Self-esteem can be a major area of confusion and heartache for many (ok, probably most). In order for our clients at Wise Heart Nutrition to truly experience progress in healing their relationship with food, we typically have to spend some time addressing self-esteem. First of all let’s clarify what self-esteem really is and why it’s important to our everyday lives. Then we’ll get to the good stuff - 5 steps to improve your self-esteem.
Self-esteem is your subjective sense of overall personal worth or value. The key word here is subjective - self-esteem may not be based on reality, but rather our perception. Similar to self-respect, it describes your level of confidence in your abilities and personal attributes.
Some sources that contribute to low self-esteem include:
Conversely, self-esteem can be built by:
Self-esteem is important because it impacts your overall well-being; it can color your relationships, mental health, and decision making. Self-esteem is not something that can be reached, achieved or checked off, but is something that we strengthen over time, like a muscle in our body.
Someone who experiences a high degree of self-esteem will likely have a pretty good understanding of their potential, be aware of their ability to take the action they want (as well as knowing when something might be beyond their control), and be open to growing and learning (vs. striving to be “right/perfect”). Developing self-esteem also involves learning what your needs are and how to express, honor, and attend to those needs. Finally, someone with strong self-esteem will have realistic expectations of themselves and others.
Those with marginalized identities are at higher risk for low self-esteem due to factors like chronic experiences of oppression and negative messaging, limited access to helpful sources of support, and societal expectations that center dominant identities. In this sense, self-esteem is a social justice issue. Many marginalized individuals are starting out with extra barriers to building self-esteem, and this doesn’t mean resources that improve self-esteem cannot be made more accessible within these communities. But we bring attention to this to point out that our marginalized identity friends may need more social support on their journey, and a huge part of that support requires folx with more privileged identities to engage in learning, activism, and advocacy to address and reduce these barriers.
The term “self-esteem” often gets equated to “body image”, but they are actually not interchangeable terms. Body image is a component of our overall self-esteem, but it is not the only one! Self-esteem encompasses any area of life that contributes to how you value yourself. So, struggling with body image does not exclude you from being able to make improvements in self-esteem. Remembering that body image is just one piece of the self-esteem puzzle might help you consider other areas of self-esteem that could feel easier to work on as a warm-up for that self-esteem muscle.
Maybe you have heard of that old psychologist, Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs? If not, just know that he created a pyramid of things that every human needs in order to live a fulfilling and “healthy” life. And guess what? Self-esteem is one of ‘em. He proposed that us humans need both internal self-respect and positive support from others in order to build self-esteem.
Self-esteem is likely to be higher when you receive positive feedback from people in your life and through societal messages. This positive feedback can be anything that helps to form or reinforce positive beliefs about your qualities, characteristics, or abilities. However, we can’t always rely on societal messaging or even the people we love to provide the type and level of positive reinforcement that we need.
This is where the individual healing work comes in; the other half of building self-esteem comes from respecting and having compassion for ourselves. This involves identifying our needs and values, setting up systems and language to communicate these to others, and asserting boundaries when your level of self-respect cannot be met by others.
So this info can be a really great foundation for understanding the concept of self-esteem, but you might be wondering how this could actually apply in your life. And we agree, it is always helpful to have some concrete tips for applying what we learn - right? Here are our top 5 tips to get you started! Take what resonates, and leave the rest. If you have any other tips that you’ve found to be helpful, we would love for you to share them in the comments down below!
Seek a support group around a specific issue, tailor your social media consumption to show you more supportive content, reach out to supportive friends and family, join a new activity or class, and/or find professional support (like a therapist or dietitian). Whether online or in the “real world”, start to foster your connections, or build your chosen family, who can offer a degree of positive reinforcement when you need it.
We can’t live a values centered life if we aren’t even sure what our values are! So first thing first, figure out what is truly important to you - what are 5-8 things that you want to take into consideration when you make decisions, take actions, or show up in your life? And know that your values right now don’t have to be permanent, and that values can shift over time and across contexts in our lives. There are several value exercises out there on the world wide web, but here’s one that we like. You can even do this the old fashioned way with a pencil and paper! Don’t stop there, though. Spend a few minutes brainstorming small ways you can intentionally lean into a few of your values in the coming weeks. And while it might not seem like a clear and direct link, living into your values is a foundational piece of nourishing your self-esteem.
One of the many aspects of self-esteem is confidence - and specifically confidence in both your ability to do something as well the confidence that you can and will do the thing you are capable of. This is called self-efficacy and can be a bit of a tender muscle. So, before you dive in, let’s do a little reset. Try to put the past out of your mind and set aside your big, lofty future goals.
Zoom in and think about all of the steps and pieces that go into the thing you want to work towards. Make one teeny tiny intention, like brushing your teeth or drinking a glass of water at lunch today. Bonus points if your thing is connected to your values.
Now zoom in a little more. Think about the very first step that you would need to take in order to make even 1% progress towards that intention. Could you pack the toothbrush in your purse, or fill up that new water bottle? Yes, we actually mean really small. And the small things really do count. Start with something that you know you are capable of, and that you can truly see yourself following through on. When we start by building confidence in these really small ways, that confidence can grow over time, which will help to strengthen your overall self-esteem.
This exercise is similar to identifying your values. In the same vein, it’s hard to honor your needs if you don’t even know what they are. Your needs are probably related in one way or another to your values. For example, if your value is honesty, a need may be that others don’t lie to you or hide important information from you. Now you know your expectation of others and you can communicate it like, “For me, honesty is an important part of being able to trust others”. You’re doing great! The next step is to turn that need into a boundary. A boundary is not a demand or an ultimatum that others must follow. It is an expression of your needs/expectations, and the consequences of those needs not being met. The above need might be turned into a boundary by telling a friend: “If you lie to me or hide significant info, you will lose my trust and my friendship”. If you have identified your need and been clear with someone about it, and then they disrespect it, then your job is to honor your boundary and follow through on what you explained would be the outcome.
Conversely, you can also work on meeting this need for yourself. If you value honesty, then a need may be being honest with yourself. If your knee has been hurting for a while, time to be honest that you may need to go to the doctor. If you have been struggling to meet your nutritional needs, time to be honest that you may need to see a dietitian.
Setting and holding boundaries with ourselves and others is an act of respect for both ourselves, and for others.
The path to stronger self-esteem includes noticing your negative thoughts or limiting beliefs, and reframing them to be more compassionate or realistic. After a lifetime of conditioning and neural pathway development, you may not be able to prevent a negative body thought from coming up when you look in the mirror. However, you can choose to put that thought in park, take a deep breath, and then offer a reframing. A compassionate reframe might be “My body is okay just the way it is”; a more realistic statement may be “I am working towards body neutrality, it’s okay if it takes a while to get there.” For more steps to creating affirmations that are kind and based in reality, check out our blog on body neutrality here!
All of this self-esteem stuff is easier said than done, but you do not have to tackle it all at once. Choose only one of these tips, the easiest one for you, and focus on one thing that you can do today to just start. Truly, that’s the whole point here. Building self-esteem is based on just allowing yourself the space and time to start one very small thing for yourself. You CAN do it.
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