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Building Healthy Self-Esteem

7 Simple, powerful strategies for feeling good about yourself

One hot summer afternoon, many years ago, a colleague confided to me, “I have really, really ugly legs -- bad, bad-looking knees.” It was clear that this issue was a source of self-doubt. We were sitting in the hospital garden having lunch and talking about work, and I wasn't sure I’d heard her correctly. By most accounts, this woman had a pretty normal-looking body. She was also professionally accomplished, had a loving family, and a supportive circle of friends. Despite the fact that she’d worn a skirt to work on a number of occasions, I had never noticed her legs one way or the other. Quickly I glanced down at them, and then looked her in the eyes. With no flattery intended, I told her: “I really don’t see what you’re talking about.” Mind you, I was probably much more aware of my hair at that moment – which was an odd combination of flatness and frizz from the humidity, a stray tendril clinging moistly to my temple.

Most everyone has something about them that they would like to change. There is an important difference between the garden variety, “It would be nice to (‘advance in my career,’ ‘have shampoo-ad hair,” ‘have better muscle tone’) and the more painful, “I am fundamentally not okay because of X, Y, Z,” however. Examples include the heavy (or thin) person who believes they need to lose weight to alleviate a sense of inner “badness”; the student who believes if they do not receive the top score, they will be a total failure; the single person who worries that their unpaired status proves that they are not really lovable; the professional who believes that they will only “matter” when they’ve crossed a certain earning threshold, and the like. Although for some, the internal insecurities feel arguably less obvious than the physical ones, they are no less powerful at shaping what we think we are worth. These beliefs about ourselves can influence the goals we reach for, as well as our ability to accept good things for ourselves when they come our way.


What Shapes Your Self-Worth?

Whether or not low self-esteem merits seeing a professional depends how distressed one feels and to what extent the issue gets in the way of doing the things one wants or needs to do.

When our insecurities interfere with our ability to accept who we are, or with our social or emotional functioning, it’s time to address the issues head on. Here are seven strategies for enhancing self-acceptance and relying less on outside validation or internal comparisons with others:

1. Ask yourself, “What is it that I value?” Another way to phrase this may be, “What qualities do I admire in others.” Even if we may envy someone’s swanky pad or trim thighs, chances are, what we respect about them has a lot more to do with how they conduct themselves, what’s important to them, and how we feel when we are with them. Is this person charitable? Kind? Loving? Helpful? These qualities are likely the ones we, too, possess, or would like to further develop in ourselves.

2. Once you have answered the above, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to live in accordance with what I value?” For example, if you value charity, find ways in which you can be charitable. This could be through formal volunteer work or by helping out a friend or loved one. There is a good reason that people all over the world know who Mother Teresa was, and why no one ever mentions her thighs or hairdo. Her charity and service to others were legendary.

3. Practice (self) forgiveness. Often it feels safer to consciously focus on something external or material that seems “not good enough,” and not on the things we wish we’d done differently. I emphasize to patients that making mistakes is a normal part of learning. No one walks right out of the womb – we first learn to sit up, and crawl, and toddle - falling innumerable times – before we can walk, and run, and play! Acknowledge what you’d like to do differently now – the only time period in which we can act to make things better.

4. Set goals that are discreet, measurable, and in accordance with what you value. Leave room for goals that are fun when possible. Realizing you can accomplish the things you set out to do – even mundane things – is part of how we build self-esteem.

5. Ask yourself each day, “For what am I grateful?” Everyone – and I do mean everyone -- if they are willing -- can find at least one small thing each day for which they can be thankful. Even when things seem bad, we can be grateful for someone’s kindness, for some part of our body that works (even if we are ill), for the sun shining, for the lessons we can learn even from the difficult people in our lives, etc.

6. Visualize yourself shedding the harsh, outdated ideas about yourself that you (really!) no longer need. They actually don’t do any good. See yourself feeling as you’d like to feel, doing the things that are most meaningful to you. Imagery and self-hypnosis can be very powerful tools to this end. My self-hypnosis programs, “Healthy Self-Esteem” and “Self-Esteem During Sleep” can help change the negative “trance” of feeling “not good enough” and help you move forward, creating more of the life you really want.

7. If you find yourself needing additional help with the above, it’s worth consulting with a mental health professional.

Doing the above can help us to put things in perspective, create evidence of success, and notice some of the positive things we may have overlooked in our lives.

Be well!

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(Adapted from an article originally posted on