Apr 19, 2009
Self-esteem: Boost your self-image with these 5 steps
Cognitive behavior therapy techniques can help you unlearn thought patterns that contribute to low self-esteem. See examples of thoughts that can erode self-esteem and learn healthy substitutes.
Low self-esteem can negatively affect virtually every part of your life, including your relationships, your job and your health. But you can raise your self-esteem to a healthy level, even if you're an adult who's been harboring a negative self-image since childhood.
Changing the way you think about yourself and your life is essential to boosting self-esteem. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) techniques are especially helpful in changing unhealthy thinking and behavior patterns. These techniques are based on the idea that your feelings and behavior result from how you think about yourself and your life. CBT techniques can help you recognize, challenge and ultimately replace negative thoughts or inaccurate beliefs with more positive, realistic ones.
These five steps toward healthy self-esteem are based on cognitive behavior therapy principles. As you go through these five steps, jotting down your thoughts, experiences and observations in a journal or daily record may help you use these steps more effectively.
Step 1: Identify troubling conditions or situations
Think about what conditions or situations about your life you find troubling and that seem to deflate your self-esteem. You may wish to change aspects of your personality or behavior, such as a fear of giving a business presentation, frequently becoming angry or always expecting the worst. You may be struggling with depression, a disability or a change in life circumstances, such as the death of a loved one, a lost promotion or children leaving home. Or you may wish to improve your relationship with another person, such as a spouse, family member or co-worker.
Step 2: Become aware of beliefs and thoughts
Once you've identified troubling conditions or situations, pay attention to your thoughts related to them. This includes your self-talk — what you tell yourself — as well as your interpretation of what a situation means and your beliefs about yourself, other people and events. Your thoughts and beliefs may be positive, negative or neutral. They may be rational — based on reason or facts — or irrational — based on false ideas.
Step 3: Pinpoint negative or inaccurate thinking
Your beliefs and thoughts about a condition or situation affect your reaction to it. Inaccurate or negative thoughts and beliefs about something or someone can trigger unhealthy physical, emotional and behavioral responses, including:
• Physical responses, such as a stiff neck, sore back, racing heart, stomach problems, sweating or change in sleeping patterns.
• Emotional responses, such as difficulty concentrating or feeling depressed, angry, sad, nervous, guilty or worried.
• Behavioral responses, such as eating when not hungry, avoiding tasks, working more than usual, spending increased time alone, obsessing about a situation or blaming others for your problems.
Step 4: Challenge negative or inaccurate thinking
Your initial thoughts may not be the only possible way to view a situation. So test the accuracy of your thoughts. Ask yourself whether your view of a situation is consistent with facts and logic or whether there might be other explanations.
You may not easily recognize inaccuracies in your thinking. Most people have automatic, long-standing ways of thinking about their lives and themselves. These long-held thoughts and beliefs feel normal and factual to you, but many are simply opinions or perceptions.
These kinds of thought patterns tend to erode self-esteem:
• All-or-nothing thinking. You see things as either all good or all bad. For example, "If I don't succeed in this job, I'm a total failure."
• Mental filtering. You see only negatives and dwell on them, distorting your view of a person or situation or your entire life. For example, "I made a mistake on that report and now everyone will realize I'm a failure."
• Converting positives into negatives. You reject your achievements and other positive experiences by insisting that they don't count. For example, "My date only gave me that compliment because he knows how bad I feel." "I only did well on that test because it was so easy."
• Jumping to negative conclusions. You reach a negative conclusion when little or no evidence supports it. For example, "My friend hasn't replied to my e-mail, so I must have done something to make her angry."
• Mistaking feelings for facts. You confuse feelings or beliefs with facts. For example, "I feel like a failure, so I must be a failure." No matter how strong a feeling is, it isn't a fact.
• Self put-downs. You undervalue yourself, put yourself down or use self-deprecating humor. This can result from overreacting to a situation, such as making a mistake. For example, "I don't deserve anything better." "I'm weak, stupid or ugly."
Step 5: Change your thoughts and beliefs
The final step is to replace the negative or inaccurate thinking you've identified with accurate thoughts and beliefs. This can enable you to find constructive ways to cope and give your self-esteem a boost.
This step can be difficult. Thoughts often occur spontaneously or automatically, without effort on your part. It can be hard to control or turn off your thoughts. Thoughts can be very powerful and aren't always based on logic. It takes time and effort to learn how to recognize and replace distressing thoughts with accurate ones.
These strategies may help you approach situations in a healthy way:
• Use hopeful statements. Be kind and encouraging to yourself. Pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if you think your presentation isn't going to go well, you may indeed stumble through it. Try telling yourself things such as, "Even though it's tough, I can handle this situation."
• Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes aren't permanent reflections on you as a person. They are isolated moments in time. Tell yourself, "I made a mistake but that doesn't make me a bad person."
• Avoid 'should' and 'must' statements. If you find that your thoughts are full of these words, you may be setting unreasonable demands on yourself — or others. Removing these words from your self-talk can give you and others more realistic expectations.
• Focus on the positive. Think about the good parts of your life. Ask yourself, "What other things have gone well recently?" "What personal skills do I have that have helped me cope with challenging situations in the past?"
• Relabel upsetting thoughts. Having negative thoughts doesn't mean you must choose to react negatively. Instead, think of them as signals to use new, healthy thinking patterns. Ask yourself, "Which of my strengths can help me respond in a constructive way?" "What can I think and do to make this less stressful?"
• Encourage yourself. Give yourself credit for making positive changes. Treat yourself as well as you'd treat a loved one. Tell yourself, "I did a good job on the presentation. It may not have been perfect, but my colleagues said it was good."
Achieving healthy self-esteem
With practice, these steps may come more easily to you. You'll be better able to recognize the thoughts and beliefs that are contributing to your low self-esteem. Because self-esteem can fluctuate over time, you may want to revisit these steps, especially if you begin to feel down on yourself again. Keeping a journal or daily log can help you track trouble spots over time.
Achieving a balanced, accurate view of yourself and accepting your value as a human being may help you feel happier and more confident. And that may rub off on others, too, including your children, family or friends.