If you live with low self-esteem, you aren't alone. In fact, experts say nearly 85 percent of all adults experience low self-worth. What's worse, low self-esteem can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, and other health issues, especially when it goes on for years or decades.
Don't worry, though: low self-esteem isn't something you have to live with for the rest of your life.
Things to know
- Recognize negative self-talk and reframe it using cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques such as thought records or dialectical behavior therapy.
- Focus on your strengths and values to align your life decisions and goals with what makes you feel confident and fulfilled.
- Let go of the past by forgiving yourself, journaling, and letter writing to process past traumas and negative memories.
Here are six things you can start doing right now to build healthy self-esteem as an adult:
- Recognize negative self-talk, then reframe it.
- Focus on your strengths and values.
- Let go of the past.
- Accept compliments — don’t deflect them.
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
- Live authentically.
1. Recognize negative self-talk, then reframe it.
Negative self-talk is one of the biggest obstacles most of us face when it comes to building our self-esteem. It’s that tiny little voice inside your head that points out every tiny error you make or reminds you how inadequate you are.
In many cases, these negative beliefs are deeply rooted to the point that the thoughts happen automatically without it even registering as problematic.
Therefore, the first step to building self-esteem involves recognizing when these negative automatic thoughts occur. Once you become more aware of these thoughts, you can start to challenge them and, eventually, reframe them to fit the facts of the situation.
In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), individuals build this self-awareness and challenge their negative self-talk by using thought records. These simple forms help you record your automatic thoughts, evaluate their accuracy, and shape them into more accurate, balanced thoughts.
By writing everything out in columns, it becomes easy to recognize when your negative self-talk is "playing tricks on you" so you can change the narrative and see yourself in a better light.
Similarly, dialectical behavior therapy teaches individuals to "check the facts" when they experience distressing emotions, and this process also helps you recognize when your thought patterns are impacting your self-esteem and mental health.
When you recognize that your negative self-talk doesn't fit the facts in a situation, it's much easier to change the narrative.
2. Focus on your strengths and values.
Sometimes it's not just our negative view of ourselves that causes self-esteem issues — it's the fact that what we're doing doesn't align with our strengths or values.
Anytime our values don't align with our lifestyle or we get stuck in a situation that doesn't allow us to play to our strengths, we experience self-doubt, and our self-confidence decreases. The longer this goes on, the more we settle into feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. Luckily, we can easily fix this by honing in on our strengths and values.
Before you can focus your life around these things, you must first identify them. To learn what your strengths are, you can ask those closest to you, look at areas where you excel in life, or take a personality test. All of these pieces of the puzzle will help you identify key strengths you possess.
Similarly, there are several different ways you can identify your values. You can complete a values card sort of look at a values list to help you identify them, or you can focus on people you admire and think about what attributes you value most from them. Either way, these values will help better inform your life decisions and your goals.
Once you identify your positive qualities and values, you can sit down and look at what parts of your life align with these items and which ones don't.
When you find areas of your life that don't align with your strengths or your values, then you can begin the work of deciding whether or not these things really need to be a part of your life. Doing this will help you feel more at peace, which will ultimately boost your self-esteem.
3. Let go of the past.
Whether we realize it or not, our past impacts us. When we hold onto past mistakes or unpleasant memories, we create a negative self-image about ourselves in our minds. This directly translates to poor self-esteem, not to mention it can impact how we interact with others and cause relationship problems.
Therefore, if you want higher self-esteem, you will need to find ways to let go of the past and live in the present moment. You can do this in several different ways, but one of the most beneficial methods is through forgiveness.
Although it can feel impossible to forgive yourself for past mistakes, you can do it. It just takes a willingness to let go of the shame you feel and a willingness to let the past serve as a learning tool rather than a torture device.
Also, many people find journaling and letter writing to be positive ways to work towards forgiveness and letting go of the past. In fact, letter writing is sometimes used in clinical interventions for processing past traumas and letting go of the past.
4. Accept compliments — don’t deflect them.
While our own negative thoughts about ourselves can lower our self-esteem on their own, they can also push us to refuse genuine compliments from others as well.
When we do this, we are effectively telling ourselves we “don’t deserve kindness.” Over time, this can affect our body image and self-worth.
In many cases, people deflect or refuse compliments because they (falsely) believe the things other people have to say about them aren't accurate. Sadly, the reality is many people with self-esteem issues don't see themselves accurately.
So instead of arguing with people or deflecting their compliments, try saying, “thank you!” You’ll be amazed at how this simple change in perspective can help you develop positive self-esteem.
What’s more, this little change can help your communication skills and interpersonal relationships, which really makes it a win-win!
5. Stop comparing yourself to others.
You’ve probably heard the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy,” at least once in your life. Well, it turns out that good old Teddy Roosevelt knew a thing or two about self-esteem and positive thinking because he hit the nail on the head with that simple statement.
When we compare ourselves to others, we feel bad about ourselves — period.
Unfortunately, the prominence of social media in our daily lives has made it easier than ever to compare ourselves to everyone else, and the constant comparisons we make are really starting to cause mental health issues for everyone.
Here’s the thing, though: What we see on social media is almost never an accurate picture of the person’s life. So instead of comparing apples to apples, we’re comparing apples to specially-selected oranges that were probably artificially grown.
When we stop comparing ourselves to others, many of the other characteristics of low self-esteem, like negative self-talk and body image issues, fade away. This gives us the space to engage in genuine personal development so we can become the person we truly want to be.
6. Live authentically.
No one is truly happy when they feel like they’re living a lie. However, many of us try to fit into the little boxes society makes us think we “should” be in, even if that means not living our truth. However, we must commit to authentic living if we ever want to see ourselves in a positive light.
When we live our truth on a daily basis, we practice self-acceptance. This helps us experience self-assurance and confidence, which directly results in more self-esteem. You can do this through the clothing you wear, the job you hold, the activities you do in your free time, and the causes you support.
Whatever helps you feel like your most authentic self is worth exploring — and this authentic living will help you build self-esteem as an adult.
Living authentically goes hand-in-hand with many of the other suggestions on this list, but it's definitely one of the most important steps you can take to build self-esteem.
After all, the way we see ourselves impacts nearly every aspect of our lives, and others are more willing to accept us when we are genuine and comfortable with who we are.
No matter how long you’ve lived with low self-worth, it’s never too late to build self-esteem as an adult. As long as you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and try new things like accepting compliments and reframing your negative thoughts, then you will succeed.
Just take these suggestions, set goals for yourself along the way, and seek out social support when you need it — it's never bad to ask for help.
It may take a while, but you’ll eventually find your stride. In time, your hard work will pay off, and you’ll see the positive impact of high self-esteem in all the best possible ways.
Building self-esteem takes time, but you can do this. I believe in you, but are you ready to believe in yourself and take the necessary steps to build self-esteem as an adult?