How to improve self-esteem: Expert guidance and support

As cliche as it sounds, life is a roller coaster, with frequent ups and downs. And when we hit the lows of the ride, our self-esteem (among other things) can suffer. For example, when we’re ghosted after a couple of promising first dates; or when we don’t get that callback after an interview for that job we were in desperate need or want of; and especially when these lows are back to back.

Fortunately, we can take proactive steps to improve our self-esteem, from practicing mindfulness to getting professional self-esteem support. Let’s take a closer look at self-esteem, the factors that can affect it, and what we can do to get it back on track. 

Understanding Self Esteem and Its Impact on Well-Being

Self-esteem is one of those nebulous topics: Everyone knows what it is but struggles to identify what it is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, self-esteem is defined as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself: self-respect.” 

That tiny definition implies all the multitudes of ways self-esteem may impact a person’s life, ranging from their everyday relationships with friends and family, advocating for themselves at the doctor’s, the hobbies they engage in, to their own relationship with themselves both emotionally and physically. 

It is important to note that self-esteem does not equate to being a narcissist. Some clients report that advocating for themselves, treating themselves well, and being more comfortable with themselves, such as taking selfies, makes them  feel like they’re being narcissistic because they’re focusing on themselves more than what they’re used to even though actions like that are completely normal. 

It is also important to not confuse self-esteem with self-confidence. While the two traits are inter-related to a degree, “self-esteem focuses a lot on the view of self and not specifically on output, while self-confidence is related to self-efficacy/perceived efficacy,” says Alexandra Cromer, Licensed Professional Counselor at Thriveworks. 

Plus, sometimes low confidence is normal. No one picks up a new hobby or a new skill perfectly the first time they do it, and they may even be nervous about doing it. A perfect example of this is when one builds furniture from Ikea. Yes, it’s tough. However, as a person builds more furniture the more confident they eventually become with that skill. Connecting it with the topic of self-esteem, a person with low self-esteem may not see the purpose of completing building the furniture or they may see it as well-made as someone who is a professional despite correctly following the directions.

Some current research around the topic of self-esteem supports its relevance. Orth and Robins (2022) in “American Psychologist completed a meta-analysis on the data around self-esteem. They discovered that having high self-esteem is connected to doing better in various areas of one’s life such as being able to nurture their relationships with friends and family compared to avoiding them, navigating the work environment more successfully, as well as one’s mental health as it can be a protective factor against depression and anxiety.

Identifying the Factors Affecting Your Self-Esteem

There are factors that can influence a person’s self-esteem and cause self-doubt. According to the Mayo Clinic, common factors for low self-esteem are crises at home or work, interpersonal challenges, and changes in one’s life (which can be either positive or negative such as moving or a child going to school for the first time). Other factors include a person’s experiences with various situations and how they were treated during that time, such as experiencing bullying at school or being overly corrected by a parent for making a mistake. It is important to note that one’s mental health may also affect one’s self-esteem, such as working through symptoms of depression or anxiety.

We can become more of our self-esteem by checking in with ourselves. This can be as simple as reflecting for a moment to check in, to taking the time to journal about one’s thoughts and feelings about the day. You can also take the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (it is available for free online).

Clues that might be a sign to seek support are: 

  • Struggling to navigate school, work, or social situations successfully
  • Acknowledgement that the above struggles are impairing normal functioning
  • High conflict with friends and/or family
  • Struggling to complete tasks well
  • Thoughts about doing poorly
  • Strong feelings of anxiety (feeling like you can’t get through it or it won’t be done right)
  • Strong feelings of depression (feeling like it isn’t worth the effort to do)
  • Feelings that you have no to little control in your daily life.

Practical Tips to Enhance Your Self-Esteem

There are multiple ways one can improve their self-esteem, regain self-worth, and enhance self-image. When implementing changes in one’s life, it is important to remember that it is not always a “clean” process as it can be very circular: You think about what needs to be done and gather the necessary resources to implement it, start to change the habit, and then go back to the way it was after a few weeks before attempting to change again. 

Improving one’s self-esteem takes time. The average amount of time it takes to change a habit is around 30-60 days. This may change depending on how willing the person is to work on it, as well as their awareness of it. This article is not going to go into all the various ways for one to improve their self-esteem as this is meant to be a starting point in one’s journey in that process.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being in the here and now for a set period of time instead of “time traveling” to the past (focusing on prior events) or the future (worrying about something that may happen) to our detriment. 

You do not need anything fancy to help you practice this skill as there are multiple apps for your phone to help you as there are apps like “Calm” and “Stop, Think, and Feel.” You can practice this skill almost anywhere. For instance, the next time you go to your favorite coffee shop (when you have time and you’re not rushing to go somewhere), slow down and pay attention to how your drink feels in your hand and the sensations surrounding it (how the cup or mug feels, what the cup looks like, is the drink hot or cold), how your drink tastes and how it feels to drink it. 

