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Want To Give Your Self-Esteem A Boost? Here's How, According To Experts

Krati Mehra
September 29, 2023
Krati Mehra
By Krati Mehra
mbg Contributor
Krati Mehra is an empowerment coach, host of Experible podcast, speaker, and writer. She has a Masters from University College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from Panjab University.
September 29, 2023
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We live in a high-pressure world full of competition, social media comparison, and striving for perfection. The pressure's real—and let's be honest—it's messing with our heads. Amid all this noise, we need to protect our sense of self with consistently healthy self-esteem. 

And it's about more than just feeling good about yourself; healthy self-esteem is a profound inner conviction about our worth, capabilities, and place in the world. It can boost our mental and emotional well-being, helping us make choices that align with our true selves, foster resilience against adversity, and move us forward personally and professionally.

To live a fulfilling life, nurturing your self-esteem is not just beneficial—it's essential.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to an individual's overall sense of self-worth. It is an internal self-assessment of one's competence and desirability, and our emotions heavily influence this evaluation, which fluctuates with every shift in our external reality. As psychologist Ketan Parmar, M.D., MBBS, tells mindbodygreen, "[Self-esteem] is a subjective and emotional judgment that reflects how much one values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes oneself."

Life experiences, childhood conditioning, culture, religion, and dominant thoughts shape self-esteem. As a measure of our innate worthiness, it can profoundly impact our mental health and well-being, the quality of our relationships, and the goals we pursue. 

"Self-esteem has been shown to be related to all the various aspects of life in adulthood. It has been connected to relationships, job success and satisfaction, and mental and physical health in general," explains licensed clinical psychologist Amy Robbins, Psy.D., adding, "How you feel about yourself will determine much of your behavior, which then impacts the various other areas in your life."

What causes low self-esteem?

Self-esteem typically falls within three ranges: low, high, and healthy or optimal. Low self-esteem can result from internal perceptions and external influences. Constant negative feedback or a lack of praise from primary caregivers at an early age can also implant seeds of self-doubt.

Memories of childhood bullying, past traumas, and abuse can also affect self-esteem, according to clinical psychologist Harpreet K. Chattha, Ph.D., who tells mindbodygreen that negative experiences can become ingrained in one's memories. "These replay when they are faced with challenges and act to discourage and limit one's potential," she says.

The pressure to perform, conform, and meet the ridiculous standards set by social media can intensify feelings of inadequacy as well. As licensed professional counselor Alissa Martinez, M.S., LPC, NCC, explains, "In today's society where social media influence is strong, so is comparing ourselves to others. These comparisons make us feel like we don't measure up, which can also lower self-esteem."

Discrimination, unemployment, body image issues, financial struggles, and dysfunctional relationships can further erode a person's self-esteem.

Impact of low self-esteem

One study1 on self-esteem's role in mental and physical health found that high self-esteem promotes better overall health and positive social behaviors. Conversely, low self-esteem is linked to various mental disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and issues like substance abuse and violence.

Low self-esteem also creates an echo chamber. Holding a negative self-perception leads to avoidance of challenges, insecure relationships, and missed opportunities, resulting in an unfulfilling life and a lack of positive validation. The cycle continues as the negative self-talk further damages an individual's self-image and through it, their choices and behavior.

Such low self-worth doesn't just impair your inner self, though—it can manifest as anxiety, depression, and a paralyzing fear of failure, making it hard for someone to advocate for themselves or break free from this vicious cycle.

"In simple terms, low self-esteem often makes people feel like they're not as valuable or capable as they truly are, and it can hold them back from truly living," says Martinez.

Signs of low self-esteem

Recognizing the following signs of low self-esteem in your behavior can be the first step toward healthier self-esteem and a more positive self-image:

  • Avoiding new experiences or challenges
  • Exhibiting heightened sensitivity to criticism
  • Social withdrawal
  • Engaging in constant negative self-talk 
  • Frequently using self-deprecating humor
  • Displaying an intense fear of rejection with a strong desire to be liked
  • Settling for unsatisfactory or unhealthy relationships
  • Inability to assert oneself or set boundaries
  • Demonstrating a lack of faith in one's ideas and opinions
  • Indulging in overly competitive behavior 
  • Overcompensating by continuously boasting or bragging

How to build self-esteem

As one understands the importance of self-esteem, the focus should be on developing healthy (or optimal) self-esteem. As one 2019 article2 published in Psychological Inquiry notes, while high self-esteem varies and manifests as arrogance and entitlement, often ignoring personal flaws to criticize others, optimal self-esteem remains steady and creates a more balanced self-view: 


Begin with self-acceptance and authenticity 

Self-acceptance is the cornerstone of self-esteem. It involves embracing both the positive and the negative aspects of oneself and includes the willingness, despite imperfections, to see yourself as worthy of love, respect, and consideration.

As we cultivate self-acceptance, we find comfort in our skin and view failures not as proof of a personal lack but as opportunities for growth. Despite the challenges along the way, we navigate life with a sense of purpose, autonomy, and a positive self-regard, treating ourselves with the same generosity we so freely offer others.

