How To Build Your Self Esteem

step away from the affirmations

mural: Andrew Burke
“To be healthy, functioning individuals, we need to feel good about ourselves. To feel good about ourselves, we need to feel that our time and energy is spent meaningfully. Meaning is the fuel of our minds. When you run out of it, everything else stops working.”

Most of us struggle with self esteem. Many of us are fortunate enough to realize this, and some of us care enough to try to fix it.

The problem, however, is with the majority of the resources available to us — especially online. I am pretty sure these articles are 100% written by people who have serious self esteem issues, regurgitated from everyone else who has self esteem issues, on down the cycle to readers with self esteem issues, who think it’s just their fault for not being able to apply them and successfully boost their self esteem.

But of course not. Because none of this is how self esteem works.

First, let’s talk about what self esteem ISN’T:

Self esteem is not selfishness or narcissism

Having to say this makes me impatient, because if people don’t innately “get it,” they fight it blindly, emotionally, tooth and nail. And I understand, because there are a lot of emotions on the line here (see: entire post) so I’m just going to tread lightly and quickly when I say:

Self love and self esteem are not selfishness.

On the contrary, selfish people have desperately low self esteem and self love, which is why they overcompensate, demand, and have nothing left to give others.

Self esteem is not a series of “dont’s”

Most self esteem articles cheerily suggest things like, “Don’t have negative self talk. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t put yourself down. Don’t doubt yourself,” like “just don’t have low self esteem!”

These aren’t solutions.

  1. The brain struggles with the word “don’t,” and when you focus on the negative, you’re still focusing on the thing. The brain interprets the sentence as an imperative, like: “ah, okay, negative self talk. Got it!” The brain is baby Groot.
  2. The way we talk to ourself is a reflection of self esteem, not the root. It’s effect, not cause. It helps, of course, but it’s not the core. And fixing the core will fix the way we think and talk about ourselves.
  3. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t have something positive at the ready, the old stuff will just rush back in.

Self esteem does not come from others

It’s not anyone’s job to make you feel good about yourself. It can only come from you.

Some articles suggest that readers should “learn to accept compliments” — several even went so far as to suggest that you approach others and “ask them what they like about you.”

Trying to build self esteem through “others’ compliments” is like trying to learn how to walk by being carried.

Only you control of your self-acceptance and self-love.

Self esteem is not in “self help”

This is just an extension of the above.

Self help reinforces perceptions of inferiority and shame. It plays on insecurities and fabricates solutions that don’t serve real needs. It encourages avoidance.

It’s like how MayoClinic convinces us we’re dying more than it actually, directly remedies health problems. Engaging will eventually make us absorb all these negatives. We are not more powerful than what we give attention.

Self help just replaces one external influence for another. We’re still grasping for some authority figure, some omnipotent voice, to tell us what to do.

This of course includes this very post. Which is ironic, but at least honest and warm-hearted, because I wrote this only after doing tons of similar reading myself, and I write hoping we all resolve this.

Self help will never help

When I was getting my business off the ground, in the 3 dark months of “white noise” after quitting my job but before getting my first customer, isolated and running mostly on “faith” alone, someone asked me, “what kind of music do you listen to during the day?” I told them, “on good days, upbeat music. On bad days, chill music. And I know it’s an ugly day when I resort to motivational videos on YouTube.”

Those videos got me nowhere — except maybe through the day.

You want to know what finally kicked my self esteem back into gear? When I started making sales. Once that happened, I never watched another motivational, “self-help” video.

Self esteem is not about “pampering”

My god, if we could all stop with the “indulgences” and “little day to day pleasures;” if only we could stop thinking “self love” is about “treating ourselves,” or “scheduling time every day for fun and relaxation.”

Heidi Priebe said it best,

“Real self-love isn’t about ‘treating yourself’… because real self-love is less about babying yourself and more about parenting yourself.”

Good parents don’t indulge children with candy each time they cry. Good parents support, teach coping mechanisms, and gently encourage growth.

This is what loving ourselves means as well. It’s not about daily indulgences. It’s identifying and pursuing our longterm values.

Self esteem is not about affirmations

Fuck writing down all your best qualities.

I don’t know who came up with this terrible advice, but it’s pretty much useless. Consider, for a moment, the most genuinely confident person you know — do they sit down every day and write down their best qualities? Maybe they do, but I doubt it.

Confident people don’t do this. And people don’t magically become confident doing it. Only self-doubting people get stuck in this compulsive loop.

Self love is not about affirmations.

As Heidi Priebe wrote,

“Claiming to love yourself and actually doing the hard work of loving yourself are not the same thing… You can repeat a thousand affirmations an hour, write a limitless number of blog posts about how you’re worthy of love and stick millions of post-it notes reminding yourself how awesome you are on every mirror in your house, but that only gets you 10% of the way to self-love.”

Except it’s more like 0%.

The real solution is: agency, awareness, authenticity, and action.

What self esteem IS:

Step 1.) Self esteem is agency

Self love is taking responsibility.

So many terrible articles encourage readers to keep self esteem at the mercy of external forces, prompting them to “think about what is affecting your self-esteem,” and suggesting “your confidence may have been lowered after a difficult experience or series of negative life event, such as: being bullied or abused, losing your job or difficulty finding employment, ongoing stress
physical illness, mental health problems, a difficult relationship, separation or divorce.

No. To this entire list: no.

I’m not saying that bad shit didn’t happen to you — it probably did. Because bad things happens to everyone. But life isn’t about playing the victim, or comparing notes on who suffered most. Life has negatives in the cards for everyone — even the most confident people you know — and the only difference between those with self esteem and those without it is that the first group chose to take responsibility for their lives, their responses, and their actions.

