Build Self-Esteem with These Tips and Exercises

Psychologist-proven, personally-tested methods to feel better about yourself

A shoulders-up view of a person with a flower crown, smiling, in front of a yellow background.
Photo: Autumn Goodman/Unsplash

Like many now-adults who grew up without the proper nurturing and emotional care-giving, I’ve had a lifelong battle with low self-esteem. It’s affected the way I view myself, how I let people treat me, and my own level of happiness. I’ve made it my personal mission to track down the best resources for working on self-esteem, a project that’s taken me years.

Low self-esteem most often begins in childhood, and if you’re a lifelong sufferer like me, you’ve probably felt this way your entire life. Those likely to develop low self-esteem are survivors of trauma, especially children from neglectful or abusive homes (abuse or neglect doesn’t have to be sensational to make an impact, by the way). You may also have low self-esteem if you have a mental illness, if you’re going through a stressful period or life change, if you’re feeling lonely or isolated, or if you’re affected by the prominent images in our society of idealized beauty standards.

My low self-esteem stems from childhood. I received the implicit message that I wasn’t good enough. My worth was based on my behavior — it was conditional. When my behavior was “good”, I was perceived and treated like I was “good”. Any other time, I was treated as though I were bad or defective. Through other implicit, and possibly unintentional means, I felt neglected and ignored. My needs, wants, and desires were not treated as important. I wasn’t encouraged or supported enough to grow and thrive as a kid, and it resulted in many issues, including a shaky sense of self and low self-esteem.

“Why am I not confident around authority figures or people I admire?” “Why am I never good enough?” “How do I stop relying on others for validation?” “Why do I always feel so bad?”

Now I struggle as a perfectionist, who often fails to live up to her own standards. I am constantly chasing some standard of quality, some high achievement that I cannot possibly attain. Even if I do, in some regards, reach my goal, I don’t feel like it’s good enough or worthy enough, so I make a different goal to chase, or I feel bad for “failing” the first one. In this cycle, the underlying message is that nothing I’m doing is fulfilling me because that void lies within. That need to be validated, reassured, and built up as a child was never fulfilled, therefore, I was never fulfilled. I still am not. So I chase external validation to fill this. But the reality is that it’s impossible to do it this way.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this for me, or for anyone else who struggles with low self-esteem. I decided to research the topic several years ago when I realized that the questions I had kept leading back to the same answer. Questions like, “Why am I not confident around authority figures or people I admire?” “Why am I never good enough?” “How do I stop relying on others for validation?” “Why do I always feel so bad?” The answer is having better self-esteem can improve all these situations and feelings.

Having healthy self-esteem enables us to properly love ourselves, warts and all, to let go of perfectionism and the need to compare ourselves to others. You can be proud of your accomplishments and bounce back from your failures. It puts the emphasis on being able to validate yourself and know your own worth, which shields you from others’ criticism because you know it won’t and can’t affect who you are as a person. It stops the need to seek approval from outside accomplishments and societal standards, like sexual attractiveness, and instead lets you see your inherent worth for yourself, which leads to healthier boundaries, better relationships, and a happier you!

Something I’ve learned is that self-esteem isn’t a practice where you tell yourself how great you are and point to everything you’ve done as proof. It’s appreciating yourself for who you are, as you are. It doesn’t have to have empirical data to back it up because it’s based on the concept that you have inherent worth. While some aspects of self-esteem building may point to achievements or character traits, they are to remind you what you’re capable of and what makes you, you. It shows that you can and have done things “right” and well, and it’s okay to be proud of those! Those character traits are YOUR personality and who you are. But they alone aren’t what make you lovable and worth it. They just help to define who you are, and that is part of the battle of self-esteem. To love yourself, you must first know yourself.

Tips to Improve Your Self-Esteem

  • Stop the automatic thoughts. Psychology Today says our negative self-talk can affect us by repeating in our head so often that we believe it’s true. “I’m not good enough”, “I have no friends”, ”I suck at everything”, “I’m ugly”. Those are just a few of the internal examples you might hear in your head. The counter-measure is to stop yourself and offer an affirmation instead. “I am good enough”, “I’m a good person”, “People like me”, “I’m doing my best”, “I’m beautiful the way I am”. Something that opposes the thought. You might not believe it at first, but challenging a negative thought is powerful, even if it takes your subconscious some time to catch up with the message.
  • List your best qualities and traits. What characteristics make you who you are? Which ones are you proud of? What would someone say about you when describing you? You have an amazing sense of humor, you’re incredibly empathetic and caring, you’re generous, you are tenacious, you are intelligent. Don’t be afraid to name them! It’s not vanity. It’s not arrogance. It’s YOU!
  • Know your talents — and use them! What are you good at? What makes you shine? There is something that makes you uniquely you. Give yourself time for the hobby or interest that makes you feel good. You deserve to invest time in things that make you feel good.
  • Volunteer. This is a good way to both get out of your head and serve a great organization or cause at the same time. Volunteering has proven benefits for building self-esteem, as well as fighting depression and anxiety. It gives you a sense of purpose and feels extremely rewarding, while providing a critical need to an important cause. Homeless shelters, food banks, animal shelters, hospitals, rec centers, elderly community centers/assisted living, and local entities like the library or a museum are all great places to volunteer. There are also plenty of virtual volunteer opportunities.
  • Affirmations, but only the “right” kind. Like I mentioned in the first tip above, affirmations are good for countering negative thoughts. They’re also helpful on their own, but only if they’re the right kind. Emotional Resiliency Coach, Carmen Isáis, who specializes in helping people overcome negative beliefs, says that the best way to combat low self-esteem is not with positive affirmations, but with neutral ones. An example would be: “I’ve had better days, but I’ve also had worse. Today I’m okay.” Instead of, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Positive affirmations can be helpful for people who have a foundation of self-esteem, but if you’re in an extremely negative place, try something more neutral.
  • Work on your self-compassion. A therapist once told me that self-compassion is a good way to learn to forgive yourself, instead of beating yourself up. It allows you to focus on how to respond to situations and events mindfully and non-judgmentally. For me, this has gone hand-in-hand with building self-esteem because it teaches me to be more gentle with myself and learn that I can deal with difficult setbacks or embarrassing moments.