As licensed therapist Julia Baum, MSEd, LMHC, tells mindbodygreen, "I advocate for accepting yourself unconditionally […] It simply means that you've decided to recognize that you don't have to be perfect to be worthy. From this perspective, you can better find a healthy will to work on what you can improve and accept things outside of your control."

To that end, another study3 in the Journal of Positive Psychology highlights the importance of authenticity in developing a secure form of self-esteem. Highly authentic individuals maintain their self-worth even under threat, while those with low authenticity may be confident in good times but quickly falter when their self-worth is challenged. Through self-acceptance and authenticity, one can foster and fortify healthy self-esteem.


Cultivate a growth mindset

A growth mindset allows individuals to believe skills and knowledge can grow through dedicated effort and commitment. When picking new goals, such individuals rely on something other than innate talent or the confidence boost derived from past accomplishments. Instead, they see new challenges as opportunities, past failures as learning experiences, and remain committed to continuous growth and learning.

"It's vital to take action and refuse to berate yourself when you make a mistake or falter in some way. The more you work at this, the easier it becomes," Baum says, adding, "You cannot feel self-confident without believing you can get up and keep going if you fall. Self-confidence isn't thinking you will succeed; it's knowing you'll be OK if you don't."

And this has actually been established in research, with one study4 showing that students with a fixed intelligence mindset have lower levels of self-esteem. Thus, nurturing a growth mindset fuels personal development and fosters a healthier self-worth.


Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs 

Our thoughts and beliefs impact our emotions, and those, in turn, move us toward positive actions or, in the case of negative beliefs, keep us passive through life. If left unchecked, such negative thoughts can worsen our self-image and deepen feelings of inadequacy. 

Identify thoughts and beliefs that don't serve you. Then, challenge them; question their validity. Explore and reframe the story sustaining these beliefs to something positive and supportive. Further, they lose power when we don't find proof to support our (usually exaggerated) opinions.

And according to Chattha, your self-esteem needs constant nourishment—it's not a one-time fix. "It is an ongoing effort to improve your beliefs about yourself and staying aware of when your thoughts and actions are not serving you," she explains. 

Learn about the different cognitive traps like all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, negativity bias, etc., and how they invite perspectives that hurt our sense of self. Once we recognize them, we can limit their impact and protect our self-esteem.


Surround yourself with supportive people

Creating a network of supportive, loving individuals can give us an environment that actively encourages positive emotions.

When we suffer from self-esteem issues, it can help to have friends and family members that remind us of how much we are loved and valued. A good, empathetic listener can help us let out our insecurities, and in doing so, examine them more objectively. 

Prioritize relationships that uplift you, and limit interactions with people who drain you or make you question your self-worth. Be selective with your time, energy, and emotions.

Volunteer work can be inspiring, especially with people recovering and rebuilding their lives.


Challenge yourself

Low self-esteem can make one cling to their comfort zone. Even if we don't always win, having positive experiences as we take on new challenges and explore unfamiliar territories can also highlight our inner strength. 

Choose achievable goals like practicing yoga for a month or mastering a new recipe. Due to their simplicity, the plans will be manageable, but accomplishing them will contribute positively to self-esteem. 

"Take small steps outside of your comfort zone, like trying new things or setting achievable goals. When you succeed at these small things, you'll slowly begin to feel a boost in your confidence," Martinez suggests. 

Likewise, acquiring more knowledge, cultivating a new talent, or learning a skill can create similar results. "When we feel competent, we also feel confident," Robbins notes.


Take care of your physical health and well-being

Physical, mental, and emotional health are all interconnected. Feeling good in one's body often leads to a positive mental state and vice versa. On the other hand, an exhausted body or mind tends to be emotionally more reactive and sensitive to negative experiences.

Prioritize quality sleep, maintain a balanced diet, and avoid consuming junk. Exercise daily—our body image improves when we are in good shape or even just working toward fitness goals.

And when it comes to mental well-being, nothing beats meditation. It's a healthy respite from the unceasing noise of social scrutiny and judgment, and a 2019 study5 examining the effects of meditation on self-esteem even found a direct positive relationship between time spent meditating and self-esteem.


Collect positive feedback & create a highlight reel

If we must compare our reality to the airbrushed perfection of someone else's life, let's first fortify our inner defenses by reminding ourselves of our accomplishments.

Create a highlight reel and a repository of positive feedback so the good in you is as accessible as all the negativity. Approach your loved ones, valued colleagues, collaborative partners, and trusted supervisors, and ask them to recall a time when they found you truly impressive. See yourself through their eyes and learn about the qualities that draw others to you.

Create a list of your internal strengths. Write about the struggles you've endured, the failures you've overcome, and the accolades you've earned. Use this piece of paper to bolster your self-esteem whenever it's under threat.

Gratitude journals can help here as well, by broadening your perspective and inviting a deeper appreciation for life's blessings. Pen affirmations that resonate with you, and recite them when self-doubt gets loud. 


