Self-esteem is a hot commodity.
Lately, I have found myself immersed in people’s search to increase their self-esteem. My Facebook feed has been overrun with Bustle articles about how to banish that shit, lean into your strengths, and how to love yourself.
Clients have been telling me how much they struggle with self-loathing, and how scared they are of being an inconsiderate asshole if they learn to love themselves more. Everyone seems to be longing for the psychological equivalent of Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge: not too self-deprecating, BUT also not too much self love, because no one wants to be a narcissist.
And really, when you think about it, it seems like it’s probably a pretty easy thing to build up. I mean, self-esteem is respecting and admiring yourself. How hard can it be really? Just use some affirmations, spend some more time exercising, and stop telling yourself that you are a piece of shit, and voila, you have good self esteem.
However, building self-esteem just isn’t that easy. It’s fucking hard.
If it was easy, there wouldn’t be a whole section in the bookstore dedicated to it. (Though they call it the ‘self help’ section, but it’s basically about how to like yourself better, and convince other people that you are likable).
Somewhere in all of this, there seems to be this idea that self esteem is just one thing, and there’s an easy solution out there to get psychologically rich quick.
It sucks, but there is no easy, quick way to build your self-esteem.
Rather, it takes time, energy, and a willingness to be really uncomfortable. We have to spend the time getting to know who we are inside, before we can discover what it is we respect and admire about ourselves. Only after we have put in the time, can we turn off self-loathing and settle into self-respect.
Who on earth wants to spend so much time working on that though? When you’re in the pit that is low self-esteem, all you want to do is get the hell out. You feel sick with anxiety, flushed with shame, and super unmotivated to do anything you actually enjoy doing.
Maybe for you, you find yourself pushing people away. You’re convinced that none of them actually would want to be friends or in a relationship with you, if they really knew you. And really, who knows how long they’ll stick around anyway? After all, they’re just settling by being in relationship with you.
So instead, you keep all your anxiety locked up tight, and don’t share how much you actually hate yourself.
Sometimes, if you’ve had more to got the whole margarita pitcher for yourself at Don Tito’s, took one hit too many at that party your roommate dragged you to, or just had one of those awful days where you just can’t keep it all inside, and you might have found yourself sharing more than you meant too.
When you realize that your friend is looking at you weird, and asking what you mean when you share sometimes you hate your life and you hate yourself. You sober up really quick then, and walk that shit all the way back, making a lame joke and hoping they buy it.
Unfortunately, all this does is reinforce for you that sharing how you feel with others will only confirm how weird and screwed up you are. You become all the more committed to keep all this stuff under lock and key and not sharing how you really feel about yourself with those around you.
Eventually, you wind up in a place where no one really knows the real you. You become convinced that you are a terrible person that no one would really like, never mind love. And when it comes down to it, you start to get really fed up with feeling like shit and you either search for a way to end it all, or for a way to get help.
The shocking truth is many, many people feel this way.
People are longing to really love their lives, and not just fake how much they love it when they’re catching up with people over mimosas. Everyone is working so hard to convince others that they are happy, wonderful, and way, way better than just OK.
Here’s the thing: it’s OK to not be OK.
It’s OK to own that you feel like shit, kind of hate yourself, and are sick of living this way. It’s true that low self esteem is a socially acceptable way of communicating how much we hate ourselves.
But, who the hell wants to hate themselves for the rest of their lives?
When we can learn to lower the volume on our self-hatred, and crank up our curiosity about what makes us worthwhile human beings, it is so possible for us to learn to like who we are, flaws and all.
Keep reading for 3 ways you can start increasing your self-esteem today!
stuck in that shit we call “low self-esteem”
Look, I’m going to be straight with you. There are loads of reasons that people kill themselves, but one very common factor is deep self-loathing.
You may be saying to me, “well, Jenn, it’s not that I hate myself THAT much, there's just not that I like about myself.”
Dude, I totally hear you.
