What can I do to build my self-esteem?

In order to increase your self-esteem, you need to challenge and change the negative beliefs you have about yourself. This might feel like an impossible task, but there are a lot of different techniques you can try to help you.

Do something you enjoy

Doing something that you enjoy, and that you are good at, can help build your confidence and increase your self-esteem. This could be anything from paid work to a hobby.

Work

Work can provide identity, friendship, a steady routine and a salary. Some people thrive in a busy environment and enjoy working towards ambitious targets. Other people see their job as a means to an end, or work in unpaid, volunteering roles. Whatever you do, it is important that you feel confident and supported in your role, and that the balance between your work and your home-life feels right for you.

Hobbies

This could be anything from learning a language to taking a painting class. Think about where you feel you have some natural ability, or things that you have always wanted to try. Try to find activities that will not challenge you too much to begin with so that you can feel you have achieved something and have a chance to build your confidence. The internet, your library and adult education colleges should have details of local clubs and classes that you might want to go along to.

“What helps me feel more positive about myself is crafting things. When I see what I created and I feel good about it, I automatically feel better about myself because I feel I found something I’m good at.”

Try to build positive relationships

Try to associate with people who will not criticise you, and who you feel you are able to talk to about your feelings. If you spend time around positive and supportive people, you are more likely to have a better self-image and feel more confident. In return, if you are caring and supportive to other people, you are more likely to get a positive response from them. This will help you feel better about yourself and how other people perceive you.

If you have low self-esteem, there might be people close to you who encourage the negative beliefs and opinions that you hold. It is important to identify these people and take action to stop them from doing this, perhaps by becoming more assertive (see ‘Learn to be assertive’ below) or by limiting how much you see them.

Learn to be assertive

Being assertive means you value yourself and others, and can communicate your boundaries while remaining respectful. You can act more assertive through the following ways:

  • Using your body language and the words you say to express openness and confidence
  • When or if you have been upset, waiting until you feel calm to express your feelings and explain how you feel
  • Saying ‘no’ to unreasonable requests; it could help to pause, take a breath, and consider how you feel before agreeing to do something you do not want to do
  • Telling people when or if you need more time or support with tasks that you find challenging; over-stretching yourself to please others can drain your energy and affect your wellbeing
  • Speaking in first person, for example ‘When you speak to me like that, I feel…’; speaking in first person allows you to explain what you want to happen without appearing aggressive or scared

Assertiveness can be a difficult skill to learn, and you may need to practise by talking in front of a mirror or to a friend. There are also adult education institutions that offer assertiveness classes, and several self-help books with practical exercises and tips available online.

Look after your physical health

Looking after your physical health can help you feel happier and healthier, and thereby improve your self-esteem.

Physical activity

Physical activity helps improve people’s sense of wellbeing and image of themselves. Exercise releases endorphins, ‘feel-good’ hormones that can help improve your mood, particularly if you do it outside.

Sleep

Lack of sleep can cause negative feelings to be exaggerated and cause you to feel less confident, so it is important to make sure you get enough sleep.

Diet

Eating a well-balanced diet at regular meal-times with plenty of water and fresh fruit and vegetables will help you to feel healthier and happier. Stopping or reducing your alcohol intake, and avoiding tobacco and recreational drugs can also help improve your general wellbeing.

Set yourself a challenge

If you set yourself goals and work towards achieving them, you will feel satisfied and proud of yourself when you achieve your goal, and feel more positive about yourself as a result.

Make sure the challenge you set yourself is one that you can realistically achieve. It does not have to be anything particularly challenging but it should have meaning to you. For example, you might decide you are going to write a letter to your local paper or start regularly going to an exercise class.

Learn to identify and challenge negative beliefs

If you are going to improve your self-esteem, it may also help to understand more about your negative beliefs about yourself and where they came from.

Identifying and challenging negative beliefs can be a painful process, so it is important for you to take your time, and perhaps ask a friend or partner to support you. If you are feeling very distressed, you may consider seeking professional help from a therapist to help you through this process. See ‘Other help’ for more information.

It might be helpful to write down certain things about your negative beliefs to help you structure your thoughts. Below are some examples of things you may want to note down:

  • What do you feel are your weaknesses or failings?
  • What negative things do you think other people think about you?
  • If you could sum yourself up, what word would you use?
  • When did you start feeling like this?
  • Can you identify an experience or event that might have caused this feeling?
  • Do you find you have certain negative thoughts on a regular basis?

It might be also helpful to keep a thought diary over a period of several weeks. Write down details of situations, how you felt and what you think your underlying belief was. For example:

Situation Reaction Underlying Belief
Asked to deliver a presentation at work Felt very anxious, but told boss it was fine No one will want to listen to me because I am not engaging
I was invited to a party I lied and said I had something else to do I can’t say anything interesting and I’ll look stupid dressed up
I saw a job ad that I liked in the paper I got angry and tore it up I’m not clever enough for that sort of work or someone would have offered me a job like that already

As you identify what your core beliefs about yourself are, and where they come from, you can begin to challenge and change them. One way you can do this is to write down evidence to challenge each belief and begin to explore other explanations of a situation.

For example, if you think that no one likes you, you can start to record situations that show a different pattern:

  • My mum called me on my birthday
  • My brother didn’t answer my call, but then later told me he had been really busy at work – it was not personal
  • I have been asked to go to a friend’s wedding next summer
  • I had a really nice conversation with my colleague over our coffee break

As your list gets longer over time, you can look back at it and challenge the negative opinions about yourself that you have been holding on to.

“A therapist once set me a task. Every time somebody said something that hurt me, [I had] to try and put myself in their shoes and think of reasons why they might have said that, so I didn’t interpret it as aimed at me. His advice really did help.”

Focus on positive things

If you have low self-esteem, it can take practice to get used to thinking more positively about yourself. One way you can do this is by making a list of several things that you like about yourself.

You might include:

  • Things about your personality
  • Things about the way that you look
  • Things that you do
  • Skills you have developed

Take your time and aim for 50 different things, even if this takes several weeks. Keep this list and look at a different part of it each day. If you are feeling down or worried about an event that is coming up, such as a job interview, you can use it to remind you of the good things about yourself.

If you struggle to come up with a list of good things, you could ask your partner or a trusted friend to help you begin. This may also help you to see how others may have a higher opinion of you than you do yourself. Another technique is to write down at least three things that went well or that you have achieved that day before you go to sleep. Some people also find it helpful to keep objects, such as photos or letters, that make them feel good about themselves.

“I have a feel-good box, and in it I keep happy memories, positive affirmations and just little things that make me feel good.”

Try mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing exercises and yoga. It has been shown to help people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, they can manage them.

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