Saturday, July 20, 2013

3 Steps to Improving Self-Esteem

Part of developing self-esteem is reframing and restructuring negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. However, at the same time, it's important to increase our awareness and attention to positive things about ourselves - to not only decrease negative thoughts and beliefs, but also to actually increase positive thoughts and beliefs.

This can be pretty challenging for people who have low self-esteem, because our minds naturally filter information through our existing beliefs and expectations. If we have negative beliefs and expectations, we are likely to notice and remember everything that might support these beliefs and expectations, but we probably don't even notice all the things that contradict our negative beliefs and expectations. In other words, the positive things exist, but we may not see them because we don't expect them to be there!

To help you become more aware of your positive aspects, follow these three steps:

Step 1: Make a List of Positive Qualities

Because it's hard to notice the positives, it is important to start writing them down. This first step is the most difficult of the three. Make a list of positive aspects of yourself, including all your good characteristics, strengths, talents, and achievements. Set aside a specific time to do this, and write the list somewhere you will be able to find it again.

Write as many positive things about yourself as you can think of…there is no limit. Include everything no matter how small, insignificant, modest, or unimportant they are! Exhaust all avenues and brainstorm as many ideas as possible (there are some suggestions below to help). If you run out of ideas, take a break. Come back to it over the course of a few days, until you have a substantial list of your positives.

Some questions that might help you come up with things include:
  • What do I like about who I am?
  • What characteristics do I have that are positive?
  • What are some of my achievements?
  • What are some challenges I have overcome?
  • What are some skills or talents that I have?
  • What do others say they like about me? What do people say my strengths are?
  • What are some attributes I like in others that I also have in common with?
  • If someone shared my identical characteristics, what would I admire in them?
  • How might someone who cared about me describe me?
  • What do I think are bad qualities? What bad qualities do I not have?
Enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member – someone you know would be supportive of you doing this, rather than someone who may be critical or contribute to lowering your self-esteem. Two heads are better than one and an outsider might have a more objective perspective of you than you do of yourself. Who knows what nice things you might discover about yourself with their help?

Watch out for negative self-evaluations or discounting positives as “small” or “no big deal” or “not worth writing.” You tend to remember detailed negative things about yourself, therefore do the same with the positives – it is only fair! Also remember, you don’t have to do these positive things absolutely perfectly or 100% of the time – that is impossible. So be realistic about what you write down - something that you generally are or do is a true positive, even though there will always be exceptions to any positive - for all of us!

Once you have a list, re-read the things you write, over and over. Reflect on what you have written - and resist critical or doubtful thoughts about it. Let the positive qualities pile up and ‘sink in.’ This is important so that you learn to notice these things and feel more comfortable acknowledging them, rather than just giving them lip-service.

Step 2: Identify Past Examples of Your Positive Qualities

Once you have a list of your positive qualities, the next step is to recall specific examples of how you have demonstrated each of the positive attributes you listed. Fold a piece of paper in half. On the left, write the first item on your positive qualities list. On the right, list as many examples as you can come up with to provide evidence of that positive quality. Consider events, experiences, successes, achievements, feedback you've gotten, etc., both recently and throughout your life up to this point.

Leave plenty of space to add examples as you remember them, then move on to the second item on your list, and so on, until you have examples for each of your positive qualities. By doing so, you will make each attribute more than just meaningless words on a page. Instead, each attribute will become a real, specific, and detailed memory of something that actually happened. In the process, you may also recognize additional positive qualities that your examples suggest. Add those to your first list, too!

This process will take some time, but is worth the effort. Remembering specific incidents that illustrate your positive qualities will allow the list to have an impact on your self-esteem.

Step 3: Notice Examples of Positive As They Happen

After spending time recalling past examples of your positive qualities, it's time to recognize examples of your positive attributes on a daily basis. This should be an ongoing exercise – something to do every day. Each day, try to record three examples from your day that illustrate certain positive qualities you have. Write exactly what you did and identify what positive attribute it shows in you. Start with noticing three a day if you can (you can always start with fewer if necessary), but try to build from there, increasing it to 4, or 5 or 6. By doing this, you will not only be acknowledging your positive qualities as things you did in the past, but also acknowledging them as things you are every day. 

This process will take time. Don't try to rush through it. Instead, give yourself time to actually experience and come to believe the things you are writing down. Over time, taking these steps will help you develop a positive self-image that is connected to your past, embedded in the present, and carries forward into the future.

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