer suicidal thoughts.
For even better results, I recommend journaling about what makes you happy rather than what makes you grateful.
You can buy an inexpensive happiness journal HERE.
If you're short on money, however, you don't even need to buy that happiness journal. Simply write the following things down on a piece of paper each and every morning:
During the evening, subsequently, write down the following:
If you're thinking: "that's deceptively simple" then you are fully correct.
This technique is extremely simple, and yet produces dramatic results. Just try writing a daily happiness journal for just two weeks.
At worst, you'll waste a few sheets of paper. At best, you'll start building a virtuous cycle of self-esteem improvement (and gain more happiness as a side-effect).
I love the drill...
I've previously written a guide on mindfulness meditation. I'll do a quick recap here though.[170-173]
While the following statement might be somewhat counter-intuitive, mindfulness meditation can be used to increase your self-esteem.
By systematically detaching you from your states of mind. Examples of states of mind are desires, thoughts, intentions, beliefs, emotions, passions, etcetera.
Mindfulness teaches you to become aware of your current states of mind and accepting them as they come. You'll essentially learn to not hold onto positive states of mind or push away negative states of mind.
Let's say I'm feeling lonely.
What most people would do in that case is avoid feeling the loneliness as much as possible and thus resist the emotion. By resisting that emotion, however, the loneliness persists.
By being fully accepting of any state of mind that's currently in your consciousness you're able to let that state of mind go. Accepting your loneliness thus paradoxically leads to less loneliness.
Different states of mind associated with lower self-esteem, such as not being good enough, not being loved, feeling insecure, etcetera. These states of mind will all decrease in intensity (and even disappear) if you're fully accepting of them.
Mindfulness is 100% free and can be practiced anywhere.
Mindfulness can also help you deal with negative self-talk.
By focusing on what lies beyond such negative thoughts: the awareness of the thoughts.
In my guide about mindfulness, I've described the skill of presence. Presence denotes the ability to stay "in the moment".
With presence, you're not letting raging thoughts distract you and you're continually returning your focus towards an object in your environment. An example is continually returning to your breath.
The longer you practice the presence skill, the more you're going to observe patterns in your thought.
The same can be done for self-talk: you can become more aware of the patterns - aware of your mind operates. By seeing the pattern of negative self-talk you become aware that these thoughts are not always you, nor are they always in your best interest.
Overall, mindfulness increases your self-esteem and lowers (social) anxiety.
Remember that with lower self-esteem, you'll also have more problems in your social life--those problems can also be reduced through mindfulness.
That's a big potential win...
I'll tell you all you need to know about Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in a moment.[174-185; 297-299; 347]
Let's first consider another topic:
Remember the earlier installment where I talked about the many characteristics of low self-esteem?
Labeling yourself, having certain negative expectations, always having to be right, categorical statements, overgeneralizing your failures, etcetera?
CBT helps you deal in all these instances.
CBT is a form of psychotherapy.
CBT assumes that your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected with each other and that behavioral and thinking becomes pathological once one of these dimensions becomes abnormal or unbalanced.
CBT that aims to alter both your behavior and your thinking patterns so that you're able to solve problems in your life.
By changing your behavior and thinking patterns, your emotions will eventually follow - your brain is thus re-programmed for the better.
Let's say I've got trouble building friendships.
In that case, I might have behavioral issues (e.g., I might not know how to start a conversation with a stranger) and I might have psychological issues in my thinking pattern (e.g., I may continually assume that others are looking down on me.)
By tackling these issues CBT can help me overcome problems I'm dealing with.
With my issue with friendships, CBT may ask me whether it's rational to think that all people look down on me, and to examine that thought. By correcting the thought, and then trying out behavior that will establish friendships, I may finally be able to turn that emotion around as well.
Anxiety around making friends that I may have had before is eventually reduced.
In fact, CBT can help with anxiety disorders, anger control, and overall stress, which are all issues related to self-esteem.
If you've got Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AHDH), depression, obesity, or an eating disorder, CBT may also directly raises your self-esteem.
Interestingly enough, just as mindfulness-based practices have their roots in ancient Eastern intellectual development, CBT has strong affiliations with Greek Stoic philosophy.