However, the main difference between low self-esteem and self loathing is the intensity of pain inflicted by the dislike of self. The lower your self-esteem sinks, the higher your chances of harming yourself. And if you don’t actively and strategically work on increasing your respect and love of yourself, things will absolutely get worse.
At the very least, you find yourself liking less and less about yourself.
You begin to act less and less like your authentic self, and more like the mask you put on everyday to hide the true you from the world. When you don’t respect yourself, there ends up being less reason to treat yourself with kindness and care.
You might start to engage in all the stuff therapists like to call “maladaptive coping strategies” (which is code for using substances and/or food to soothe, working way too much, not taking care of your physical needs, or other self-harming behaviors).
Living this way is extremely dangerous. If you don’t find a way to increase your love and appreciation of yourself, then you put yourself in a place where you consciously and unconsciously isolate and harm yourself. It is painful to hate yourself, and something people can only tolerate for so long before taking drastic measures.
loving yourself, without trampling on others
Now that I’ve scared the shit out of you, I want to remind you that the drastic measure you choose to take can be to reach out for help in learning to love yourself in an authentic, non-douchey way.
It can be terrifying to share how much low self-esteem is fucking you up, you still have the potential to heal and increase your self respect, self confidence, and most importantly, your self love.
When we choose to do this, there is the possibility for us to genuinely like who we are AND be excited to share our authentic selves with others. You have the ability to banish self-loathing and embrace self love.
3 ways you can build your self esteem & really love your life
So, yes, it’s true that you may feel deeply ashamed of who you are and scared of how long you can keep going on faking that you are happy and content to be you.
But, you cannot do that forever, eventually low self-esteem will devolve into total self-hatred, unless you are willing to risk reaching out for help in healing.
Reaching out and learning how to love yourself is not as difficult as you might think, because underneath that low self-regard, you really do want to find a better way. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t believe things can be better.
So, let’s dive into 3 ways that you can build your self-esteem, and love your life more deeply.
Problem #1: You Are Spending Time Collecting Data for All the Reasons You Suck
Often people don’t believe that every aspect of them sucks, they may have areas where they feel proud of who they are and how they interact in that space.
But…most people have at least one (or twelve) place where they think they suck. This makes complete sense, because we are all human, and as such, we are inherently flawed. It’s just part of the deal. No one was born flawless, and we all have areas where we don’t match the idealized version of ‘the best’.
One of the reasons that people struggle with low self-esteem is that they focus primarily on what is wrong with them, instead of being open to all the data. Part of the problem with this, is you start with the assumption that you do suck, and then you go searching for evidence to support it.
If you believe that your body is disgusting, you will pay close attention to what you eat, how others look at you, and engage in the classically awful compare/despair cycle. The longer you stay caught up in this mission to find evidence of why your body is gross, you begin to draw a variety of conclusions:
“no one will ever really want me, so I have to settle for whoever is willing to take me on”
“I can’t trust that my partner will really want to stay with me long-term, so I better do everything I can to make sure she stays”
“if only I were more disciplined, my body wouldn’t look like this, it’s my fault that I’m this way…I’m so lazy and stupid.”
Do you see how when we buy into this belief that our body is disgusting, we start to form more rigid opinions of others as well as ourselves?
It becomes really clear how you don’t measure up in this scenario, and the longer you stay in that realm, your why begins to shift as well:
“I am this way because I’m lazy and stupid.”
What began as a focus on the badness of your body, expands to become a focus on the awfulness of your work ethic and your intelligence. Your brain loves to focus intently on these kinds of things, and soon you’ll find yourself collecting data that supports your belief that you are lazy and stupid, and likely find more reasons to hate yourself.
so stop that shit and get curious & put the data in context
Your brain is pretty fucking brilliant, and if you will let it, it can transform this destructive search into a rescue and recovery mission. The way you do this is by choosing to get curious and explore the complexity of each aspect of yourself. When we get to understand the complex ways we came to be ourselves, we start to put the data in context.
In my office with clients, I encourage them to consider where these thoughts and beliefs of not being good enough began. We get really curious about the stories that have formed around these self-loathing narratives. And then we dive deeper to explore where and why these self-directed feelings of disgust and anger came from–not aiming to judge or cast blame on anyone.
