Understanding and Improving Self Esteem


Self Esteem HANDOUT

Self-esteem is something more fundamental than the normal “ups and downs” associated with situational changes. If you have high self-esteem, normal “ups and downs” may lead to temporary changes in how you feel about yourself, but these feelings do not effect your overall view of yourself. In contrast, for people with low self-esteem, these “ups and downs” may make all the difference in the world.


Low self-esteem forces one to rely on how he/she is doing in the present to determine how he/she feels about the self. But even then, a good feeling (from a good grade, etc.) is fleeting; there are negative feelings and thoughts that are constantly running around the mind.


High self-esteem is not always feeling good about the self; rather it is based on accurate self-assessment and unconditional self-acceptance. This means being able to realistically acknowledge strengths and weaknesses while accepting the self as valuable in spite of the ratio of accomplishments to failures.


The origin of self-esteem is life experiences with different people and activities throughout our early development. Family, authorities, and peers have a great influence; these influential persons shape self-esteem by how they interact with the failures and successes of a child. If they promote effort over outcomes (success or failure), self-esteem is generally high since value is not conditional and worth is in human effort. Conversely, if one is praised only with success and chastised if there is a failure, self-esteem is likely to be low given that self worth is defined as conditional to an outcome.


Childhood experiences that lead to healthy self-esteem include-

  • being praised for effort
  • being listened to
  • being spoken to respectfully
  • getting attention and hugs
  • opportunities for successes
  • having trustworthy friends


Childhood experiences that lead to low self-esteem include-

  • being harshly criticized
  • being yelled at, or beaten
  • being ignored, ridiculed or teased
  • being expected to be “perfect” all the time
  • being set up to fail (too much too fast)
  • Being equated with the failure (“you are no good at that”)


3 Faces of Low Self-Esteem


1. The Impostor: acts happy and successful, but is really terrified of failure. Lives with the constant fear that she or he will be “found out.” Needs continuous successes to maintain the mask of positive self-esteem, which may lead to problems with perfectionism, procrastination, competition, and burn-out.


2. The Rebel: acts like the opinions or good will of others – especially people who are important or powerful – don’t matter. Lives with constant anger about not feeling “good enough.” Continuously needs to prove that others’ judgments and criticisms don’t hurt, which may lead to problems like blaming others excessively, breaking rules or laws, or fighting authority.


3. The Loser: acts helpless and unable to cope with the world and waits for someone to come to the rescue. Uses self-pity or indifference as a shield against fear of taking responsibility for changing his or her life. Looks constantly to others for guidance, which can lead to such problems as lacking assertiveness skills, under-achievement, and excessive reliance on others in relationships


Behavioral Definitions for Individuals with Low Self Esteem Problems:

1.   Unable to accept any compliments.

2.   Self critical remarks; takes blame easily.

3.   Sees self as unattractive, worthless, or a burden, unimportant.

4.   Lack of pride in self-grooming.

5.   Has difficulty in saying no to others.

6.   Easily assumes not being liked by others.

7.   Fears rejection of others, especially his or her peer group.

8.   Setting inappropriately low goals for self.

9.   Unable to identify positive things about self.

10. Very uncomfortable in social situations, especially in large groups.


Long Term Goals for Individuals with Low Self Esteem Problems:

1.   Raise self esteem.

2.   Help form a consistent, positive self image.

3.   Be able to show improved self esteem through better appearance, more assertiveness, Raised eye contact.

4.   Be able to Raise identification of positive traits in self-talk messages.


Short Term Goals for Individuals with Low Self Esteem Problems:

1.   Explore feelings of competence and self worth.

  • Understand emotional development (Erikson) and identify current level.
  • Identify self-disapproval thoughts that come with efforts to achieve.

2.   Raise insight into the origins and current sources of low self-esteem.

  • Childhood conditions for worth.
  • Pivotal moments when comfort was needed.
  • Models for achievement that have been internalized.

3.    Explore unmet needs for self-fulfillment.

  • Self Care assessment and why that matters.
  • Identify missed opportunities for success and failures within range.

