I spend a lot of time talking to patients about why they dislike themselves so much. While many talk about negative messages they received growing up from parents, teaches, coaches and peers, I discover that long after the outside messages may have stopped, the individual continues to play those old tapes. They have internalized the messages and remind themselves of these really negative thoughts constantly. If they heard someone else saying them now, they might be able to recognize mean, bullying and just plain nasty behavior. But, on their own, they accept the internal messages as accurate statements about themselves. Self esteem was described by author and psychologist James Dobson as “that awful awareness that nobody likes you, that you’re not as good another people…It’s that depressing feeling of worthlessness”.
When we constantly put ourselves down, it is hard to function at our best. People with good self-esteem may sometimes feel a bit insecure or give themselves an occasional negative message. However, they generally can acknowledge the reality of their strengths and weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses doesn’t need to destroy our self-esteem. It may allow us to recognize what we do well and when we might need to ask for help. For example, most people who know me are well aware that I can easily become frustrated with electronics. Actually, they tend to break when I touch them! I also am not very good with spatial awareness and directions. My grandson who is now 12 has been helping me with directions since he was 4 and he directed me to his local library that clearly was not easy to find.
But, overall, I like myself. It hasn’t always been easy. As a kid with a large nose, before surgery, I was called Pinnochio. As the only Jewish girl in my high school class, I was once approached by a classmate who said she thought Jews had horns.I always need to leave extra time when I go somewhere new, to plan for getting lost. But there are things I think I do pretty well. I think I am a pretty good mom and grandmother and wife. I think I am a pretty decent psychologist. I believe I listen well and have good problem solving skills. I am a fairly good cook and try to maintain a sense of humor. I would like to think I am a good friend.
So why would I share these personal thoughts with all of you in a blog. The answer is fairly simple. I frequently ask patients to tell me what they like about themselves and they come up blank. I then request they ask their friends why they like them. Many can’t bring themselves to do this. Knowing what is good about yourself is not narcissistic. It is helpful and healthy. We can give ourselves more positive messages, such as: “I can do this” or “I can figure this out”. Even the message “this is tough but I have a good friend who can help me do this” leaves people feeling good about and comfortable with themselves.
Here are a few tips to help you improve your self-esteem:
1. Try to make decisions and act in ways that are ethically and morally honest and good.
2. Be the kind of friend you want to have.
3. Let go of the toxic relationships in your life. Surround yourself with people who accept and like you for who you are. If you constantly receive negative messages from someone or you feel you have to fight to keep them in your life, let them go.
4. Get to know yourself better. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.
5. Keep a sense of humor about yourself and others.
6. Don’t personalize everyone’s comments. Try asking yourself…”why did they say or do that” rather than “why did they say or do that TO ME”.
7. Treat your body well. Eat healthy foods, exercise and be mindful of what you are doing.
8. Make a list of good and kind things you have done in the past.
9. Correct your own cognitive distortions. This means that when you say to yourself, “wow, I am stupid” you can reframe that by saying “I may not have done well on this project, but I have done well on lots of others. And I will do better on the next one”.
10. If you are really stuck, talk to a psychologist who can help you find ways to get rid of the negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.