When you allow yourself to get curious and start to put the data in context, you will likely find–as my clients almost always do–that your experience of low self-esteem didn’t just happen because you are a bad person. It likely had roots of times where you didn’t have your needs met, and you weren’t loved in the way you needed to be loved. When you have context, it begins to ease off the pressure to continue to find ways to destroy yourself.
Problem #2: You are Your Own Worst Frenemy
Dude. I see you.
And I know how incredibly nasty you are to yourself. I have eavesdropped on many self-loathing conversations (#weirdperkofbeingatherapist). Even what initially can seem like positive self talk is, upon closer inspection, backhanded compliments.
Your internal frenemy is ready to slap you down for daring to look at things different, and that frenemy is terrified of how deeply you’re going to get hurt if you try new ways of seeing and understanding yourself.
It’s weird, because often that internal frenemy is both persecutor and protector. Underneath it all, your system is desperately trying to keep you safe.
The problem is, what once kept you safe is now putting you in danger. It’s likely that at some point you learned that giving yourself negative feedback helped you more than harmed you. It showed you how to survive when there didn’t seem to be any other options.
When I talk with people about this push/pull of the internal voice, they often share with me, something like:
“I know this sounds stupid, but I would really miss that voice if it were just happy and positive all the time.”
And it makes complete sense to me that they are worried about losing this voice. We all need, and many of us want, the ability to see ourselves realistically. We don’t want to believe that we’re more or less than we really are. The problem with the internal frenemy, is it tends to skew toward a pessimistic view of self vs. a realistic view of self.
instead use affirmations that work (& aim to bypass Cringetown, USA)
If I had a Starbucks Earl Grey Tea Latte for every time someone told me, “yeah, affirmations seem kind of stupid.” I would have at least forty tea lattes (and would be way over caffeinated).
And for real, I kind of agree. Affirmations often are the shallow high school movie guidance counselors of the world. They give cliche, profound sounding like advice, that so totally doesn’t work.
Here’s the humdinger though: affirmations can work. (I know, I kind of made a face writing that).
But only when they are crafted and don't cause you to cringe so hard your soul goes extinct. When I introduce the idea of using an affirmation with clients, I always highlight the criteria that an affirmation has to meet, before it can be considered useful:
It's Gotta Be Authentic:
Man, I so get how cheesy affirmations can be. And some of us are total cheeseballs and we love it. If you’re one of those people, then finding an affirmation that suits you is going to be easy as pie.
For those of us who aren’t that way, we may have to do some editing. The most important part of an affirmation is that it feels enough like you that you aren’t going to be cringing every time you say it.
I always suggest people do some googling of affirmations and what they want to work on (e.g., affirmations for social anxiety) and then find one that resonates with them, and then edit it so it sounds like something that would actually come out of your mouth.
It's Gotta Be Short:
You want it to be something you can say to yourself ten to twenty times during a commercial break (none of us need to memorize the ad copy for all the medications Hulu believes we should be taking). The longer it is, the easier it is to check-out from listening to it. The best affirmations are ten words or less.
It's Gotta Be Intense, But Not Too Intense:
You’re aiming here for an affirmation that gives you “ooooh, I’m so excited to do this new thing, but also I feel like I might vomit” feeling vs. “heeeeeeeeeeeeelp, I’m being chased by a murderer” feeling. In many ways, the physical sensations are very similar, but the intensity level is dramatically different.
It's Gotta Stay Positive:
You don’t want to let the frenemy creep in, and one of the most consistent ways that happens is when you aim on all the things you don’t want to be, such as “I am not socially anxious”.
That internal voice will do some quick editing and remove the “no” and “not” and “never”s, and you find yourself back at square one. Instead, aim to stay positive in the ways you phrase your affirmation, such as “I feel calm when I am with others.”
You Gotta Use It Consistently:
After you create your affirmation, you can start using it. (I always recommend a minimum of twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening).
As you practice with it, you likely will find ways that you want to shift the words, so it starts to feel more authentic.
