Last week, one of my clients said to me, “Leora, can you just teach me how to gain self-esteem? If I just had some self esteem my life would be so different…” I knew what she meant. She tries to use her eating disorder to give her self confidence. She believes that if she were thin enough that she would be worthwhile and important, but if she is not thin enough, she is a worthless human being with no value. But she is never thin enough. And so her life has been spent waiting to feel valuable and trying to be good enough. Her focus is always on her weight and never on anything else. Her critic is always telling her that she will be better, more people will like her and she will be happier when she is thinner. She is already very, very thin.
What she thought was that she could “get self esteem,” like gain something that she’s never had before, something new. The truth is, having self esteem isn’t about harnessing some mystical force or acquiring something new- it’s about letting go of something old– old messages that tell you that you’re not okay, that you have to be better than you are, that there is something wrong with you. Self esteem is about being kind to yourself, accepting and loving yourself even if you’re not perfect. Self acceptance can often become confused with settling for something that you don’t like. But that’s not what self esteem is about. It’s about accepting who you are in the moment and accepting that it’s okay to be who you are as you go toward greatness (even more greatness!) and allowing yourself to evolve, but caring for yourself and being kind to yourself and even loving yourself in that process. It’s about holding yourself with integrity to the best of your ability, always being kind, thoughtful, compassionate and loving to the people around you and to yourself. It’s about knowing what your values are and doing your best to uphold those values. So, when you hear the voices telling you that you’re not okay and that you won’t be okay until you… CLIMB MT. EVEREST, RUN A MARATHON, LOSE WEIGHT, FIT INTO A SIZE XX JEANS, READ WAR & PEACE, WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL, BECOME A BEST SELLING AUTHOR, MAKE 6 FIGURES, GET MARRIED, HAVE A BABY, QUIT DRINKING, QUIT SMOKING, QUIT EATING CARBS, EAT NOTHING BUT KALE SMOOTHIES AND SUNFLOWER SEEDS, BECOME A VEGAN, HAVE CLEAR SKIN, GET YOUR MBA… Or whatever those voices are telling you, remember that you don’t have to engage with those thoughts. It’s not true and it’s not real. It’s okay to be okay with who you are in the moment instead of after you’ve done these things. People confuse acceptance with resignation and defeat. Acceptance doesn’t mean resigning yourself to being stuck in your circumstances. It means accepting that you are in the place that you’re in now and you don’t have to wait to be who your are until after you’ve changed your circumstances. It means that you can be yourself now and thrive and be in the world while at the same time improving your circumstances. We all have goals to achieve, that’s part of what makes us psychologically healthy and what helps us move forward in life. But when you get into the cycle of “I won’t be okay until…” you set yourself to be unhappy and you have a very hard time finding happiness… because it’s never enough.
So, how do you do this? I’ve created 10 tangible steps to achieving self-esteem. You don’t have to do all of them right now. But just try one this week and see how it goes. When you start to feel a difference, try another one. I know that doing these exercises will be life-changing for you.
1. Make a List of What your Values Are
Think about what is fundamentally important to you and write it down. This could be being a kind and compassionate person, being the kind of person people turn to when they are having troubles, not judging or criticizing other people, living with integrity, having positive intentions. Knowing that you are never going to be 100% at all these things, when you are feeling badly about yourself, check in and ask yourself if you are doing your best to live in accordance with your values. If you are, then you can fall back on that foundation of strong values and strength. If you are not, give yourself a reminder of what your values are and try to live according to them. So, if someone does or says something to you that hurts your feelings or if you yourself say or do something to yourself that hurts your feelings, check in with yourself and ask, “am I living according to my values? Am I behaving and acting in a way that I can feel good about? Am I acting like the kind of person that I would want to have as a friend?” And remember, we always forget to do these things and fail at them sometimes, and that’s normal, but having your values written down in a list form can be a great reference for you to come back to. It will help you remember what is truly important to you and when you remember and when you live according to those values, you find self-efficacy.
2. Don’t Compare Yourself To Other People
Your values and your dharma (path) are different than anyone else’s, so you just can’t compare. You can’t compare your money situation to anyone else’s, your relationships, your jean size… we were all born with our own individual paths. When you begin to look at other people’s paths and think that you should be like them or different from who you are, you fail to move along your own, or you reject your path. This inherently makes you feel bad. This keeps you from moving forward. You also shouldn’t be comparing your backend to anyone else’s front end. Meaning, you can’t compare the knowledge that you have about your own situation to what someone else is outwardly showing you about their own. You never know what is going on with someone else. As M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, life is hard for everyone, not just you. And once you remember that life is hard across the board, you can transcend the existential angst and pain that comes with the difficulties of life. You can understand that when things happen (you get a parking ticket, break your arm, get into a car accident, lose a parent) that it’s painful and it’s difficult- but you are not alone, that bad and difficult things happen to everyone who chooses a life of being human.