Exercises to Help Build Self-Esteem

Your Good Qualities and How They’re Useful. When faced with a negative or unwanted outcome, make a list of all your good qualities in that specific context. For example, if a new relationship doesn’t work out, list all the qualities about yourself that you think makes a good partner. Write a paragraph or two about how those qualities will be valued and appreciated in a future relationship. Another example would be not getting a job you really wanted. What characteristics make you a good fit for your dream job or that make you a good worker in your field? Write a paragraph about what you could do for the right employer and how you make an excellent employee.

Core Beliefs

Courtesy of Positive Psychology Program

Another one I learned from therapy, this exercise, will look at some core beliefs that you’ve held innately about yourself, probably for a very long time. You will be asked to challenge them with reasons that they aren’t true. It’s a way to critically analyze your own internal monologue and give contrary evidence to certain statements you may believe about yourself. Some examples might be, “I’m not good enough for a partner because I’m so weird and awkward” or “I am not going to get this job promotion because all the other candidates are more qualified”. Counter evidence would be things like, “I’m smart, funny, have interesting hobbies, and a kind heart. I know others appreciate those qualities about me.” Or, “I take initiative and work hard at my job. I’m also friendly and empathetic to customers. My performance reviews and customer feedback supports this”.

Challenge Negative Thoughts. In the first part of this article, I listed automatic negative thoughts as something that impairs our self-esteem without us thinking about it. This is an in-depth exercise to challenge those thoughts. When a negative thought pops up in your head, like, “I’m so stupid” or “I’m never going to do anything worthwhile”, then you can use this table to help you analyze and change your automatic thought. It’s part of a successful therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Give it a try, but remember! Practice makes perfect. You won’t suddenly change your entire life’s outlook in one try, but it is very insightful.

Courtesy of Theranest

Self-Esteem Journal Template. Copy this template into your own journal for reflection on your day, your feelings, and your desires. It could also be used as a separate exercise, but as someone who already journals, I find it easier to just add it to my daily mood journal. It’s a simple way to be mindful about your day and your experiences.

Example Prompts:

Who I Am: List the top 5 things that made you smile today. Reflect on why these occurrences brought you joy.

What I Need: What and/or who could you not live without? Reflect on this feeling of need.

What I Desire: If you had the ability to accomplish one thing tomorrow, what would it be and why?

Get to Know Yourself Prompts. There are plenty of good workbooks and journals out there to help you accomplish this, but if you want a no-fuss, no-cost way to do this, bust out any notebook or sheet of paper (or use Google docs, as I have in some cases), and answer some cool prompts. I like this one because it has such a wide variety of questions that are well-articulated and deep. It will definitely take awhile, but it’s more for doing over time, not necessarily all at once. On my blog, The Unplug Initiative, I answered a quick 20 questions that are more broad and vague, but easier to answer.

List your accomplishments. In his book, Self Esteem: A Practical Guide, David Bonham-Carter advises making this list as a way to practically view what you’ve done. Anything you take pride in that you’ve achieved, big or small. Emphasis on what you take pride in — this isn’t a list of what society deems valuable or what others would be impressed by on your list, though it could include that, too. These accomplishments or achievements are part of what makes you who you are, and it’s powerful to connect to that. They don’t have to be things like “I wrote a novel” or “I ran a marathon”. It’s more often things like, “I supported myself financially through college”, or “I was able to survive my terrible breakup”, or “I raised my child as a single parent with little help”. Once you start seeing these examples in your life, it’s not only easier to see them and think of them, it’s easier to relish in them and remind yourself, “hey, I did that thing. That’s pretty cool.”

I talk about self-improvement, mental health, and the art of the “do” on my blog, The Unplug Initiative. I’m also on Twitter. Come say hi!

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Jessica Mathis

Jessica Mathis

Writer at The Unplug Initiative. Mental health advocate. Doing my best in the pursuit of self-improvement.