Start with a minute or two and slowly increase your time to around 5 minutes. We’re not judging our thoughts about it, assigning value to it, or beating ourselves up for getting off-topic. The reason we practice this skill is to help ourselves learn how to work around our thoughts without feeling like we have to follow every thought we think, which is referred to clinically as increased distress tolerance.

Building Positive Self-Talk and Affirmations

Self-talk is exactly what it sounds like: how we treat ourselves across situations. Many individuals with low self-esteem struggle to treat themselves well. Various therapeutic theories state in their own way that what we pay attention to, we reinforce. As such, we want to reinforce healthy habits instead of beating ourselves up for when we make a mistake. 

Being able to engage in positive self-talk requires some awareness, especially when we catch ourselves engaging in negative self-talk. Again, if we chide ourselves for our negative self-talk we are inadvertently reinforcing it. Examples of positive self-talk are, “I’m doing the best I can,” “It’s okay if it isn’t perfect,” “Everyone makes mistakes,” “I did it once, I can do it again,” and, “It takes time to learn how to do something well.” Practicing this skill helps improve self-esteem because we are changing our relationship with ourselves to one that is healthier.

Overcoming Self-Sabotaging Behaviors

Self-sabotaging behaviors are behaviors that block us from moving forward. This can be very damaging to our self-esteem as it supports our feelings and even the stories we’ve told ourselves that we can’t do something or we’re not worthy of being cared for or having nice things. 

Changing these behaviors is not easy and can vary from person to person. As previously mentioned above, how quickly these behaviors change depends on awareness and willingness to change. To change these unwanted behaviors requires a person to recognize what situations can lead to those behaviors (it can be as simple as not getting enough sleep or being hungry) and what triggers those behaviors (these can be thoughts, feelings, or even a response to what someone else says or does). 

One way of working around them can be doing the opposite of what you feel, also known as “emotion-opposite” in dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT). For example, instead of yelling at someone for making a mistake you politely excuse yourself or focus on stating your need calmly. Another thing a person can do is to focus on doing things that can set themselves up for success. This can be as simple as having a solid bedtime routine and getting good sleep, making sure that we’re eating at the appropriate times of day (and when we’re actually hungry), and planning out times for physical exercise.

The Role of Professional Assistance in Improving Self-Esteem

The role of the therapist can be very powerful in helping you improve your self-esteem as they provide their professional guidance. A therapist is trained to collaborate with the client in improving their life. A therapist helps by identifying triggers to your behaviors and negative thinking patterns, how to respond to them, as well as what to do to set yourself up for success. A therapist will also teach and model how to respond to your challenges through your therapeutic partnership so you have an idea of what to do.

What that looks like in therapy is going to vary due to the personality of the therapist. It may involve completing a values questionnaire so you’re making changes that support what is important to you. The therapist may ask you to roleplay using a skill in different situations. The brain can’t tell the difference between a roleplay and an actual situation so extra practice in session can be very powerful when real-life situations occur. A therapist may also try to help you find out where these negative messages come from and the purpose they may have served in keeping you safe. And finally, a therapist is going to normalize what you’re going through to help you understand that a lot of what you’re experiencing is normal.

Why Thriveworks? Trusted Experts in Self-Esteem Support

Thriveworks is clinician-founded and clinician-led – we’ve been helping people navigate their unique mental health challenges for 15+ years from low self-esteem to depression, anxiety, relationship issues, and so much more. 

If you’re struggling with challenges related to a lack of self-esteem, self-love, or self-respect, we can confidently help. We’ll serve as your personal growth partner, assisting you in developing positive self-perception and self-acceptance and offering personalized self-improvement tips.

You can schedule an appointment for self-esteem counseling today and meet with a provider as soon as this week. We look forward to meeting with you and accompanying you on your mental health journey. 

Table of contents

Understanding Self Esteem and Its Impact on Well-Being

Identifying the Factors Affecting Your Self-Esteem

Practical Tips to Enhance Your Self-Esteem

The Role of Professional Assistance in Improving Self-Esteem

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Evan Csir, LPC

Evan Csir is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 9 years of experience. He is passionate about working with people, especially autistic individuals and is experienced in helping clients with depression, anxiety, and ADHD issues.

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Alexandra Cromer, LPC

Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Head of Content at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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  • American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Apa PsycNet. American Psychological Association. https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2022-48842-002.html 

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on 05/21/2018 

    Author: Taylor Bennett 

  • Updated on 08/28/2023 

    Authors: Evan Csir, LPC & Taylor Bennett 

    Updates: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding additional information regarding reasons why people suffer from low self-esteem as well as how they can improve their self-esteem.

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