4.   Reduce fear of rejection while increasing self-acceptance.

  • Introduce a positive self-acceptance thought that comforts the self during risk of failure.
  • Practice self-accepting thoughts when not in a success/failure moment.
  •  Identify and list positive traits and talents about the self.
  •  Identify and list any secondary gains that are indirectly gained by speaking negatively about self and refusing to take new risks.

5. Raise the ability to identify and express personal feelings.

  • Learn to listen for feelings in others’ comments.
  • Learn to label internal feelings and express them to safe others.
  • Learn about congruent and incongruent communication stances.
  • Identify the favored incongruent stance and work to resist it.

6.  Raise frequency of assertive behaviors.

  • Increase pride for daily grooming and personal hygiene.
  • Raise frequency of positive eye contact.
  • Learn to acknowledge and accept verbal compliments from others (say “Thank You”).
  • Take full responsibility for accomplishments without discounting his or her effort.
  • Raise the frequency and ability to speak up with confidence in social situations.

7.  Develop realistic attainable goals in different areas of life.

  • Identify and list any negative self-talk messages used to reinforce low self esteem.
  • Use positive self talk messages to build self-esteem.
  • Revisit stages of development and track progress


Interventions or Strategies for Individuals with Low Self Esteem Problems:

  1. Raise his or her ability to identify and express feelings using “I statements (When X happens, I feel Y, and I need Z).
  2. Confront and restate patient’s self-disapproval comments.
  3. Decide on a positive self-acceptance mantra (“I love myself as I am”).
  4. Self affirmation daily journal: log positive thoughts about the self once a day.
  5. Congruent and incongruent stances (Satir): Increase awareness of how negative feelings are expressed or acted out.
  6. Increase awareness of the fear of rejection and its connection with past rejection or abandonment experiences.
  7. Explore incidents of abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual) and how they have impacted feelings about self.
  8. Self Care Assessment and Plan: Assess areas of care that are low and develop a specific action plan to get needs met.
  9. Family therapy session: support expression of unmet needs to/from other family members.
  10. Teach and assign mirror exercises talking positively about self.
  11. Discuss the meaning and power of a secondary gain when maintaining negative behavior patterns.
  12.  Teach patient how to be aware and acknowledge praise and compliments from others.
  13. Teach assertiveness skills or refer patient to a group that will teach assertiveness skills.
  14. Instruct patient to make a list of realistic goals for different areas of life and a plan for specific steps toward goal attainment.
  15. Request patient to identify and list past accomplishments—focusing on effort not outcome– and encourage the integration of these into self-image.
  16. Explore distorted, negative beliefs about self and the world (just-world belief).
  17. Encourage use of more realistic, positive messages to self when interpreting life events.





Adapted from  http://www.therapytools.us/course_article.php?course_id=195


For Therapy Services: The Key Counseling of SA

  1. Lavelda Naylor said:

    Oh, also…establishing a dialogue about women’s issues (messages directed at us, history of women in the media and women’s rights, being and then not being a maternal figure or sexual object, etc). What I mean by this is just use current moments to illuminate women and history and how it might feel from yours and her perspective, not a lecture, more a musing aloud. And be open to her views or even her dismissal by saying ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way,” or “I can see this isn’t important to you but it is too me.”


  2. Lavelda Naylor said:

    Well, your right about teen girls. Especially coming from mom. Take heart though and model good self esteem. It will not get you the quick results you may desire but it will serve well to make lasting impact that transcends a single growth period.

    For instance, admitting strengths and weakness and talking yourself to courage with your daughter builds a relationship of influence and mutual empathy.

    If she is in a bad place, some counseling might help. Best wishes!

  3. The information you provided, and the way in which you provided it, is excellent (not to mention extremely important). It is incredible how much self-esteem affects the quality of our lives, and yet, how difficult it is to change the way we view ourselves.
    My question for you is; I find that teenage girls are very prone to having issues with self-esteem. However, most have a very difficult time accepting that they have a problem with self-esteem (it is so frightening to think that you may have a problem with anything), and they fail in taking steps towards having a healthier vision of themselves. Any advice on what can be done? How can one be more convincing than the media that constantly promotes an unhealthy body image? Thanks!

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