Summary: Everyone is always talking about how to improve your self-esteem but I’m coming at you with a different take. You don’t need to improve your self-esteem because guess what? It’s usually based on what other people think of you. Let’s talk about what you could do instead to build a sense of self-worth that lasts.
There’s a lot of talk about how to improve your self-esteem. It’s a big question. Keeping a healthy sense of self-worth can be really challenging for all of us, especially with the increase in social media in recent years. It’s easy to compare yourself to others and feel like you’re falling short. But the way you feel about yourself has a LOT to do with how well you relate to others.
There are tons of people ready to talk to you about how to improve your self-esteem, and a lot of the ideas that they will share with you are good, and probably pretty helpful. (For example, these 5 ways to boost your self-esteem are definitely helpful.)
Thinking about what you are good at, using positive affirmations, and practicing gratitude, these are all great things and can give your self-esteem a boost…for at least a little while.
But I want to turn the idea of how to improve your self-esteem on its head and come at it in a way that is different from what others will tell you, and ultimately more likely to be helpful to you over the long haul.
First, What Is Self-Esteem?
Think about some things that might promote high self-esteem. You got a good grade on a test…yay! Now you feel great about yourself. Or someone pays you a nice compliment and it gives your self-esteem a boost. Maybe you accomplish a goal that you’ve been working towards and now your self-esteem is doing great.
None of those are bad things at all. They feel really great when they happen and that often leads to a sense of confidence and satisfaction.
But can you see from these examples how often self-esteem is closely tied to external sources of validation? That compliment from someone else that made you feel great came from a source outside of your control. Someone else was the factor that made you feel good about yourself.
The good grade on your test was measured by something external to you. You felt good about yourself because you achieved a standard of achievement that was measured by someone else.
Even setting a goal and accomplishing it could be focused more on looking good to other people rather than an intrinsic desire to achieve something that matters to you.
The point is that often self-esteem is closely tied to a need for validation from others. It’s usually boosted by other people.
So even though self-esteem can often be a really good thing, it can get a little bit tricky.
Having a Strong Sense of Self vs. Self-Esteem—What’s the Difference?
A better measure of self-worth is something that therapists and scholars call having a strong sense of self.
Having a strong sense of self is a much richer measure of self-worth than self-esteem because it stems NOT from what other people tell you to value about yourself, but from what YOU genuinely value about who you are.
So, what does it mean to have a strong sense of self?
- First, it means having a clear idea of who you are and what makes you YOU. This would involve knowing things that you like, things that you don’t like, being aware of things that stress you out, or things that bring you joy. It’s having a clear self-concept.
- But more than just having clarity about who you are, it means that you can maintain that sense of who you are even when other people try to change it or invalidate you. You don’t rely on others to tell you who you are, YOU decide who you are. (Read more about this here.)
- And finally, you not only know who you are and maintain that even with all the external influence that can happen, you love yourself and you know that you’re worthwhile. Because you’re clear and comfortable with who you are, you are willing to let others really see and appreciate that person.
So basically, having a strong sense of self means knowing who you are and feeling good about it, without relying on others to maintain those positive feelings or that self-knowledge.
How to Improve Your Self-Esteem:
Changing the Dialogue on How to Improve Your Self-Esteem
Self-esteem and sense of self are pretty similar in the way that they help you feel good and confident about who you are, but there’s a big difference in how that is formed.
Self-esteem often relies on outside sources in order to stay high, but a strong sense of self stems from an inner sense of self-worth and an ability to maintain those positive feelings about who you are, regardless of others’ opinions.
Can you see the difference?
Looking back at those 3 aspects of having a strong sense of self, here are some things you can do to strengthen yourself in each of those areas:
Step #1: Know who you are and what makes you YOU
Do you feel like you’ve got a good sense of the person inside of you? Do you know your own likes and dislikes? Do you know what stresses you out and what brings you joy? Those are some foundational things to consider. Take some time to think through these things. Also, take some time to watch yourself and be aware of what triggers stress for you and what brings you joy. Pay attention to other emotions as well.
Step #2: It’s time to start to reclaim who you are
The second aspect of having a strong sense of self is being able to maintain that in the face of invalidation from others. The easiest way to learn to do this is to consider the alternative, what we will call a reflected or weak sense of self. Someone with a reflected sense of self is so busy trying to see themselves through the eyes of others that it hinders their own functioning.
It’s not easy, but it’s time to stop doing that. When you find yourself making a choice (or having a hard time making a choice), ask yourself what the motivation behind that choice is. Are you making it (or not making it) because it’s what feels right to you? Are you acting with integrity and behaving in a way that is authentic to who you are?
Or are you more worried about what other people are thinking so you shy away from being your authentic self?
The more you can catch yourself acting with a reflected sense of self, the more you’ll be able to shift that focus and strengthen your sense of self instead.
Step #3: You’ve got to like who you are
And isn’t that why you started reading this in the first place? You wanted to know how to like yourself better, so it’s not going to work for me to just say “learn to love yourself.”
What I will say, is that when you start doing the other two steps, being aware of who you are and then acting on that self-knowledge with integrity and authenticity, when you can shed the reflected sense of self and trying to live up to others’ ideals, that sense of self-worth is going to grow. You will feel better about yourself because you will know that you are acting from a place that is right for you and you won’t feel all twisted and tied up with trying to please others.
Because here’s a secret—you will never be able to please all the others. And when you try, that’s when your feelings of self-worth will suffer. When they are tied to what other people think of you, it’s never going to work out.
So How Do You Improve Your Self-Esteem?
All this to say, the best way to improve your self-esteem is to work on having a strong, rather than reflected, sense of self that allows you to be you without the need for self-worth to come from other sources.
This isn’t a quick fix. Maybe you hoped you could google “how to improve your self-esteem” and get a magic pill or quick fix, but it’s a process if you want to make lasting change.
It will take time and work, but it will provide lasting change which will include more happiness and well-being for you and more connection in your relationships with others. In other words, it’s worth the journey.