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Low self-esteem doesn’t have to be forever. Here’s how to turn it around.

by Jennifer Garam

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Several months ago it became clear that I had a problem with crumbs. I had been looking for a job in my field to no avail and picking up temp work in the meantime. One day I found myself at a particularly low-paid assignment, earning the same hourly rate I’d made 15 years ago.

I was also seeking a relationship via dating sites and apps, but encountering men who couldn’t even commit to a first date, if they didn’t ghost me altogetherI was longing for reciprocal, nurturing friendships but always found myself being the one who initiated plans, and often not having my calls and texts returned.

I wanted to value myself. I was trying to value myself. But it felt like the world wasn’t responding in kind. And worse, I felt like I didn’t have any other options but to accept whatever crumbs were thrown my way, because without them I’d have even less.

Sometimes it can feel like you’re hitting a wall at every turn, and the validation you seek is just not coming through. But clinging to crumbs won’t help you value yourself. Devon MacDermott, Ph.D., a New York City-based psychologist, and Elisabeth LaMotte, LICSW, a Washington, DC-based psychotherapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center, offer advice on how to maintain self-worth when faced with external challenges.

Say no to crumbs

“Part of the reason we’re inclined to take crumbs is the fear that we’ll never be fed again,” says LaMotte. “But so many times by taking crumbs, the self is devalued, and therefore [you’re] more likely to be in more situations where all you’re given are crumbs.”

You can help break this cycle by saying no to scraps. “Being strong enough to say no to a substandard relationship, for example, and therefore tolerate being on your own long enough to know yourself, take good care of yourself, and feel good about being on your own, positions you to choose a better relationship from a place of strength rather than a place of desperation,” LaMotte says.

LaMotte cautions that saying no to crumbs is a little more complicated in a vocational context, though. While leaving an unsuitable relationship to be on your own can be a healthy opportunity for growth, it might not be prudent to leave a job without having another lined up, even if you don’t feel adequately valued in your current position. But LaMotte says that there are still things you can do that will help bolster your sense of self-worth in these situations. Developing a hobby or volunteering for a cause that’s meaningful to you outside of work can be beneficial for your self-esteem, as can continuing to network and look for other job opportunities.

Face the void

Once you start saying no to crumbs, more fulfilling friendships and relationships won’t necessarily start to pour in. There will likely be a period where you experience a void, which is a reason why letting go of crumbs when no better options are in sight can seem scary. But MacDermott and LaMotte agree that facing this void is a valuable—and even necessary—step for growth and a more resilient self-esteem.

“It is part of the risk but it’s also part of the opportunity,” MacDermott says. “So you end up with a bit of a void or maybe a large void, and one of the best things to start filling that with is building your own sense of self-worth … filling that void with therapy or a meditation practice or some kind of self-care to bring back that sense of worthiness.”

Practice self-care

MacDermott says that focusing on physical wellness can be one way to practice self-care—something simple like stretching for 10 minutes every morning can have an impact. She adds that we tend not to set goals when feeling unworthy, so it can be helpful to set aside time to think about what you’d really like to accomplish.

Self-care could also include reinvesting in a relationship that is sustaining. “Often there is at least one person in our lives that really cares about how we are doing, and focusing on building that relationship—instead of crumby relationships—can be nurturing,” she says.

Take a break from social media

Looking to social media for validation in the form of a large following or a lot of Likes does not work to build self-esteem, says LaMotte. “It’s like a sugar high,” she says. “It’s a temporary dopamine rush and then you crash.”

“Social media has really contributed to the sense of not being enough and needing to constantly seek some kind of validation,” MacDermott says. That’s why she suggests taking a break from it if you’re struggling with self-worth.

If you’re going through a rough patch, you may want to consider taking an extended social media break. MacDermott says the amount of time will vary with each person, but it’s important to check in with your emotions. View it as an experiment and edit the process as you go along, taking more or less time off depending on how you’re feeling.

Self-esteem is an inside job

While it can be difficult to value yourself when it seems no one else does, feeling valued by those around you is not the ultimate solution—nor will it make a lasting difference in your self-esteem.

“The path of developing self-esteem relates to making the difficult realization that validation from external sources is never going to create self-esteem that is authentic,” LaMotte says. “It only happens from within.”


Artwork by KAREN HONG

Jennifer Garam

Jennifer Garam is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Her articles and essays have appeared on SELF.com, TIME.com, Redbookmag.com, VICE's Tonic, Prevention.com, The Huffington Post, PsychologyToday.com, Health.com, Thrillist, among others. Visit her at jennifergaram.com and follow her @writeouschick.

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