Keep in mind that you want to continue to remain positive, modulate the intensity (not too much, but not so little that you think, “yeah, I know, what’s the big deal?”), and keep it short enough that you can say it quickly when you need too.
Problem #3: You Keep Settling for Shit that Makes You Sad
One of the reasons you struggle with low self-esteem is that you keep relationships and things that make you sad, or at the very least dissatisfied and bored. And the fact is, it often is easier to settle for whatever is around.
Convenience often wins out over passion, and it happens all the more when you don’t even know what it is you actually want. Putting in the time and energy can seem impossible.
Yet, the longer you settle for shit that makes you sad, the longer you remain in this limbo space of gross fakeness, where you don’t really know who you are or what you like or even what you’re good at.
It makes complete sense to hang on to this stuff. Letting it go means trusting that there will be something richer, and more genuinely delightful is waiting for you to make space for it.
Often we skip over trust, and jump straight into dread: “there’s no way there is anything better than what I have now, I should just learn to like it.”
I’m going to level with you: it is highly improbable that you are going to learn to like whatever it is.
You may learn to tolerate it (as I have with a variety of steamed vegetables), and that might be necessary (again, see steamed vegetables).
But, do you really want to just tolerate your romantic partner? Do you really only want to feel ho hum about your job? Your friends? The things you supposedly do for fun?
Dude. I really hope not.
Staying with in relationships with people and activities who bring you more boredom and pain than pleasure isn’t where you have to stay.
Liking–even loving–isn’t something we can concur up through sheer willpower. There will always be things you don’t like. And there will always be the possibility to choose to draw in what it is you really love in life, while letting go of the some of things that are ho-hum.
So Fuck Complacency & Discover What You Love, and Embrace It
Instead of settling, try dreaming big, outrageous, completely audacious dreams. I’m talking one hundred and fifteen percent impossible.
Really settle into–open your notes app or Microsoft Word and jot down what comes to mind. You got it? Can you see what it is you want in that dream?
I bet you a hundred million dollars that I do not have (and will not be able to actually pay you), that you conjured up something like:
“I would have people who really listened to me, and liked me. Maybe even a partner who I really enjoy being with–and not first date posturing, but who gets me.”
“I would have a job that I actually like, instead of having to feel stuck in this corporate grind, where my boss keeps voluntelling me for weekend work.”
“I would finally join that softball team…or go to a Paint Night with Kelly…or play my music for my friends and see what they really think.”
I ask clients a version of this question all the time (the psychology experts call it ‘The Miracle Question’) and NO ONE yet has told me they dreamed of being on a Yacht with the most magically beautiful, intelligent, and kind celebrity of their choice, while sipping gold laced cocktails and detailing how they are going to create a new religion that will heal all the world’s ills. Also, they have discovered immortality.
Or in other words, no one yet has shared with me a dream of a totally ideal life where what they want isn’t simple and deeply human at its core.
That inner Frenemy, who loves to collect all the data about why you suck, has convinced you that what you want in your life is impossible. But the fact is, when you know that what you want is connection, fun, and meaning (or whatever other three words fits for you), then you can create concrete strategies to draw these things into your life.
It’s totally possible, I know, because I do it with every client I work with, and over time they share with me, “I like my life so much better now. If I hadn’t come to therapy, I would have been stuck where I was a year ago: hating my life, my job, everything. But now, I’m actually excited to get up and live.”
start falling in love with your life
Ditching low self-esteem is just the beginning of all this work. Leaning into what you really love about life, and allowing it to come into your life banishes low self-esteem to the self-help book heap.
You can absolutely find ways to let go of your self hatred and embrace the messy, imperfect, absolutely delightful human being you are.
And I can help, by exploring with you what hang ups you have that get in your way of really knowing yourself, knowing what you want, and making space for it to flourish in your life.
what the hell are you waiting for?
Stop fake smiling at brunch, at work, and with all the other people in your life. Reach out and let me help you figure out how you can ditch your low self esteem and authentically love your life instead.