The fundamental thought behind CBT is that cognitive distortions, such as irrational negative self-talk, can cause suffering and impede your ability to navigate the world.
Stoic philosophers also thought that irrational thoughts about the world created suffering and reduced the prospects of true happiness (although I'm grossly oversimplifying here.)
Let me give you another example:
I've mentioned emotional reasoning earlier: let's say that I'm feeling lonely and I (incorrectly) conclude on the basis of that loneliness that people must not like me.
At that moment, I'm abstracting a general conclusion about the world from my emotional state. That conclusion is not neutral in its effects, however. Why? Because once I start believing that people don't like me, I'm going to assume they really don't.
My behavior changes in turn...
I end up with even fewer opportunities to interact with other people, further strengthening my loneliness (and my belief that people don't like me).
Another example might be envisioning worst-case scenarios all the time. A belief that everyone will start laughing as soon as you begin your important presentation is clearly irrational - and yet, some people have such thoughts.
CBT systematically helps you remove such cognitive distortions about yourself and the world. That way you can solve self-esteem problems like social anxiety or extreme fear before presentations.
You may not always be able to change your emotions--at first at least--but in the end, by changing your thoughts and behaviors eventually your emotions will follow.
Let me explain:
Just be very, very honest to yourself here: do you engage in using labels that are overly negative, or black and white thinking, or think about worst-case scenarios most of the time?
Think about the consequences:
How many opportunities do you miss in life because you're talking to yourself or your abilities down?
People have wasted years and even decades of their lives by not taking action and not being their best.
You don't have to make that mistake.
Of course, I'm not saying you should "be your very best at all possible times". What I'm claiming instead is that if you're radically under performing compared to your capabilities you're doing yourself an injustice.
You could be a better caregiver, employee, boss, brother, sister, grandma, granddad, and so forth...
The earlier you correct a mistake, the better.
Low self-esteem can be turned around by focusing more on the ways in which you've succeeded in the past - which CBT also emphasizes.
Overall, CBT makes you more aware of negative self-talk.
Remember that negative self-talk is not going to give you better health outcomes.
Again, being very critical towards yourself is another characteristic of low(er) self-esteem people, which is exhibited in both perfectionism and negative self-labels.
Let's suppose I'm very, very critical of myself because I'm no longer exercising a lot due to starting this blog.
All the energy I'm spending on negative self-talk and the gloom and doom will not help me exercise more for one second. Only spending time actually exercising will help in that regard.
You're paying a disastrous price for negative self-talk by losing energy all the time.
Remember I talked about my acne scars?
If I'd focus on these scars every time I'd look in the mirror, and thought I'm having these "grotesque" and "horrid" scars, I'd be engaging irrational (and negative) self-talk.
Now, to be perfectly honest, there are actually things I'd like to change about myself. Almost everyone, in fact, would change something about themselves if they could.
Negative self-talk is like a swearing parrot
who won't stop talking...
Negative self-judgments need to be balanced, however.
The final goal of improving self-esteem is to use judgments that are neutral instead of negative. It's also important to consciously observe the positive judgments you do have, instead of just focusing on all the negative judgments you make.
If I'd engage in lots of negative self-talk I'd continually focus on just the negative aspects of my life--while ignoring positive achievements, actions, and personal properties.
Let's say I'm excessively worrying whether I'm going to make the company that I've started successful (which has happened at times). In that case, I'd focus 10% of my daily thoughts on the negative aspects of my self-image, while focusing maybe 3-5% of my thoughts on positive parts of myself.
Such negative self-talk becomes more dangerous once you're putting a very strong continual judgment on it.
A neutral observation, in my case, might be that "90% of businesses fail within the first 5 years". It's not a neutral, however, to tell myself that "I'm a loser in business and I'm never going to make it".
That statement is not just more neutral, but also more true.
From a CBT perspective, I would be better off telling myself that "I've got no present business experience". CBT progressively helps you detach from such negative labels by looking at your thoughts critically.
Bottom line: the way you talk to yourself can massively affect your overall self-esteem. CBT helps there.
Rejection therapy?[187-189; 195; 405]
Yes, there's actually a thing called "rejection therapy".
