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Building self-esteem - Where to begin?

I think most of us can relate to some period in our lives (probably when we were teenagers) when we had low self-esteem, shaky self-confidence or some variation of these things. For many of us, it’s easy enough to look back and say “aww poor 14-year-old me, I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, so self-conscious - I’m so glad that I know who I am now and I’m aware of my value.”

The thing is, the reality for a lot of people is still one of low self-esteem, ranging in intensity from uncomfortable to debilitating. Self-esteem issues usually go hand in hand either with mental illness (due to the effects that MI can have on one’s life) or they are a direct product of a traumatic childhood/ bullying. 

So what is self-esteem exactly and why is it so important?

Self-esteem refers to a person’s general estimation of themself, in terms of their value or worth. We can consider it to be a metric of how much a person prizes or likes themself. 

Self-esteem is a vital part of our internal lives because it heavily influences people's choices and decisions. Issues concerning how likely people are to take care of themselves and explore/ actualise their potential often boil down to self-esteem.

One crucial difference between self-esteem and self-confidence: self-confidence is about your trust in yourself and your abilities to contend with challenges. Self-confidence is to do with how successful you deem yourself to be in engaging with the world, whereas self-esteem describes what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves.

So here we encounter an issue: “If self-confidence relies upon my environment, self-esteem is an internal assessment of myself, and the two are mostly distinct, how can I build self-esteem in a way that’s removed from the way I practically navigate the world?”

The best way to approach this question is to break it down into manageable parts. 

Let’s be methodical and start small by examining common causes of low self-esteem.

Some of the many causes of low self-esteem may include: 

  • an unhappy childhood throughout which parents or teachers were extremely critical

  • poor academic performance in school resulting in a lack of self-belief in one’s capabilities

  • ongoing stressful life events such as relationship breakdowns or financial trouble etc.

 Maybe you’ve experienced these things but are still somewhat unsure of whether you would categorise yourself as someone who suffers from low self-esteem. Perhaps you’re asking yourself “But does low self-esteem look like in my life, practically? How can I spot it in my behaviours?” 

Let’s identify symptoms of lowself-esteem, directly. Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for. (It’s worth noting that most, if not all of these indicators are present in mood disorders like major depression and general anxiety.)

  • Poor or absent boundaries.

  • Difficulty voicing and prioritizing your own needs, desires, and emotions.

  • Apologising and/or feeling guilty for inoffensive actions.

  • Critical, abusive internal dialogue.  

  • Being excessively compliant so as not to be ‘disruptive’.

  • Indecisiveness and issues exercising your own agency.

  • Doing favours or buying gifts excessively for other people.

  • Feeling undeserving or incapable of having “more”.

  • Negative self-perception.

We all have off-days or even prolonged low periods and we all take blows to our self-esteem following things like rejection. However, if a number of these ‘symptoms’ resonate with you in a way that is chronic, it’s worth exploring ways of combating low self-esteem - it may be a quietly pervasive presence in your life.  

So… How to actually (practically) build self-esteem.

  • Be more compassionate towards yourself.

  • Identify and challenge the negative beliefs you hold about yourself.

  • Identify and affirm the positive beliefs you hold about yourself.

  • Take on new challenges.

  • Invest in positive relationships and remove yourself from negative ones.

  • Train yourself to say ‘no’ to people - assert and maintain your boundaries.

  • Don’t neglect your physical health.

There’s one more action I’m going to mention that is, in my opinion, the most important thing, the easiest thing and the most rewarding thing you can start doing right now: Doing esteemable things.

This is, of course, personal to each of us. An act that may inspire admiration in me may inspire apathy in you or vice versa. The key is to establish what traits you associate with a “good” character or person.

This is actually something that was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who is now many years sober. They told me that part of coming to terms with and growing from their addiction was confronting the ways in which they had wronged people and wronged themselves. 

An integral part of recovery is building your self-esteem. From what I understand, it is incredibly difficult to remain sober if you think little of yourself and don’t believe that you deserve better in life and in your relationships. An effective way to cultivate this belief is to become a person who you like and who is worthy of your respect. Of course, this is easier said than done, but as with many things, leaning on your support system, seeking professional help and mindfully breaking down your goals into manageable steps is a good place to start. 

When you are looking to identify “esteemable” things, try to focus on actions and traits that make you feel better about who you are as a person in healthy, concrete, sustainable ways. This means not tying your self-esteem to your body fat percentage or your academic and professional achievements, but rather, tying it to things such as kindness, perseverance, patience, being charitable and so on.

Try to remember, when it comes to bolstering and building your self-esteem, it’s never too late to start and no action is too small.

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