How To Improve Low Self Esteem
The canned advice all over the internet to remedy low self-esteem seems to be high self-esteem: Who cares what they think? Remember your worth! Ignore them!
However, studies have shown that that doesn’t resolve anything either.
“…people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem and feeling bad about yourself is not the source of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”
Our challenge is to hear what people have to say without internalizing it so deeply that it cripples us. This is harder than it sounds depending on who it comes from. But, then again, even feedback from a stranger can cut deep.
During my user interviews this week, I was struck by how often the desire for confidence came up. One woman said it best, “Confidence is the accelerator of any career.”
And I think therein lies the secret to improving self-esteem: knowing that esteem goes up and down, but always remembering that you are more than what anybody thinks.
What Exactly Is It
I think we all have a vision of what confidence looks like: bold, fearless, single-digit dress size, and shiny voluminous hair. When I’ve tried to be any one of those things (trust me I can only achieve one at a time realistically), it usually lasts a day if I’m lucky.
And so does the feeling of confidence.
Trying to be confident is both too easy and too hard. Too easy because Madison Avenue will convince you that it’s because you don’t have something. Too hard because there is always another thing. Until you wake up a little more broke and no more confident.
True confidence cannot be purchased or intellectualized. It’s something to be cultivated through regular reflection, talking through tough situations, and believing in your own ability to deal with whatever is in front of you at the moment. Success or failure. Confidence is knowing you will weather whatever happens.
Because you already have.
“So what’s the probability of your being born? It’s the probability of 2.5 million people getting together — about the population of San Diego — each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice — and they all come up the exact same number — say, 550,343,279,001. A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible. By that definition, I’ve just proven that you are a miracle. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.”
-Dr. Ali Binazir
And you will.
Why It’s Broken
The obvious answer is fear. We don’t allow ourselves to be confident because we think we know what will happen:
- They will think I’m harsh
- They will think I’m ungrateful
- They will think I’m arrogant
- They’ll say no
These thoughts don’t come out of nowhere. They are collected over a lifetime witnessing all the horrible things that have happened to you directly or you saw happen to others.
For example, I was walking home from the subway on Monday when I passed by two friends: a tall white male and female, both in their late 20s. I dare not assume that they were more than just friends based on his comment:
“You know what I have an f*&^ing problem with? Ladies first.”
I suppose in an age when women are still fighting for equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal respect in the workplace – the idea of ladies first in any situation seems asynchronous. I wonder if somehow he felt that courtesy was only due toward women when women had fewer rights like the one to vote, earn money, or sit by herself at a bar.
Yes then, of course, ladies first.
Today women carry some semblance of legal standing and rights, but find ourselves needing to threaten or sue people just to enforce them. Or notably wait for the media to take notice.
“If every time I want an ice cream soda I have to sue the owner of the drugstore, I think I will probably keep going to the same old places…”
I don’t see this situation as an issue of courtesy per se. Rather, I hear a young man whose basic training was perhaps built on treating women with respect because he was superior. When situations occur that rail against this superior feeling, the other shoe falls really fast.
What can we really do about it? As mentioned before, there are no easy answers. Here are some practices that work for me:
- Say Goodbye To The Past – There is a tendency to hold onto hurtful memories, even if they hold us back. Our minds want to rationalize a “why” to protect ourselves from future trauma. The problem is we will never know. We will never truly know the reasons a co-worker disparages us. Or a boss dislikes us. Or somebody lies. We have to put the past in proper perspective. Maturity is recognizing that someone may have perceived you to be a certain way, but that doesn’t mean you are that way today. In other words, “I may have lacked initiative in the past, but today is a different story.” You have a right to make mistakes. Just like they have a right to have an opinion. But the real mistake is letting the past infect your present.
- Ladies First – Even if chivalry is on its last legs, you should always put what you want first. Consider revisiting this post on discovering your purpose.
“You can’t fill an empty bucket with a dry well.”
- Sit In Silence – In other words, spend some quality time with yourself. Days can fill up quickly accommodating other people and being productive. Try sitting for 5 minutes in silence in a comfortable chair with two feet on the ground and shoulders shrugged back. This is a physical manifestation of what self-acceptance looks like. Be still and know.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”