So when it comes to thinking about “what is affecting your self-esteem,” the answer is always “you.”

You are in control of your self esteem. That’s the entire list, beginning to end.

you are in charge. you are in charge. you. are. in. charge.

Step 2.) Self esteem is awareness

This is super important, and we don’t talk about it enough.

Get out of your damn head. Be present.

Stop slipping away. Stop shutting down. Stop freezing and falling silent any time you’re uncomfortable, or unsure, or anxious. Stop reminiscing on the past, or thinking about the future, or wandering around, mentally, anywhere that you actually aren’t.

I wrote pretty openly about struggling with this myself, and the fact that I’m currently working on it, so I speak from a place of empathy and love.

We do this is because we’ve learned that “shutting down” offers security — it’s “easier” if we don’t engage; we think there’s less risk.

But what we give up in exchange every time we do this is moments of our own lives. Which is why, in those brief moments we pull our head out of the sand, we’re filled with panic to realize we don’t like what we’re living. But then most of us respond by seeking reassurance (see “self help,” above — “you can do it!”) or solutions we don’t take, and ultimately shut it back down.

The first step? Awareness of your breathing. Second, awareness of your body in space; what you’re physically feeling. From there, you’ll become more aware of what you’re emotionally feeling as well. Accept these emotions as they come to you.

Wake up. Be aware of what you’re doing and where you are all the time. And most importantly: be aware of what you feel and think about it…

Step 3.) Self esteem is authenticity

It’s knowing what we actually want.

This is probably the hardest part. It’s also really important.

Because “nature abhors a vacuum,” if self esteem isn’t coming from external sources, but us instead, then we have to do the work of identifying what we want and need — in that vacuum, without regard to others. (Note: just like the “selfish” section, that is not meant to read as “without regard for others.” We should still be considerate. But able to say what we want (or think or feel or need) without having to first ask, “well but what do others want?”)

Self esteem is answering “what do I think?” without first asking “what do others think?” This is harder than people realize, especially because it’s so ingrained.

I was recently thinking about what I wanted to do for Valentine’s Day, and initially could not answer this question— did I really want to go to dinner, or did I just like the way that sounded? Did I really want flowers, or did I just hope they’d serve as some security; some certainty that this was special? Did I really even want to do anything? Sometimes we do things we don’t even really want, but doing what “sounds good” saves us the risk of regretting having not done something come the morning of the 15th.

(In the end, what I wanted was a cookie from our favorite local bakery. We go together all the time and they put out these seasonal designs that are so adorable I could die. And then, like a good partner, I said in clear words that that’s what I wanted.)

We do this with everything. We pick where to travel, what to buy, and where to eat based on other people — our order at restaurants is influenced by others’, and we eat more in the presence of people we’re trying to impress. We often choose clothing, cars, houses, and hobbies couched in “what others think.” And sadly, we often even choose jobs and partners this way.

Sometimes we’re asked: “What would you do if you could not fail?”

And that’s great, but an equally great question is: “What would you do if you could not tell or be told by anyone?”

Would you get married if you had to go on telling people you weren’t? Would you drive the same car if nobody saw? Would you do the same thing on your weekends if you couldn’t frame it up as “how it retells on Monday morning?” Would you vacation in the same places if nobody knew?

Would you still be doing the same job and have the same partner if you had to tell people you had a totally different job and partner, both of which they deemed “unimpressive?”

What do you want? Not just in the moment, but in the long-run. What are your values? What is your version of long-term happiness?

If that’s too hard or scary to speculate: start with a chunk of lifestyle now. Not your leisure time, but your actual life. When, for example, are you happiest at work? If your answer has anything to do with others (i.e., “when I get recognition,” “when I get a raise,” “when I win a deal,” or “when I help others,” you need to look again, for answers that serve you.) Maybe you don’t even like your work. That’s for you to explore.

If you’re struggling here and you just want more “help” on “how to do it:” you are missing the point entirely (and probably also missing the alarm bell that should be going off in your head.) This work fundamentally cannot be done by anyone else. This work is you. Do the work.

If you are so far gone that you still feel lost knowing what you want on any level: you skipped self awareness. You’re not paying attention. See “step 2” for further instruction.

Skipping this step is why “just do it!” doesn’t help

Our struggle (and reluctance) to find answers is why “advice” like “just do it!” or “just try things and see what you like” is met with apprehension at best, and disaster at worst. (If you aren’t in touch with what you actually want, and what your happiness feels like, there’s no way of even knowing if you like what you’re trying, and without this skill set, you’ll just keep falling back on “but it sounds cool” or “it’s what people do.”)

You can’t know what you love if you don’t know what love feels like, and you’re so out of touch with your own feelings you don’t know what it is.

We have to actually know who the hell we are, and what we want. Experimenting and taking action is second-grade reading level and we’re still learning letters over here.

Step 4.) Self esteem is action

Only once you understand what you want — what really makes you happy — in the long run.

Action is about making decisions. It’s about committing. It’s about choice and assertiveness and asking for the things we want and need. It’s about taking steps, and thinking, and coming to our conclusions — and then verbalizing them.

It’s also about being aware. It’s about being alert and awake and active in our own lives — not passive, compliant, or submissive.

As Nathaniel Branden wrote in “How to Raise Your Self Esteem,”

“Living consciously means taking responsibility for the awareness appropriate to the action in which we are engaged. This, above all, is the foundation of self confidence and self-respect.”

Or, to be slightly more clear,

“The difference between low self-esteem and high self-esteem is the difference between passivity and action.”

But knowing what action to take requires knowing what we want, outside of what others want — i.e., authenticity — which requires that we take full responsibility for our lives. Which requires that we dump all of the bad assumptions and models around self love, take agency in-house, and start to build self-fueling fire of our own desire.