3. Do Things for other People Often
Performing acts of kindness actually makes you happier and boosts your self esteem, making you feel more valuable and more at peace. A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology showed that participants who performed directed acts of kindness every day for 10 days in a row showed an increased level of life satisfaction. Self-esteem comes from life satisfaction and feeling your value in the world. Doing things for other people can be as small as smiling at someone when you are walking down the street or as big as volunteering your time to help someone out. It can also be remembering to give loved ones around you big hugs, kisses and compliments and reminding them why you love them so much and telling them how proud you are of them.
4. Live Mindfully – Mindful living is about being aware of your body, being aware of your choices, your environment, being mindful or your choices, your environment, your bodily sensations, your thoughts, your actions and your fears. Often, people who are suffering with eating disorders have a really rough time living mindfully. They reject their true needs to focus on the goal of weight loss or looking better and either binge or starve themselves, they don’t honor their appetites, they hate their bodies because they believe that there is something wrong with them. They completely reject themselves. When you are living mindfully, you are working to honor the needs of your body.
If you are signed up for the newsletter, you should have received your free mindful eating meditation. If not, sign up here to get it. You might also like the loving your body and letting go of negative body image meditation.
Do check out this article on mindful living.
5. Learn Self Acceptance: Part of self acceptance is knowing what your strengths are and honing in on those and not punishing yourself for things that you are still working on. Make a list of things that you are good at and that you like about yourself. Be with that list and do more of those things. Make another list of things that you are not so happy with and that you want to change. Tell yourself that it is okay that you are where you are. And that it doesn’t make you bad and you can still like yourself and care for yourself as you are working to change those things. Get love and support and help for changing the things that you want to change. Change and healing is difficult all alone and in a void. But when you find other people who are working on the same change together, you have a group of encouraging, loving folks to keep you accountable and to be kind to you when you fall down. You can also do the same for others which will help you (see #3!)
6. Taking Responsibility for Yourself: This is about not blaming other people for choices you made. Understanding that you have power and that you are not stuck and that just because you made a bad choice, you are not stuck in it because you have the power to constantly be rethinking and recreating your life. If you make a mistake, don’t shift the blame. Don’t say that you did this thing or said this thing because someone made you. For example, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but if you weren’t acting so irrational, I wouldn’t have.” You have just negated your apology and given away your power. Always take ownership for your actions. Knowing that you have it in you to make your own decisions based on your own values (see #1) is part of what gives you self efficacy and self-esteem. Saying that someone else made you yell or act mean or say something wrong basically says that you have no power to make your own decisions about how you behave. Remember that you almost always have the power to undo a decision that you made.
7. Be an Advocate for Yourself: When you have self-advocacy, you always treat other people with respect and you do not allow other people to talk down to you or to treat you poorly. If you have a boss, for instance who is verbally abusing you or yelling at you, it’s okay to look at them and say, “it’s not okay to talk to me that way.” You also stand up for others who might not have the ability to voice their own needs. If you are unable to stand up for your own needs and have your own voice, you find someone who can be an advocate for you.
8. Live with Purpose:
Consider your life’s purpose. When you begin to live with purpose, you take care of yourself, but your main purpose in life isn’t about getting thin or getting pretty or making money or trying to impress or look good to other people. It’s about having goals that long term feel important and meaningful to you and using your life to work on these goals that help the world at large.
9. Have Lots of Integrity:
What is it to live with integrity? In my opinion, it’s to be as honest as you can without being hurtful. Being honest doesn’t mean telling someone that they look fat in their new dress or that they’re acting like a jerk. That’s not honest, that’s your subjective opinion. Being honest is more like telling someone that your feelings were hurt when they didn’t answer your phone calls or respond to your messages. Being honest is not stealing, not lying, not purposely saying things to hurt people, not spreading hurtful rumors, and not using other people to achieve your own means. It’s about being kind, being helpful, but also not sacrificing yourself or your own needs for the sake of others. Personal integrity is about knowing what your values are trying to live up to them. (See #1). When you identify your values and do your best to live up to them, you will always know that you are okay and you won’t have to worry about what other people think about you.
10. Challenge Your Inner Critic-
What would it be like to gently let go of the old thought patterns that you are so intensely holding onto? As I said earlier, self-esteem isn’t about gaining or building and changing, it’s about letting go. Imagine the beliefs that you have that plague you and make you feel bad, (ie: “I have to be thinner, I have to be smarter, I have to be cleaner, I have to be richer, I have to be prettier…) and just choosing to disengage with them. Choosing instead to engage with the above ideas that are helpful and help you to feel better about yourself than the thoughts that intrude into your mind and keep you from living your life with zest and enjoyment. That doesn’t mean you won’t have these thoughts pop up. They are old and part of old patterns. However, what about trying to hear them like background noise (like a fire engine siren outside) but not follow them. Let them fly through your mind, notice them and rather than grasping onto them, think about doing things that align with what makes you feel good about yourself.
For more help on improving self esteem, check out some of Nathaniel Branden’s sentence completion exercises.
What about you? What are some things that you have done that helped you feel into your self esteem?