Assert yourself

Self-assertion can boost your self-esteem and inspire respect in others. Set clear boundaries with others and yourself, stop people pleasing, and say no when necessary. If there's someone you admire for their strength, try to nurture similar qualities in yourself. 

As you take these steps and assert yourself, even buried under layers of self-doubt, you will find the respect you have for yourself


Build a loving relationship with yourself

Just as you build relationships with others, develop a relationship with yourself. When a loved one dismisses themselves, we rise in their defense and advocate for them, even if it means standing against their very own ideas and beliefs. When we sincerely care for someone, we cherish their well-being and value their best qualities. Create a similar bond with yourself.

Begin with understanding yourself better. Notice the aspects of your personality and character that bring you joy. Celebrate your wins. Compliment yourself daily. Stay in conversation with yourself. Talk yourself to a healthy place when the negative self-talk begins. When someone crosses a line, advocate for yourself and set firm boundaries. Most importantly, treat yourself with the same respect and compassion you'd offer a dear friend.

Much like the comfort we derive from the presence of a loved one, once you have a healthy relationship with yourself, you will start experiencing a sense of self-assurance and contentment in your identity. By becoming your own ally, you ensure a continual source of support, strengthening your self-esteem.


Calm your ego & pick growth-oriented goals

According to a study6 in the Psychological Bulletin, the level of someone's self-esteem is not as critical as the manner in which it is pursued. When establishing one's self-worth, we always pick goals for external validation. However, when we prioritize praise and admiration, growth and learning get sidelined because self-worth that relies on validation leads to fragile self-esteem.

Choose goals that transform your inner environment and promote self-discovery and growth. Goals rooted in self-improvement shift attention from external perceptions, to personal evolution, creating self-worth anchored in genuine change—not mere appearances. They also generate a sense of purpose that goes beyond social applause. They remind us that we are defined not by our mistakes but by our capacity to learn and adapt. 

When ego is not so dominant, self-acceptance becomes easier. Integrating spirituality can further help by instilling humility within us; we're reminded of how inconsequential we are in the grand scheme of things. It emphasizes the unity of all beings and gently persuades us not to indulge in self-aggrandizement but instead turn our attention toward the ascension of our soul.

If we can adopt a lifestyle that precludes social comparison and competitiveness completely, it will be easier to maintain healthy self-esteem.


Seek professional help

Therapy with a qualified expert can help reach the root cause of our insecurities and low self-esteem, and attending focused workshops can accelerate our learning and give us a supportive community, as well.

Art therapy is another helpful tool for self-esteem, as a powerful avenue of emotional expression that doesn't require verbal communication—plus you get the gratification of creating something beautiful.

When to seek help

If you're struggling with your self-esteem, according to Parmar, you should seek help when it interferes with daily functioning or causes significant distress.

"Low self-esteem can be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition that requires professional treatment," he says, noting that some signs that indicate the need for help include persistent negative thoughts or feelings about oneself; experiencing severe depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts; difficulty coping with stress or trauma; isolating oneself; problems with eating, sleeping, or concentrating; and/or frequent conflicts or arguments with others.

And while most people will seek help only when low self-esteem significantly impacts their lives, Baum advises not to wait. "There's no minimum level of distress needed to seek help. If your self-esteem interferes with being the best version of yourself or living fully, seeking help is perfectly valid," she explains.


How do you build self-esteem and self-confidence?

Building self-esteem and self-confidence begins with recognizing your positive qualities, challenging negative beliefs, and reframing them to something more supportive. Set achievable goals, and with each new accomplishment, celebrate your efforts. Do activities that nurture competence, create a sense of well-being, and foster positive relationships. Seek constructive feedback and focus on learning and self-correction when faced with criticism.

What causes poor self-esteem?

Low self-esteem can be caused by adverse childhood experiences, bullying, discrimination, abuse, poor finances, constant criticism, failures and rejection, traumatic events, social comparison, and more.

How can I improve my self-image?

To improve your self-image, be as aware of your strengths as you are of your imperfections. Practice positive self-talk, set realistic goals, celebrate accomplishments, and be learning-focused in the event of failure. Surround yourself with supportive individuals, advocate for yourself, don't compare yourself to others, and make healthy choices. Engage in activities that add to your resilience and foster a sense of competence. 

How do you overcome lack of confidence?

To overcome a lack of confidence, challenge stories that create self-doubt. Make sure that whatever caused failures in the past is no longer getting in the way of your progress. Once the gap has been bridged, remind yourself of the growth you've experienced. Pick realistic goals, and as you achieve them, create a positive narrative highlighting your personal qualities. Seek positive environments and supportive people.

The takeaway

Over time, low self-esteem can get embedded into our self-perception and inner dialogue. As it shifts our self-image, we may gravitate toward choices, relationships, and opportunities that are less than what we deserve while simultaneously declining potentially life-altering invites out of fear and self-doubt. 

We must show ourselves the basic respect of not indulging in self-deprecation and denigration. If your past is empty of experiences that affirm your worth, only you can create a different future—and it begins with you becoming your own advocate and creating a compassionate and constructive inner world.

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