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How can I acquire more self-confidence?
How can I improve my self-esteem?
I wish I could feel as “together” as everyone else seems to be…
I hear these kinds of questions and comments several times each week in my office, from some of the most outwardly successful people you could imagine.
Self-esteem is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence, and emotional intelligence is the foundation for a successful life. People often believe that if they could just feel better about themselves, their lives would go so much better, they would be so much more successful.
But feeling good is not the source of self-esteem.
Rather, feeling good is the by-product of thinking the thoughts, making the choices, and developing the habits that build self-esteem.
Self-esteem is not a feeling. It’s a habit.
Life consists of an endless series of forks in the road. At any given moment, we are directing our energies – our attitudes, thoughts, behaviors, and habits – down the path that leads to greater self-esteem – or we’re propelling ourselves in the opposite direction. It’s that simple. If you suffer from low self-worth, it’s a good idea to start asking yourself: “What I’m thinking, doing, or being – is it making me feel better about myself, or worse? What do I need to do differently to get me on a better path?”
The good news about this approach is that it’s something anyone can learn. Have you ever learned how to ride a bike, or quit a bad habit like smoking? We’re talking skills and habits here, not magic. With creativity and focus, practice and willpower, anyone can develop the skills and habits that engender high self-esteem.
I’m not especially concerned about what your background or life experience is like. Life occurs in the present moment. As the saying goes…
The past is history,
The future is mystery,
This moment is a gift – that’s why it’s called “The Present”!
If you begin to channel your energy now in the direction you want to go, you will get there, a step at a time.
Stepping Stones to Self-Esteem
The first step toward improving self-esteem is to gradually begin to increase one’s level of self-awareness A person can do this simply by noticing what’s currently happening in several areas of their experience.
Since your body never lies, start by noticing any physical sensations related to your current situation, such as shortness of breath, tightness in your neck, shoulders, or back, butterflies in your stomach, headaches or body aches. For example, one of my clients, let’s call him Ian, notices that when work starts piling up he gets tense in the shoulders. If he doesn’t reorganize his priorities he starts to feel queasy much of the time. If he allows this pattern to continue he starts to have difficulty sleeping. However, if he can catch this pattern at its onset through self-awareness, he then has a choice. Ian can begin to choose the path of caring for and esteeming himself, and he can refrain from neglecting himself and his needs.
Next, notice any feelings you have: anxiety, sadness, panic, anger, elation. If you’re not well-acquainted with your feelings, write me an email, and I’ll send you a list of feeling words. Feelings emerge spontaneously from the body, so once you’re clued in to your body signals, you can attach a word to the sensation that describes how you’re feeling. The feeling words Ian attaches to his “tight shoulder” sensation are fear, anger, sadness, and being overwhelmed. Feelings can also be experienced as images or metaphors. Ian says that he often feels “like a tiny boat adrift in huge waves”.
Now notice your thoughts. Thoughts are an incredibly important contributor to self-esteem or lack thereof. The good news about thoughts is that they can be controlled. You can use your will to direct your thoughts once you become more self-aware.
Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the extent to which their thoughts are influencing how they feel. We all have a running tape that plays a continuous stream of thoughts in the back of our minds. When Ian gets overwhelmed, he starts to think things like, “What if I can’t get this all done by Friday?” “I’m such an idiot, I should be better organized…how come other people in my office seem to get their stuff done by the end of the day?” “I’ll never figure this out…” As he becomes more self-aware, he will be able to notice these thoughts before they start to drag him down, and he can choose to substitute more helpful thoughts in their place.
What kinds of tapes do you have playing in the back of your mind? I’ve found that most people with self-esteem problems are endlessly critical about themselves, worried about what other people think of them, and often worry about what’s going to happen next. As part of your self-awareness project, record these thoughts in a little notebook and over time you can begin to replace them with something better.
Lastly, notice your behaviors. What activities are you engaged in that are doing little or nothing for you? What are you currently doing that builds you up? How’s your health? Are there people in your life that know you well – and if not, how can you begin to develop a support system? We all need some blend of positive relationships, satisfying work, and fun activities to keep our emotional tanks topped up.
Ian notices that when he begins to feel tanked out due to stress at work he comes home and flakes out on the couch. But when he thinks about it he realizes that while this is relaxing, it isn’t really satisfying. Flaking out isn’t helping him develop a life that meets his needs or fulfills his values. He’s currently re-thinking these choices and making a list of activities that are both relaxing and meaningful. So far, he’s considering going to the gym, taking out a few books from the library, or calling a friend.
Habits are merely thoughts and behaviors played out over time. Develop the habit of positive thoughts and helpful behaviors, and, before you know it, you will be feeling good about yourself and your life.