When I was about six years old, my mum was brushing my hair before school when I asked her a question. “Am I ugly?” I asked, looking at her and my reflection in the mirror before me.
She gasped in horror at the question and stopped running the brush through my hair. She said no (cheers, mum!), then asked me where this question was coming from. A boy in my class had called me ugly on the playground.
That was the first time I remember feeling bad about myself. But that was just the beginning of a very long, very troubled relationship with myself. That boy on the playground was far from the last person to call me ugly. He was certainly not the last person to make me question my sense of self.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. If you’re reading this, you might have a similar story about the first time you ever wondered aloud or quietly whether or not you are ‘ugly,’ whether you’re ‘not smart,’ whether you’re a ‘bad person.’
A few months after turning 31, I hit an all-time low-point in my self-esteem. But then something snapped — I was so tired of feeling bad about myself, so tired of disliking everything about me. There’s a lot of useless platitudes on the internet on the topic of self-esteem — telling someone with low self-esteem to “love yourself” simply isn’t going to cut it. I wanted to find tangible strategies that I can use in my everyday life to work on my self-esteem.
I wrote this article for myself and for anyone who has ever wondered what to do about persistent low-self esteem.
Dispute your negative thoughts
Negative thoughts can be very convincing. I’ve believed many of the terrible things I’ve thought about myself. Daniel Fryer, a psychotherapist at the Priory Hospital Bristol, recommends challenging your negative thoughts. “Every time you think or say something negative about yourself, dispute it by reminding yourself of something you did well or succeeded in,” says Fryer. “That way, you will be replacing self-criticism with self-compassion.”
Psychotherapist Owen O’Kane — former NHS clinical lead for mental health — says you shouldn’t believe everything you think. “Often it’s easy to fall into patterns in which people, situations, or circumstances get misinterpreted,” says O’Kane. “If some of your thought patterns tend to be critical, judgemental, or thinking the worst, it could lead you to inaccurate perspectives.” He advises observing your perspectives and re-evaluating them if they tend toward repeated self-criticism.
Practise unconditional self-acceptance
Our self-esteem is similar to rating ourselves based on our successes, Fryer explains.If you have low self-esteem, that rating can be based on what you perceive as your failings. “When you base your confidence on your ‘stuff’ you need something to go well for your confidence to go up but, when something goes wrong, your confidence nosedives,” says Fryer.
“You have value as you, because you are you: a human being on this planet.”
Per Fryer, Rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) — a form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) developed by Dr Albert Ellis — promotes unconditional self-acceptance. “With it, every single human being on the planet is a worthwhile, fallible human being, capable of both success and failure,” he says.
If you need an affirmation to repeat to yourself on challenging days, or even every day, let it be the following from Fryer. “You have value as you, because you are you: a human being on this planet. Base your confidence on this notion, that you have worth, that you are sufficient as is. Remind yourself of this daily.”
Keep a compliments log
Counsellor Sophie Robinson-Matthews, who’s part of Counselling Directory (a database of 15,000 professional therapists in the UK), recommends keeping a log every day of “every positive thing, compliment, or praise that is said about you” or your work. You might feel a little weird doing it, but why not give it a go?
“If you receive the same comment multiple times, keep a tally next to it but keep this log going every day,” she says. “At the end of each week, review the log and ask yourself these questions: What are my initial feelings when I read through this log? On a scale of 0-10 (0 being none and 10 being a huge amount) how much do I believe that all of these positive things are true of me?” While you’re reviewing the log, go through the statements you’ve noted down and ask yourself which comments you believe are true, which ones are possibly true, and which ones do you not believe.
Keep an achievements journal
If writing a list of compliments isn’t your thing, why not try keeping a journal of your achievements? “Every day, write down the things you did well that day, or achieved that day,” suggests Fryer. This could be anything from finishing a work task to doing some life admin to making your own lunch the night before — whatever you feel proud of.
Fatmata Kamara, specialist nurse adviser at UK healthcare company Bupa, advises keeping a journal to keep track of different feelings you’re experiencing, ultimately steering it back to some positives. “You can also use the journal to write down a few things you like about yourself,” she says. “It may feel strange at first, but you’ll feel more comfortable the more you practise it.”
Avoid comparing yourself to others
It’s really hard to avoid comparing yourself to others — especially if you spend a decent chunk of time on social media. If you’re worried about social media’s impact on your self-esteem, read my piece on ways people protect themselves from self-comparison.
Sofie Hagen — fat acceptance activist and author of Happy Fat — suggests unfollowing any social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself. “Unfollow, unfriend, hide, block, mute. Do this to every single social-media account you follow that makes you feel bad,” writes Hagen in Happy Fat. “Whether it’s your friend from school or whichever famous vlogger. This does not make you petty or jealous. It just makes you a person who is susceptible. And, we all are.”
Fryer also advocates reminding yourself that life is not a competition. “Everyone else on this planet is a worthwhile, fallible human being. This means they have successes and failings of their own. The only person you need to compare yourself to is you,” he says.
Treat yourself like you would treat a friend
You might notice a marked difference in the way you talk to your friends when they’re having a tough time compared with your own inner voice during a tough period. “It is very easy to treat yourself harshly or critically when things go wrong, with internal cries of ‘idiot,’ or ‘stupid,'” says O’Kane. “Would you speak to someone you care about in the same way? I’m guessing probably not.”
“How we treat ourselves has a huge impact on our mental wellbeing. A kind compassionate approach to yourself will change your world and those around you,” he adds.
In his book Over The Top, Jonathan Van Ness writes beautifully about “learning to parent yourself” and treating yourself with compassion.
“Learning to parent yourself, with soothing compassionate love, forgiving yourself, and learning from all the decisions you made to get you to where you are — that’s the key to being fulfilled,” writes JVN. “Learning to be the dream parent cheerleader to yourself. It’s been in you the whole time. And no matter how down you get, you can always make a gorgeous recovery.”
Sometimes my low self-esteem makes me want to people-please. Kamara says that people with low self-esteem might feel they have to say yes to others even when they don’t want to.
“This could make you feel overburdened, resentful or depressed. If you’re not comfortable with something, learn to say no,” she says. “Being assertive in this way means you value yourself and others, and it should help you to set clear boundaries.”
Dr. Sheetal Sirohi, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woking, says if you manage to improve your self-esteem by yourself, well done. But if you are struggling, seek help. “Counselling or therapy can be a great for self-improvement,” says Sirohi. “Others can help remove years of trauma and abuse that eats into self-esteem. A psychiatrist and/or a psychologist can help not only give direction but also support in stressful times when one is vulnerable.”
I, for one, know I have a tendency to be extremely unforgiving and unkind to myself. My inner voice speaks to me in a way I wouldn’t dream of speaking to another human being.
If you’ll allow me just one platitude, it’s this: be kind to yourself. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would a friend in need.
This article was first published in 2019 and republished in 2023.