- Low self-esteem is driven by self-criticism, believing that we're a loser, nothing we do is good enough, that we can't succeed.
- Improving our self-esteem and self confidence isn't about attitude or feelings, but about doing—taking risks.
- The keys are focusing on effort, not outcome; taking baby steps; pushing back against a critical inner voice; and getting support.
When my kids were teenagers, they went to an Outward Bound course. Though they each did different things—hiking vs. sailing vs. rock climbing—the core activities were the same: High ropes course, run a half marathon, live in the woods by yourself for three days, build a lean-to, practice how to deal with bears or falling overboard. When they came back, they were pumped: Bring it on! Eat my dust!
Self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-image all fall in the same bundle—about feeling good about yourself, feeling more like a winner than a loser. What gets in the way? Generally, a cause and a result: The cause is that you learned to be too self-critical, likely by having critical and unsupportive people around you. You never give yourself a break; even the smallest mistake—the burned biscuits—is another demerit and sign of your incompetence. Your expectations are impossibly high, and everything—even the biscuits—is what you’re overall competence is measured by.
But the result of this ongoing criticism is that you learned to give up on yourself, setting your self-image in concrete. You no longer try anything new because you “know” it will not work out. You give up on your dreams because you “know” you can’t reach them. You’re one of the “losers”; your life becomes small, filled with resignation. You avoid those break-out experiences that can make all the difference.
Time to make that difference and change that story. Like that Outward Bound course, to change your self-image, and increase your self-confidence and self-esteem, you don’t need to start by changing your emotions or attitude but by changing what you do. Here are some tips:
1. Set a challenge.
What is it that you most want to change about yourself? It might be something physical—exercising more, drinking less. Or relational—speaking up and telling others what bothers you rather than holding it in.
Pick one thing. The topic ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is picking something important enough to motivate you into action.
2. Map out baby steps.
This is the key. You may be ready to break out, but the danger is that you try and do the make-over: Work out seven days a week, stop drinking altogether, confront your mother or boyfriend or boss. You’re doing all-or-nothing; you’ll burn out, get frustrated, or it will blow up, only adding more fuel to your story of incompetence. Slow and steady wins the race.
3. Focus on the effort, not the outcome.
Sometimes your efforts won’t get you the results you want. You get the courage to speak up to your boss about your schedule, and she still doesn’t change it. You work out for two weeks, but nothing seems to have changed. That’s fine. Don’t measure success by what happens next, but by doing it at all.
Ultimately, the goal is not the outcome—whether you achieve what you’re striving for—but the process—taking the risk, stepping outside your comfort zone, doing rather than believing, or despite believing that you can’t. And sometimes, you will achieve what you want. As you accumulate these experiences and become more comfortable with risk-taking, you’ll change the story. You’re no longer the loser; you’re actually courageous, confident, and competent.
4. Stop that critical voice.
But that critical voice will always be looking over your shoulder, ready to pounce and let you know that your success was dumb luck, that it wasn’t significant, that it’s only a matter of time before you fall back into your loser status. You can think of your critical voice as a bully constantly beating you up or as hypervigilant guard dogs trying to protect you. Pick one.
If it's a bully, time to push back. Start by paying attention to when that voice kicks up. Good. Now tell it to stop, practice ignoring it, not letting it distract you from moving forward, and better yet, pat yourself on the back for taking the risk and making an effort. And if you think in terms of the guard dogs, be the alpha, let them know that you’re OK, there’s nothing to worry about, that you got this. Realize that critical voice isn’t you.
5. Get support.
This doesn’t have to be a solo act. Support along the way doesn’t diminish your efforts. Find others who can be cheerleaders and listeners, the antidotes to your critical voice, who can help you move forward.
Like anything new, it all gets easier with practice. Lower those expectations but take those risks and find that you can do more than you thought.
So, what’s the one thing you can do today that’s a couple of steps outside your comfort zone? Do it.