First came the self-esteem movement–then came the backlash to the self-esteem movement. What's pretty clear is we don’t get healthy self-esteem from constantly telling ourselves how great we are, or even from other people telling us how great we are. At the same time, it’s a rare person who isn’t sometimes–or often–plagued with painful self-doubt.
So what's the secret? When you’re feeling lousy, what can you do to feel better about yourself? It turns out that we feel better about ourselves when we behave in ways that we find worthy of our own respect–such as helping other people, surmounting a fear, and the like.
Here are some suggestions that I try to remember when I'm feeling full of self-doubt and self-anxiety (a term I just made up–is there a more elegant term for this feeling?):
1. Do a good deed. Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons; you’ll benefit as much as the person you’re helping. When I’m feeling low, forcing myself to do something for someone else's benefit seems particularly hard, but then it gives me a big boost. As Montaigne observed, “These testimonies of a good conscience are pleasant; and such a natural pleasure is very beneficial to us; it is the only payment that can never fail.” In the same vein…
2. Make small gestures of good citizenship. Bring your old magazines to the gym so other people can read them. Pick up trash that other people have left on the subway. Sign up to be an organ donor.
3. Keep a resolution. Not only will you benefit from exercising or cleaning out your garage, you’ll also get a boost from the mere fact that you made a commitment and stuck to it. Feeling so overtaxed that you can't face the thought of trying to keep a resolution? Try this one: Make your bed. Just do that one thing. I know it sounds a bit preposterous, but many people have told me what a lift they've received from that small act.
4. Become an expert. There’s great satisfaction in mastery. Pick a subject that interests you, and dig in deep: the American Revolution, the works of Chekhov, wine, The Wire (my husband and I are currently obsessed with this TV show).
5. Boost your energy. Studies show that when you’re feeling energetic, you’re much more likely to feel good about yourself. For a quick shot of energy, take a brisk ten-minute walk (outside, if possible, where sunlight will also stimulate your brain), listen to some great music, or talk to a friend.
6. Challenge yourself physically. This tip doesn’t work for me, but I know that many people feel great after para-sailing, white-water rafting, surfing, or rollercoaster-riding.
7. Face a fear. Some fears are physical (see #6), but not all fears. You might push yourself to speak in public, ask someone on a date, make a gesture of friendship toward an acquaintance, or begin an intimidating creative project. In these trying situations, I often comfort myself by repeating "Enjoy the fun of failure." And it's true, even when my effort fails, I feel good about the fact that I gave it a shot. As my sister the sage reminded me recently, "You've got to put yourself out there." Which is hard, but gratifying.
8. Make something by hand. There's something particularly satisfying about making something with your own hands, whether it's a loaf of bread, a photo album, a piece of furniture, or a fly-fishing fly. It's tangible, it's creative, it's right in front of you. Similarly, making visible improvements like cleaning out a closet can give a big boost. I get an (inexplicably) large boost just from changing a light bulb. I delay, I delay, I delay–and then finally I change it! A triumph!
How about you? Have you found any good strategies to feel better about yourself? As Joseph Addison observed, “The important question is not, what will yield to man a few scattered pleasures, but what will render his life happy on the whole amount.”
* I loved looking at the beautiful images of the art installation "White Flags" by Aaron Fein.
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