Woman smiling outside representing Developing Self-Esteem: One Thought at a Time

Developing Self-Esteem: One Thought at a Time

Do You Know How Awesome You Are?

As a therapist and online life coach, I’d like to walk you through an important exercise. So let’s try something. Can you name three things that you LOVE about yourself? 

You don’t have to grab a piece of paper or pull up your Notes app. Just take a moment, close your eyes, and answer that question for yourself in your mind.

How did it feel to do that?

If that feels difficult for you, think about how easy it is for you to describe the wonderful things about someone else in your life. You could probably easily conjure a list of great attributes for someone you love, admire, or even only know superficially. For many people, it is a little more complicated to do that for themselves

Some people can rattle off a long list of their best qualities and accomplishments. Some can only confidently name a few. Recently, I was working with a client who felt extremely uncomfortable identifying even one. 

When I asked her to do this exercise, she puzzled over it for a while before settling on one. But then came a flood of uncertainty. She began to doubt whether this positive trait was true or not. She tried a few more times, but ultimately she gave up on the entire exercise, feeling frustrated and disingenuous. 

This was someone who is highly intelligent, extremely kind, a hard worker, and truly lovely inside and out. She struggled with perfectionism in her work, insecurity in her relationships, and a lot of anxiety. We worked together to tackle those issues, and found that ultimately they all stemmed from her low self-esteem.

Recognize Your Narratives

There are many stories we tell ourselves. These narratives we construct about ourselves are informed by our early experiences, our caregivers, our teachers, our friends, the media, and society at large. As we grow up, we are constantly bombarded with messages and belief systems about the world around us, and we quickly learn to internalize them. The sooner you recognize that some of the thoughts you have about yourself are part of deeper, more subconscious narratives you hold, the quicker you can heal from the fact that these stories you believe about yourself may not actually be the whole truth. 

For example, if you’re in the dating world, you may be experiencing various forms of rejection on a regular basis. A bad date can lead to thoughts like, “I acted like an idiot!”, “I can’t believe I said that; I’m so stupid!”, or “I’m ugly!”

It’s important to recognize that thoughts like these are the result of your brain cherry-picking through all the potential thoughts you could have about that situation in order to feed into those constructed narratives that you already hold about yourself. In this case, these little thoughts may be indicative of a a deeper narrative of “I’m not loveable” (Here’s more on healing toxic shame).

The path of personal growth often includes reflecting, making meaning, journaling, and doing growth work through therapy or coaching. These are some ways to learn to recognize these thought patterns and the deeper narratives you are holding on to. They are usually so ingrained and instinctual that we have to make a real effort to even notice that they are present. 

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Learn How to Thought-Stop

Once you have done the work of recognizing the untrue or harmful narratives you hold about yourself, the goal is to learn to stop the thoughts that feed them further. Thought-stopping is a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) technique that I teach many of my clients who struggle with anxiety. I like to describe this process like exercising a muscle: just as you need to continually do strength training work to keep your biceps strong, you need to strengthen your thought-stopping muscle in order for it to be effective. 

The basic idea of thought-stopping is to bring more awareness to those moments when you have an unhelpful or harmful thought, like “I’m an idiot!” and quickly perform a stopping exercise. This can be simply saying “Stop!” to yourself, or even doing a physical action like snapping a rubber band on your wrist. The goal is to develop awareness of the thought patterns and to stop the tendency of letting harmful thoughts spiral into anxiety. Thought stopping will make you aware of when you continue to feed that unhelpful narrative. 

I like to think of thought-stopping as a protective measure to keep that harmful self-narrative from cementing further. It’s good practice to develop more awareness of your thought patterns and to feel more in control of your thoughts and anxiety. However, to develop self-esteem, we also have to do some deeper work to challenge these narratives we hold about ourselves.

Challenge, Re-Frame, and Practice Self-Compassion

While thought-stopping is a great practice to have in your toolbox for managing anxiety and spiraling self-criticism, we also want to make a deliberate effort to challenge some of those harmful narratives we hold about ourselves. Taking time and space to really look at what we think about ourselves, where it comes from, and how to re-frame some of those beliefs with more compassion is a vital part of building self-esteem. 

Correcting some of the negative thoughts associated with the dating situation, for example, can be to list the ways in which you are a desirable partner and truly allow yourself to look at where you tend to dismiss the positives about who you are and highlight the negatives. A supportive therapist or coach can be a helpful person to do this with because we often find it hard to recognize when we are being unfair to ourselves or engaging in black-and-white thinking.  

If you’ve read this far, you are probably someone who is looking to boost their self-esteem and ready to make some changes in your life. One actionable tip I have for you may be one you’ve heard before: talk to yourself as you would talk to a close friend who is going through something difficult. 

Would you be harsh with this friend when they make mistakes? Would you be overly critical when someone says something rude on a date if you knew they were having a bad day? Would you lash out if someone talks down to them at work? Would you treat this friend unkindly when they are feeling anxious or fearful of tackling a challenge in their life? Of course not! Just as you are capable of being a kind, compassionate and supportive friend, you are capable of developing self-talk that will build your own self-esteem. Internalizing this compassion for yourself will help you gain more success and happiness in so many more areas of your life.

Remember that exercise we started with? This activity involved listing three things you love about yourself. Try incorporating it into your life as a 5 minute practice. Maybe you can do this in the evening, before you go to bed, as a way to wind down and reflect. Or maybe a 5 minute break in the middle of your busy day is the best time for this mindful activity when you’ve been on the go and have already had a thousand thoughts that you may want to examine. Take a few minutes to breathe, check in on your thoughts, and reframe anything that you need to. No matter what time you choose to do this exercise, you can remind yourself that you are trying your best, and you are worthy. 

Developing self-esteem is not easy. It takes a lot of energy, patience, perseverance, and support to be able to do some of the work I’ve laid out here. But it can be hugely gratifying to be able to live with less self-doubt, less anxiety, more purpose, more confidence, and a stronger sense of how kickass you are!

All the best,
Growing Self

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