When people feel poorly about themselves, they often attempt to establish new healthy living habits to overcome these negative feelings. They may go to the gym more often, try to eat healthier foods, promise themselves to make a determined effort to reconnect with friends, or work to adopt other positive life choices. All of which would be to the good, except for this: Many turn to harsh self-criticism when one or more of these approaches don’t click nicely into place. Behavioral interventions fail when people force themselves into routines and habits that they don’t really want to follow, because when people don’t feel they have free will, they rebel—even when that rebellion is self-defeating. This counterintuitive process is a way for those in the stress of doing something they don’t want to do to stay connected with themselves and feel a sense of control.
Before starting a new exercise routine or diet or simply working overtime to will yourself to have confidence, first try developing a new relationship with yourself. When you support yourself through positive self-talk, you become emotionally invested in the new routines and habits you are establishing so they become easier to execute and to sustain over time.
Here are 4 ways to talk yourself into higher self-esteem.
1. Harness an internal complimenter.
We all have an internal voice that observes and comments on the world and how we see ourselves performing in it. For many, the voice has become a whip, or punisher, who keeps telling the person how they are falling behind and missing the mark: “You really blew that; everyone saw how stupid you looked,” “You look so fat in that bathing suit,” “You have nothing interesting to say, no one wants too talk with you,” or “He/she will never be interested in you.” Right at these moments, pause and notice what your internal observer is telling you about you—and each time you notice a criticism, turn on the complimenter. The complimenter must find one positive thing to say to you about you. Even if you don’t believe it right away, the complimenter takes the sting out of the criticizer and eventually renders it powerless.
2. Harness an internal motivator.
Renowned psychologist Albert Bandura characterized a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a task or situation as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is closely linked to how perseverant you are: If you don’t believe you can actually manage a task or a relationship or improve yourself, then what’s the point in trying? If you want to succeed in feeling better about yourself, turn on an internal dialogue that tells you that you can do the task, manage the situation, win at the sport, or get the date. Each time you become aware of your internal dialogue sinking into hopelessness, tell yourself, “I got this,” “I can handle this,” “I can feel better about myself,” “I believe in myself,” or “I can make things better for myself.” Without an internal motivator, you will stay stuck in first gear. Does this tactic guarantee that you always get exactly what you want? Of course not. But it improves your chances and state of mind immeasurably.
3. Call yourself out for cognitive distortions.
If you are battling low self-esteem, cognitive distortions are probably playing out over and over again in your internal dialogue. Cognitive distortions arise when our thoughts literally misrepresent the facts of what actually occurred. The distortion, more so than the situation, is what brings on increased pain and upset. Some common distortions to watch out for include: black-and-white thinking—telling yourself everything is bad because of one situation or interaction and not taking into account mitigating nuance and subtleties; emotional reasoning, or taking your feelings as fact—you feel abandoned, so you must be abandoned, and you forget all the instances when you connected with people; and catastrophizing, or looking into the future with sweeping negativity, seeing only pain or hopelessness and forgetting all the positives in your life. (I describe more strategies for managing cognitive distortions and how to become a supporter of yourself in my workbook.)
4. Develop a kind internal tone.
As you accept a new, improved way of talking and connecting with yourself, it’s essential that you observe the tone you use in your internal dialogue. Adopt the type of tone that a loved one would use if they were reassuring you. Or reflect on how you would speak to a small child who was struggling with something. Work to speak calmly and compassionately to yourself, even when you hit a setback. A warm tone, when taken again and again, helps people accept themselves just as they are. Everyone has limitations, and accepting yourself, limitations and all, leads to increased self-esteem.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series, including Toxic Love — 5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, Breaking Up and Divorce — 5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone and Building Self-Esteem — 5 Steps: How to Feel 'Good Enough.' Follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber and on Facebook, or visit drjillweber.com.