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How to increase your self-esteem

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to how we see ourselves and the beliefs and opinions we have about ourselves.  It can be thought of as being on a continuum from low to high and often you may experience fluctuations in self-esteem depending on how confident and capable you feel in any situation.

Low self-esteem is often something that people who enter counselling know that they struggle with and yet it can be a concept that is difficult to define.  This gives self-esteem an elusive quality, something that’s difficult to obtain, as something that is out of reach. 

Origins of low self-esteem

The reason people have low self-esteem will be different for everyone and may ultimately remain unknown but might be a response to how you learned to gain approval from others or a reaction to people directing criticism your way or feeling as though problems in your life are somehow to be expected because of who you are.

While self-esteem is about how you see yourself, people often consider themselves through the lens of how they think other people see of judge them.  If this goes unchallenged then your level of self-esteem is dependent on the extent to which other people validate you.  Children learn ways to behave that gain approval from their parents which naturally aligns us with the ability to monitor the reactions of others and know what will gain external approval and positive attention.  At times this could be at odds with what we really want, for example chasing a promotion at work might mean not being able to go and see a film you’re really interested in.  This affects our self-esteem because you are looking for external sources of esteem, this can become very difficult and tiring trying to second guess what other people’s reactions will be all the time.  Externalising your levels of esteem also leaves you feeling vulnerable because it can be taken away at any time.  Stepping outside of this framework and focusing on what really matters to you can feel scary if it is less socially acceptable.

Impact of low self-esteem

If you experience low levels of self-esteem you might have beliefs about yourself that can hold you back, maybe you feel like you shouldn’t try because you’ll just fail.  You might lack confidence in social situations, so you increasingly avoid putting yourself out there.  

Perfectionism might be used to mask low self-esteem, in this instance rather than not trying at all, perfectionist traits could drive you forward to perform well in an attempt to avoid negative responses from other people.  However, achievements driven by perfectionism can reinforce a low self-esteem and lead to imposter syndrome. 

Changing your level of self-esteem

An outlook based in low self-esteem ignores evidence that demonstrates your accomplishments, or that you are a likeable, nice person because it does not match up with your beliefs about who you are.  It takes time and effort to change your level of self-esteem and to update your view of who you are.

If we break self-esteem down into 3 component parts: unconditional worth, unconditional love and growth, it provides more concrete areas that you can explore to help you to develop actionable steps to raise your level of self-esteem.

Unconditional worth

Our worth is unconditional but its not uncommon for someone to find it easy to recognise this in other people but struggle to include themselves as though they are the exception to the rule.  If this resonates with you, then you could explore where this idea has come from and begin to question whether this belief is still helpful. 

Howard’s Law of Human Worth is a good place to start, they are five statements based on the work of Claudia A Howard (1992) it states that:

  1. All have infinite, eternal, and unconditional worth as persons.

  2. All have equal worth as people. Worth is not comparative or competitive. Although you might be better at sports, academics, or business, and I might be better in social skills, we both have equal worth as human beings.

  3. Externals neither add to nor diminish worth. Externals include things like money, looks, performance and achievements. These only increase one’s market or social worth. Worth as a person, is infinite and unchanging.

  4. Worth is stable and never in jeopardy even if someone rejects you.

  5. Worth doesn’t have to be earned or proved. It already exists. Just recognize, accept and appreciate it.

If you often to struggle to include yourself when you think about unconditional worth, remembering Howard’s Law and that it applies to everyone (even you!) is a helpful guidepost.


Unconditional love

The next stage is unconditional love, quite often we are subjected to conditional love which means that we have to perform in a certain way and achieve certain external things in order to maintain a feeling of love.  When we can detach our sense of self love from the need for qualification and we learn to speak to and treat ourselves in a kind manner then we build a stronger foundation of self-esteem than we do when we use negative judgement.  If you live with a strong inner critic, harshly narrating your life, ask yourself: in what ways does this help me? And question, how does that leave me feeling?  Maybe it's time to try and foster a kinder, more gentle voice.  Kindness does not equate to weakness and often through being kind you allow yourself more opportunities because if things don't work out, you will be more capable of grounding yourself and accepting your shortcomings.  Why not take Dr Kristin Neff’s self-compassion test to see whether your levels of self-compassion could benefit from working on: 


Continual growth

It is from this foundation that the third stage of self-esteem can be more easily pursued.  Unconditional worth and kind acceptance offer a supportive position from which you can step outside your comfort zone, pushing yourself in different areas of your life to increase your circles of mastery and increase your feelings of being confident and capable.  The opposite of continual growth is that feeling of being stuck in a rut and you aren’t moving forwards, this stagnation is often accompanied by feelings of low self-esteem.  It’s as though by stretching your abilities and challenging yourself you improve your levels of self-esteem, even setbacks can be viewed as learning curves and you maximise your opportunities.

If you struggle to get out of your comfort zone, a deep dive into the work of Carol Dweck and her explanation of the growth mindset is a really helpful concept to support you.

By focusing on working on your levels of self-esteem following this approach it is proactive and less conditional.  This is important because it will minimise the fluctuation in your levels of self-esteem in situations where you are less confident because you will know that your inherent worth is not on the line, that you accept yourself as you are, and even when things go wrong and something doesn’t go right, it just gives you more information and you can learn from every experience.

What can counselling provide to help you with self-esteem?

Most humanistic counsellors follow the principles of Carl Rogers and try to create a therapeutic relationship based on his researched “core conditions”.  Specifically utilising empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence.  For some, counselling might be one of the only interactions they have experienced in their life that is unconditional.  Through experiencing what unconditional positive regard sounds and feels like might help you to adopt this way of being for yourself. 

Counselling can help you to unpick and understand where you aren’t living to your true values and explore where your introjected beliefs come from.

Grounding techniques and new coping mechanisms can be explored in counselling, supporting you in trying to experiment and develop new ways of behaving which can help you to change your self-limiting beliefs, push you outside of your comfort zone and challenge the way you see yourself, including your levels of self-esteem.

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