The formula for better self-esteem


Self-esteem is a tricky beast.

If you were to overhear about yourself, “She has VERY high self-esteem.” Would you take it as a compliment?

When we are unable to take chances or make changes in our lives, we often blame our lack of self-esteem. On the other hand, we dislike inflated or unearned self-esteem even more.

We are at a moment in our culture when narcissism and bravado are mistaken for competence and strength. It creates an uncomfortable dichotomy: Either you have a low self-esteem and are a decent human, or you have a high self esteem and are a jerk. Our sense of what is a healthy, desirable level of self-confidence has become eroded and confused.

So let’s start by defining what healthy self-esteem is:

1. Seeing yourself as worthy of goodwill and respect.

2. The ability to realistically assess your strengths and weaknesses.

3. Faith in your fundamental resilience in the face of life’s twists and turns.

Not sure you’re quite there? Here are a few ideas that may help.

Monitor your self-talk

Imagine self-talk as a news ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen of your mind. This particular news feed is controlled by the part of your brain that exists solely to scan for danger and to keep you safe. This part of your brain is clever and has two primary tricks. One is beating you up emotionally, along the lines of, “Who the hell do you think you are? You’ll embarrass yourself!” The other is letting you off the hook in a way that doesn’t serve you, “You can ask for a promotion/ start your novel/end a terrible relationship, TOMORROW.”

This keeps us firmly in our comfort zone, which is reassuring for this part of our brain, but results in no risk taking, no progress and no self-esteem.

If we are aware of these thoughts we can address them. While many of us wish we could forcefully rip the news ticker out of our brain, the scanning for danger part is pretty useful when there is actual danger. More effective is to talk back to the news ticker in a compassionate, neutral way. “I know I’m scared, but I can still take the next step,” or “This is really uncomfortable for me, but I am going to do it anyway.” Another trick is to focus on how you’ll feel after you’ve taken the next step. Usually, even if something doesn’t go perfectly, you’ll feel pretty good about your effort, or at least relieved that you did it.

Cultivate a growth mindset

Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset, the new Psychology of growth,” describes a fixed mindset as the belief that intelligence and abilities are in-born traits, altered little by effort or practice. A person with a growth mindset believes that intelligence and abilities are malleable, and with effort, can be improved. Not surprisingly, a growth mindset is connected to better academic outcomes and increased confidence. And probably more interesting lives! We can encourage a growth mindset by framing our achievements as the result of effort and hard work instead innate ability. People with a growth mindset "fail forward" by learning from their mistakes and making course corrections along the way.

Pat yourself on the back for taking the risk, even if the results are disappointing.

Self-esteem is not the belief that you’ll always be amazing, it’s the deep knowledge that you won’t die of shame when you aren’t. It’s awareness not of one’s talent but of one’s resilience. Consider this from comedian Amber Ruffin, “I honestly believe that before you crash and burn in a show, you will never truly be a fearless performer. You spend so long trying not to embarrass yourself. Once you have the worst show of your life and survive, you know it’s not that bad. Then, you become this fearless, shameless weirdo version of yourself that turns out to be who you really are." 

We often imagine that for a certain type of person, self-esteem is innate and progress is inevitable. Somewhere we learned that when we are on the right track, it all feels effortless. In fact, not knowing how to do something feels bad. Taking risks, especially ones in front of other people, might make you feel physically ill! This is is what growth feels like. The good news is we adapt quickly, and the same thing that made you want to throw up when you first got started is no big deal two weeks in.

There is the formula for better self-esteem:

  1. Set a goal that is outside your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be way outside your comfort zone, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to other people. If saying good morning to the barista who makes your coffee every morning ties your stomach in knots, start there.

  2. Achieve your goal. This may take several attempts. Look for ways to course correct after each try. The important thing is to keep at it.

  3. Give yourself credit once you’ve achieved your goal. This seems obvious, but it is actually the hardest part for people. Nine times out of ten, once we achieve our goal we immediately start to minimize its importance. Knock that off. Treat yourself like a friend and give yourself credit for doing something hard.

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