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How to improve self-esteem

Self-esteem is how well or not so well we think about ourselves. But it’s also one of those qualities that’s easy to spot on the outside. Think about how we describe someone with high self-esteem: proud, resilient, confident. They literally hold their heads high and take up space. Now think about someone with low self-esteem, maybe even ourselves. Where’s the self-worth others seem to have?

It might be a surprise to learn that it’s right here within us. And we can tap into it with the right support, even if we don’t feel good about ourselves right now.

A mindfulness practice like meditation can be a good place to start. If we make time to be kind to our mind, it becomes possible to recognize our value, boost our confidence, and accept ourselves for who we are — little by little, breath by breath.

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Key takeaways:

  • Practicing self-compassion is key to healthy self-esteem

  • Meditation helps us put more space between our thoughts and chatter that drags us down, so we have the chance to choose kinder words

  • Try meditations to improve self-esteem with Headspace

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves about who we are. The mental chatter that helps us firm up our beliefs is what psychologists call self-talk. If we think we didn’t perform well at work, we might say something critical like, “I’ll never get promoted.”

The experiences we have with others and our culture also influence self-talk. Maybe a friend compliments us, and we say to ourselves, “I like my unique sense of style.” Or maybe we’re single on Valentine’s Day, and we tell ourselves, “I’m never going to find love.”

Like our thoughts, self-talk can’t be turned off and isn’t good or bad. It only becomes harmful if we keep returning to a negative mindset (or toxic positivity) out of habit. Research shows how we speak to ourselves massively impacts our mental and physical health.

If our inner voice helps us work through problems, make decisions, and encourages us to hit our goals, we most likely have healthy self-esteem. We recognize our value and talk to ourselves kindly and compassionately no matter what or who we come up against. When our voice is frequently negative or judgmental, saying things like “I’m no good,” “I do everything wrong,” or “No one likes me,” we probably struggle with low self-esteem.

Just because we have low self-esteem now doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be that way forever. We can learn to redirect our self-talk from being judgmental to speaking to ourselves kindly. It gets easier to do once we start feeling how it benefits our well-being.

What causes low self-esteem?

We’re so much more than our thoughts and feelings. But that can be hard to believe if we have low self-esteem.

Those of us with low self-esteem frequently get stuck in a fault-finding cycle with ourselves. We nit-pick, second-guess, and sit out a lot in our lives. It’s likely because we've been nit-picked, second-guessed, and made to sit out throughout our lives. Or maybe we had parents who didn’t feel good about themselves, so they modeled a lack of self-esteem.

In this reality — hyper-focused on the times we’ve been judged, mistreated, or criticized — we make it easy for the mind to think up reasons to question our self-worth and bring us down. If we’ve been in this cycle long, it can feel normal to slip constantly into a negative mindset. It also gets easier to trust any negative thought, feeling, or story instead of questioning if they’re true. It would require us to sit with our thoughts, and that might seem too uncomfortable to try to do at first. As a result, we develop low self-esteem.

It’s true that our thoughts, other people, and cultural standards can impact our self-esteem. And maybe we should reconsider how those hurtful people and institutions show up in our lives. But they don’t cause us to have poor (or great) self-esteem. What causes low self-esteem is our point-blank belief in them all.

To know how to improve self-esteem, we need to rethink our relationship with our thoughts. So that part about sitting with our thoughts, even if it’s uncomfortable, gets really important. When we use mindfulness to help, it gets clearer that intentionally spending time with our mind doesn’t have to be so bad.

How to improve self-esteem

Everyone has insecurities and experiences negative self-talk, even the most successful and happiest people. So, if it feels hard or scary to step away from a negative mindset, know you’re not alone. Improving self-esteem is doable with the right support.

To start, let’s learn how to give less weight to our unhelpful thoughts and let them go. Using this approach, thoughts, negative self-talk, and even what others do or say begin to affect us way, way less.

Meditation is a really effective way to practice noticing thoughts without reacting to them. Just 10 days of Headspace has been shown to increase satisfaction with life by 7.5%. And we don’t need much to make a difference. Whether it works with our schedules to pause and take a few deep breaths or meditate for five or 10 minutes, any amount of daily meditation can help us be less judgmental with ourselves. When we sit still with the mind, let our thoughts come, then let them go, we’re teaching ourselves to be kind to our mind. The more we practice, the more we’ll be able to observe but not engage with self-critical thinking. We’ll get better at separating our self-talk from our self-worth, feel more resilient, and tap into that confidence that was in us all along.

Along with meditation, here are other mindful ways to support ourselves on our journey to improve self-esteem:

  • Try noting.

If we get distracted by negative self-talk (while we meditate or do anything else), the noting meditation technique helps us call it out. We stop to recognize, “Oh, I’m thinking. Oh, I’m not being so kind to myself.” This simple act gives us a sense of having dealt with it and makes it easier to let go of the distraction and return to whatever we’re doing. When we get distracted again, and we will, repeat the process of pausing, noting, and letting go.

  • Practice self-compassion.

Healthy self-esteem comes when we learn to be gentle toward ourselves and let go of the self-judgments and negativity that get in the way. Research shows that self-compassion is crucial for our well-being. And one study found that mindfulness can promote self-compassion. Meditating for self-compassion lets us notice the negative self-talk, acknowledge it, and let it go so we can find some ease toward ourselves. We can also engage in self-compassion in other ways — like leaving ourselves sticky-note reminders to treat ourselves with kindness, even when we make mistakes or have bad days.

  • Keep a journal.

While there are many different ways to journal, jotting down our thoughts can benefit our mood and self-esteem. One study showed that a 12-week “positive affect journaling” intervention (where participants wrote about a difficult experience for 15 to 20 minutes three times a week) led to reduced stress, the ability to manage anxiety and depression better, and even improved mood. When our anxiety decreases and our mood improves, we find it easier to see past our negative self-talk and treat ourselves compassionately. We can also journal by keeping daily or weekly gratitude lists. Or by making a note of our recent actions of goodwill, like supporting a family member through a difficult time or helping a coworker finish a big project.

  • Practice affirmation.

Especially when we’re stuck in a cycle of fault-finding, it’s helpful to practice noticing our positive qualities and all the things we’ve accomplished. Nothing is too small an achievement to make the list. “I made coffee to help me feel alert for the work day,” “I made my bed, and my room looks tidy,” or “I washed my face and put on skincare” are all wins. Try writing down a list of the things we know we’ve done. We can also write about how we’ve been good friends or used our talents. It’s a practical way to start believing our value by seeing it on paper.

  • Learn something new.

As we build self-esteem, we can give ourselves permission to try new things, regardless of the outcome. Maybe we’ve always wanted to learn an instrument, try our hand at gardening, or dream of traveling somewhere new. If we approach new experiences without expectations, we can begin to replace criticism and judgment with curiosity. When we do this, we build confidence in our ability to take risks and discover new stories about who we are and what we’re capable of.

Try meditations to improve self-esteem with Headspace

The Headspace app has hundreds of guided exercises to help you build your practice. Start by trying these three meditations to help you improve self-esteem and be kind to your mind. A happier, healthier you is a few breaths away.

  • Self-Esteem course. Move towards a less judgmental inner life by creating some space in your mind to observe negative and self-critical thinking.

  • Forgiving Ourselves single meditation. When we make mistakes, it’s easy to let our harsh inner critic take over. But showing ourselves kindness can help us show up better for our families.

  • Moving Beyond Shame single meditation. Recalibrate your relationship with shame through reflection and acceptance.

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