“Everything that happens to you is a reflection of what you believe about yourself. We cannot outperform our level of self-esteem. We cannot draw to ourselves more than we think we are worth.” Iyanla Vanzant
With the start of a new academic year, students once again enter a stressful time full of new academic and social challenges which can feel overwhelming at times. Some of the things might trigger some long-lasting psychological issues, such as the one with self-esteem. Below I offer some advice on how to improve cognitive and thus behavioural aspects of self-esteem in the long run.
- Try to be true to yourself about your inadequacies
The mainstream approach to dealing with low self-esteem is not being harsh on oneself. It says that you need to cultivate compassion and engage in a positive self-talk. This strategy is invaluable for people who are usually their own worst critics in every real or perceived situation of failure.The opposite approach can also be, however, essential for growth. Recognize clearly when your undesirable patterns of behaviour are persistent and recurring. Instead of justifying or masking them – try to face the truth. Instead of simply saying “my bad mood and lack of sleep is what caused me not to speak up in class today/not to finish the assignment on time” try to see if there is anything else behind the regular excuses you make. Admit when necessary that you have some behavioural patterns which are holding you back from success or hurting your relationships. After all, how can you even be dealing with a problem if you are not aware of its existence? See it first, and then be gentle with yourself as you are following the path towards improvement.
- Do not derive your self-worth from solely one or two domains
One of the potential routes to disaster is basing your self-esteem on one or two favourite characteristics or traits of yours while ignoring the others. Imagine valuing yourself as a great athlete while feeling miserable during the midterm season. Or maybe praising yourself for your intellectual capabilities but getting intimidated by social interactions. There will be times when your self-esteem is high, but it will inevitably fluctuate every once in a while. This will happen every time you encounter stimuli which trigger you since you can’t deal with them properly.
Improving skills in the domains you aren’t so successful at can be challenging and requires some patience and dedication. As you progress, it will nevertheless bring some positive results. First of all, by doing this you can discover some hidden talents and prove to yourself that you are worth more than you thought you were. But most importantly, your self-esteem will become more resilient, well-rounded and integrated, once it is no longer derived from limited life domain(s).
- Stop falling into compare-and-despair
One of the things people with low self-esteem love doing is comparing themselves to other, seemingly more successful individuals. If you were actually to know which struggles these “successful individuals” might be or have been going through, there is a high possibility that you would rather stick with your own life. A beautiful Hollywood actor who just won a prestigious award might be a struggling drug addict with a chaotic family life.Not only are such comparisons guided by the lack of knowledge, but it is also often irrelevant to compare yourself to others. Your own aspirations, preferences and priorities in life are often unique. And so will be the results of your actions. It thus makes no sense to envy some successful people as their “success” is not exactly the same as your “success” might look like.
- Take on new challenges and reflect on the old ones
As you take on some new challenges, not only does your self-esteem grow, but the old challenges no longer seem to be that intimidating. Reflecting on the past difficulties you have managed to overcome can help you track your progress and appreciate how similar difficulties no longer throw you off balance. The feelings of fulfillment and integrity can fuel the growth of your self-esteem and inspire you to undertake some new challenges.
- Engage in altruistic behaviours
You will be surprised how much helping others can make you feel better as well. Although it might sound a bit selfish, the altruistic behaviour usually produces some positive changes in the person exhibiting it. And since the positive reactions are flowing both ways and are inseparable, one should not be ashamed of having helped oneself as the consequence of helping someone else. The evolutionary rooted altruistic behaviour will temporarily shift your brain biochemistry every time you engage in it, allowing you to gain a more favourable perspective on yourself.
- Do not try to fit yourself in a box
As move through life, you might have created a story about yourself which describes all your main strengths, weaknesses, limitations, interpretations of events form your past and perhaps even certain predictions about your future. Although this continuity is an integral part of who you are as a person, having this story way too fixed can harm you in the long run. For instance, you might never take up a particular hobby or a leadership role, because you do not perceive yourself as someone “possessing that skill” or “that trait”. Continuously challenge your thinking about yourself and especially about your potential. Be ready to modify your perspective if you want to grow in self-esteem.
- Your feelings and failures do not define you
Try to keep in mind that failing does not make you a failure and feeling worthless and desperate does not make you a loser. While reflecting on experiences is important, do not overidentify with your emotional states or negative experiences. Try to keep in mind that your core worth cannot be changed so easily and that you are the one in charge of your life.
Finally, remember that even self-doubt can be beneficial in many cases – it makes you keep your perspective in check and make more thoughtful decisions. Blind confidence is not a sign of a good mental health either. A certain amount of self-doubt should be allowed to exist, but one must learn how to fuel it in some productive ways rather than in self-limiting rumination and avoidance.