I've used this strategy with great success in the past, although I've not practiced it for very long.
In rejection therapy, you're intentionally seeking out to be rejected by other people. How? By making outrageous proposals, for instance.
Examples of rejection therapy exercises I've done are trying to order a Big Mac at Burger King, or trying to give strangers a euro on the street.
Are you interested in this method? Watch the following amazing video about rejection therapy.
Please note, interestingly enough, that rejection therapy builds your implicit self-esteem instead of your explicit self-esteem. Why? Well, because explicit self-esteem is more based upon what other people think about you.
Implicit self-esteem, on the contrary, is grounded in your (subconscious) self.
With rejection therapy, you're always going to get disapproval from other people, and thus, you cannot rely on explicit self-esteem in those situations. You need to rely on your own validation during rejection therapy instead.
Unfortunately, I cannot find any studies investigating whether decreasing your sensitivity to rejection directly improves self-esteem. Nevertheless, rejection therapy has lots of commonalities with CBT in a sense.
Because you're gradually exposing yourself to the things you find scary or to situations in which you have low self-esteem. As a result, both your emotions and thinking pattern change over time.
You'll create an understanding that rejection is not the end of the world, which will further help your behavior.
Try rejection therapy - it's 100% free, just like mindfulness. Interestingly enough, mindfulness practice may also decrease your susceptibility to rejection.
Think about mistakes for a second:[190-195]
If you avoided mistakes at all cost, you'd never learn to walk or ride the bicycle as a kid. You'd be stuck crawling on the floor forever, up until today.
And yet, you've learned to walk and ride the bicycle as a kid through lots of failures.
In fact, everyone is going to make mistakes when pushing their limits.
Put more strongly: making mistakes is an essential byproduct of challenging yourself. In other words, if you're not making mistakes you're not pushing yourself hard enough.
In fact, by never making mistakes the only outcome you'll ever get is never improving.
Of course, I don't mean that you should make mistakes on purpose. What I'm saying instead is that failures are not always the end of the world.
In perfectionism, for example, anything but the very best outcome in the world is often seen as a failure.
As you know right now, perfectionism is intertwined with a fear of failure. Re-framing how you see mistakes can lower your propensity for perfectionism.
Of course, perfectionism is not all bad.
The positive aspects of perfectionism can help you get a lot done in life. Perfectionism is thus not an exclusively negative trait or thinking-pattern to possess.
Nevertheless, the bad forms of perfectionism can do lots of damage. People with perfectionism are not only more prone to procrastinate but also have higher chances of being suicidal, for example.
It's specifically the negative types of perfectionism that make you procrastinate more. And remember: perfectionism increases suffering, allowing you to get less done overall.
Overall, seeing mistakes as an essential byproduct of success can re-frame many situations in your life where self-esteem plays a major role.
Mindfulness, again, can also reduce perfectionism - thereby further reducing your suffering.
If you're thinking: "that outcome is somewhat self-evident" then you're right.
No shocker here...
Let me explain:
The greater your perceived fitness levels, the higher people tend to rate their self-esteem.[24-37; 113; 185; 186; 413-415] Interestingly enough, improving your exercise capacity also directly improves your self-esteem.
That positive effect of exercise on self-esteem are also observed in children and adolescents. Young girls are less dissatisfied with their body once they start exercising.
The same connection is also found in adults: exercise can improve your self-image, especially if you're overweight or obese. Your self-image may regress back to its baseline once you stop exercising.
Habits rule the day, as always.
Overall, there's thus a direct causal relationship between engaging in exercise and improving self-esteem.
Are there more benefits?
Exercise also leads to overall mood improvements. And while more research is needed, combining exercise, nature, and social activities seem to produce the best results.
This strategy is recommended for everyone: even healthy people who have a meaning in life will increase your self-esteem.[130; 406] If you've got anxiety, for example, you'll increase your self-esteem once you choose to find more meaning in your life.
The natural question to ask in turn is how to find your life's purpose.
Naturally, I can't give you that answer.
I can only tell you what won't work: having a purpose that directly contradicts the tendencies of personality. If you're an extravert, don't sit in front of a computer all day. If you like complexity, don't have a job where you have to focus on small details all long.
