When we don’t consistently feel good about ourselves, we’re more likely to experience anxiety and depression, struggle with eating disorders and substance abuse, give up when faced with challenges, and struggle in friendships and romantic relationships. We’re also less likely to ask directly for needed support, relying instead on tactics like sulking or complaining that tend to dissuade others from lending an ear (or hand).
Negative self-talk (“I can’t possibly do this!” “I’m such a screw-up!”), which stems from and reinforces low self-esteem, can also severely impact our cognitive and motor performance, sapping our ability to focus and inclining us to make more mistakes.
Feeling badly about who we are does little to bolster our well-being and quality of life. If you’re ready to start feeling better about yourself, here are seven strategies to try today.
1. Write down the negative statements you say about yourself. Challenge each one
Often, negative self-statements are vague and extreme. Think: “I suck.” Or, "Nobody loves me."
For every negative self-statement, disprove it with a counter-statement or list one or more events where the negative self-statement wasn’t fulfilled.
Example: “I suck.”
Counter-statement: “My beloved grandmother thought highly of me and would be appalled to learn anyone thought I sucked.”
Contradicting event: “My coworker said I was really helpful last week.”
Example: “Nobody loves me.”
Counter-statement: “I can't prove or know how others feel about me." "I know at least [family member/friend] loves me."
Contradicting event: "X told me they loved me when I was Y years old." "I felt loved by an acquaintance's pet when I dog sat for them."
2. Make a personal "Greatest Hits" list.
Write down—in chronological order or from most to least meaningful—all your accomplishments to date. From these, generate fact-based affirmations.
Example: “I aced a test in college/high school”
Affirmation: “I’m capable of learning and demonstrating my knowledge about X subject.”
Example: “I landed a job at X company.”
Affirmation: “Other people recognized my talent and ability to do X”
Think, also, of setbacks you’ve recovered from. Generate affirmations from those, too.
Example: “I never thought I’d get over that breakup with Y. But eventually, I got on with my life.”
Affirmation: “I’m capable of healing from emotional pain.” “I didn’t let Y ruin my life.”
3. Learn about others' mistakes.
It’s helpful to realize how not alone we are in massively messing something up. Everyone has at least one major oops! moment (I’d venture most have multiple). Ask friends, colleagues or teachers you have a good rapport with, classmates, or family members what their biggest mistakes or failures have been—and what they learned from them. Or, search for public figures’ massive mess-ups in articles, books, and movies. (There’s no shortage.) You’ll quickly realize your biggest mistakes aren’t that bad by comparison—and you may get some helpful tips on how folks who screwed up big time built up their resilience.
4. Seek help from someone you feel safe with.
Sometimes negative self-statements (“I’ve never had a successful relationship,” “I can’t hold down a real job”) offer windows into characteristics or behavioral patterns you may benefit from shifting a bit. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person! It just means you and your quality of life might benefit from learning some extra skills or practicing some new behaviors—albeit with the guidance of someone who won’t shame you or act condescendingly when providing help.
If you feel you “can’t hack it” in relationships, seek a licensed mental healthcare professional who specializes in interpersonal challenges to strategize some self-improvement techniques (think: emotion regulation, communication, and active listening skills) that benefit both your romantic and platonic connections. If it’s not being able to hold down a job, consult a career counselor. You may also want to reach out to a trusted religious or community leader for guidance.
5. Do something that makes you feel better about yourself—daily.
Hold the door for someone. Compliment a friend or co-worker. Express gratitude to someone else. Help a friend, family member, or colleague in need of assistance with something. Often it's through helping others that we see our value reflected—and, as a result, feel better about who we are and how others see us.
You can also do something that makes you feel competent—a task you know you’re capable of doing well, that helps you feel like you’re good at something. Clean or organize an area in your home or office. Create a piece of art or poetry. Cook your favorite recipe. Put together a nice outfit for yourself or someone else. Do someone else’s hair or makeup. Keep a list of activities that increase your sense of competency and consult it when in doubt.
6. Spend more time with supportive others.
Spending time with people who criticize you or reinforce negative self-beliefs isn’t helpful. Make it a point to spend more time with friends, family, or colleagues who validate your perspective, respect your basic dignity, and encourage you to strive towards personal goals.
If you don’t have these people in your life, try meeting them through self-help or support groups; events or courses catered to specific interests and activities; or seek out a local religious or spiritual community that feels welcoming and aligns with your values.
Fostering positive connections also means setting boundaries with people who make you feel bad about yourself. Rehearse setting non-combative but firm boundaries with them. Think: “I appreciate your point but I’m not comfortable being spoken to with such disrespect.” “I’m going to leave/hang up if you continue to yell at me like that.” “I’m not available to do that favor for you but hopefully you can find someone else to help!”
Practicing at least one of these strategies each day can help you to start seeing yourself in a more favorable light. Don't be surprised if, when this happens, the world around you starts to seem a little bit brighter, too.
Katherine Cullen, MFA, LMSW, is a psychotherapist and writer based in New York City. Her work has been featured by Psychology Today, where she was previously an editor, Time, Cosmopolitan, Shape, Weight Watchers Magazine, Rehabs.com, mindbodygreen.com, PsychCentral.com, and Greatist.com. She has also appeared on ABC Nightline, NY1 News, and CBS.