Self-esteem is defined as our subjective evaluation of our worth as a person. Needless to say, it is influenced by how we think others perceive us, too.
Indeed, in a recent poll of my readers, 20% said their self-esteem was influenced even more by how others perceive them than how they perceive themselves, and 37% said their self-perceptions and others’ perceptions were equally important in evaluating their self-esteem.
For all the debate about self-esteem, higher self-esteem is associated with more satisfying relationships, better academic performance, success at work, better emotional, mental, and physical health, and other positive outcomes.
In short, self-esteem is important, and yet there’s a lot we get wrong about it.
1. Self-esteem isn’t just how we think about our self-worth in general.
We also have self-esteem in specific domains, such as how we feel about ourselves at work, in relationships, our physical appearance, or our athletic ability.
2. Self-esteem isn’t set or stable.
It can fluctuate day to day and go up and down over time based on our experiences in life and our mental states at the moment.
3. We assume our self-esteem keeps up with our successes, accomplishments, and growth as people but not necessarily.
Too often, it lags far behind, keeping us stuck with the same overly-critical self-perceptions we had in middle school.
We tend to think praise, positive feedback, and the regard of others are what boosts our self-esteem. However, while positive feedback matters and can improve our self-esteem, it only does so if we believe it.
That means that if our self-esteem is low, praise (e.g., I think my artwork is mediocre at best and my friend tells me I’m the new Picasso) will make us feel bad, not good because it’s a sharp reminder that we don’t believe we’re that great.
This is also why people with low self-esteem bristle at compliments — they don’t sound believable to their ears.
Improving self-esteem is therefore a delicate matter. You can’t just talk yourself into it or have loved ones shower you with praise — you have to first drag your current self-esteem out of the past, boost it, and bring it in line with who you are today.
Misunderstanding about self-esteem #1: The higher our self-esteem the better.
This is incorrect. When self-esteem is too high it can veer into narcissism territory and become brittle and unstable such that it crumbles easily. Low self-esteem isn’t good either, of course, which means the upper middle ground is best.
Misunderstanding about self-esteem #2: Positive affirmations can only boost our self-esteem.
The truth is that they can make us feel worse. Again, praise only works if it’s believable to us, and the same goes for positive affirmations. Looking in the mirror and telling yourself you’re beautiful when you don’t feel beautiful is likely to make you feel worse.
Misunderstanding about self-esteem #3: Improving our self-esteem will make us prideful or arrogant.
Ironically, this worry is voiced primarily by people who dislike arrogance and value humility, which makes them least likely to go from humble modesty to narcissistic arrogance.
But to be clear, if that does happen to you, do let me know. Apparently, you discovered an even more amazing self-esteem booster, so please share your discovery with others.
Give Your Self-Esteem a Software Update
How often do you take time to seriously consider how you see yourself in the various domains of your life? And if you do, how often do you include concepts like kindness, compassion, responsibility, reliability, contentiousness, humility, or honesty?
I use those as examples because tweens and teens rarely evaluate one another on such metrics. Instead, they value coolness, appearance, athletic ability, charisma, and social media savvy.
And sadly, many of us are still (unconsciously) using the wrong metrics to assess our self-worth in our adult lives.
To boost your self-esteem, you have to do three things:
- Update the parameters that matter to you — what you believe the important qualities are that speak to a person’s worth.
- Reassess yourself based on those parameters.
- Get your unconscious mind comfortable with your worthiness based on the qualities you possess that are meaningful to you.
How to Use Self-Affirmations to Boost Self-Esteem
The difference between self-affirmations and positive affirmations is that self-affirmations are about qualities you know you have — which makes them, by definition, believable.
Here’s a self-esteem-boosting exercise:
1. Choose whether you want to begin with your global self-esteem or an important domain such as work or relationships.
Make an exhaustive list of the qualities you find meaningful in that domain. Aim for a minimum of 20 items, and the more the better.
2. Go through your list and indicate which of the qualities you possess.
Keep a little note for yourself of all the boxes you already check.
3. Every day, choose one item from the list and write two paragraphs.
One paragraph should cover how you’ve expressed the quality in the past or how you could do so in the future. The second should cover how others have appreciated that quality in the past or how they could do so in the future.
For example, you might write about how you’re a compassionate person and have no trouble expressing compassion for others and being supportive when they’re in need, and how you’ve demonstrated compassion in the past or would do so with your next partner or with a future colleague.
4. Once a year, go back to your lists and revise them.
Add qualities you would like to include and take out ones that no longer seem relevant, and then write one new essay a day to cover the new additions.
Guy Winch is a distinguished psychologist and acclaimed author. His work has been featured in The New York Times and Psychology Today.
This article was originally published at Guy Winch’s newsletter . Reprinted with permission from the author.