Make lists of your achievements and read them every day.[407-409] For some people with low self-esteem, looking at what they previously achieved can massively help.
If you've got low(er) self-esteem, you'll often exclusively focus on what's going wrong in your life--without seeing the bigger picture.
If you have a long list of achievements tied to your name, however, and still experience low self-esteem, it's time to move into the other direction: you'll have to realize that achievement alone can never make you fundamentally secure.
Always pursuing more achievements to build self-esteem is thus especially dangerous.
If your self-esteem is nevertheless too low, focusing more on your achievements can be a very simple strategy. Revel in three past achievements by adding them daily to your happiness journal - described in tip two of this section.
Remember I talked about all kinds of different cognitive distortions that low self-esteem people engage in, such as black and white thinking, labeling themselves negatively, and taking responsibility for something they could not control?
Having what is called a "growth mindset" is a (partial) antidote to such habits.
The growth mindset assumes that your mind can change over time.
Who you were two years ago will thus not determine who you can be today. And who you are today does not have to determine who you will be in two years from now.
The "fixed mindset" is the opposite of the "growth mindset". The fixed mindset assumes that you're the same person you were five years ago and will be the same person in five years as well.
A fixed mindset torpedoes your ability to change because you'll never assume that change is possible in the first place.
The growth mindset, on the contrary, will also counter the thought that there's something intrinsically wrong with yourself.
Because that mindset does not assume that your behavior is set in stone - even if you're poorly off today you can be a different person in one year from now.
Can you change everything about yourself then?
Some parts of your personality are more or less set in stone - such as whether you're an extrovert or introvert. The upside is that you can always change and grow as a person, no matter who you are.
Introverts can thus become better introverts, and extroverts can be better extroverts.
That's that: ten strategies to upgrade your self-esteem.
It's very important to remember that changing your self-esteem takes time.
Some people are in therapy for years sometimes because of self-esteem issues. Of course, some people taking long to re-program their brains does not mean you have to.
You can have results today. It's always best to start sooner than later. In other words, the more quickly deal with the issue, if you have problematic self-esteem levels, the better.
As you've seen by now, having low self-esteem can be devastating. Nevertheless, low self-esteem is almost never your fault.
Most people just ended up that way without knowing how to change their situation.
Fortunately, many therapies such as mindfulness, cognitive behavior therapy, or rejection therapy exist. Those therapies improve your self-esteem over time.
As always, practice makes perfect.
Interestingly enough, your conception of self-esteem may have ended up very differently than you'd initially expect after starting to read this article.
You may have thought the self-esteem is hubristic, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and combative--but instead, it ended up being calm and peaceful:
It's not a coincidence that self-esteem mostly has benefits in the social domain and stress management.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, however, you do know that I consider your social life and stress as keys to improving health.
Do me a favor though: never sell yourself short on self-esteem.
You now understand that self-esteem is fundamentally important for your happiness levels, getting high-quality friendships, helping you deal with disease, and lowering your stress levels.
On a very fundamental level, everyone deserves self-esteem.
Of course, some types of self-esteem such as those related to competence should match reality. There's no need to assume you can:
present in front of 20,000 people if you've never presented in front of 20 people before.
run a marathon if you never ran 2 miles before.
put others down and come off as "likable" in social settings.
On the other hand, there's no reason to assume you cannot do those things either in the long run.
Just make sure you don't have the confidence you can without actually being through the experience...
Here's another thing:
Very soon I'll include 1 more blog post on self-compassion specifically. To round out your self-esteem, developing self-compassion is very important. In a way, this series thus continues after these 3 installments on self-esteem.
The bad poart?
Even though there's not much evidence on how to increase self-compassion, self-compassion does work wonders for your life and health.
Mindfulness, happiness journaling, and assuming a growth mindset can also possibly help with achieving that greater self-compassion!
Over time I'm even assuming that (self)-compassion eclipses self-esteem in importance. In a few decades, I'll probably write a "Self-Compassion Revolution" blog post.
Be compassionate and build stable self-esteem that's not based on how others see you.
Take the first step.
You deserve it...
Not next year...
You can do it!
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - with distinction), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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