By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 43 and this week I’m talking about self-esteem – I’ll be discussing what it is, how it affects your wellbeing, and how to improve your self-esteem for better mental health. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service) or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- ‘Self-esteem’ is how we think about ourselves, as well as how we value ourselves and our ability to see our worth as a human being.
- When you value yourself and the contributions you make to the world, you’re going to be much more likely to treat yourself kindly and to make life decisions that are in your own best long-term interests.
- Every single person on this planet has something positive to contribute no matter how big or how small; the trick is to find what makes you unique and then to start from there.
- Low self-esteem can be overcome, however it takes time and daily effort.
- Having good self-esteem and valuing yourself will help you to be kinder to yourself and to be more satisfied with who you are as a person as well with your life in general, and it will also give you the confidence to be more assertive and make changes where there are things that you’re not satisfied with.
Do you feel good about yourself? Do you like yourself? Hopefully the answer is ‘yes’, however sometimes we can find ourselves struggling with our self-esteem or our general confidence, and these types of doubts can be damaging if we let them take over the way we think about ourselves. It probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the link between how you think about yourself and your overall health and wellbeing; when you value yourself and the contributions you make to the world, you’re going to be much more likely to treat yourself kindly and to make life decisions that are in your own best long-term interests.
Feeling good about yourself and being able to celebrate your strengths while also forgiving yourself for your mistakes (and learning from them) will help you to build greater confidence and be more resilient in the face of difficulties. It starts with treating yourself kindly and with respect — things that we can often forget to do, especially if we’re facing difficulties and challenges. The thing about self-esteem is that nobody else is able to do it for you; it’s an inside job. Other people can certainly help you to see your strengths and all the great aspects of who you are as an individual… but if you don’t believe them, then it amounts to nothing more than a waste of breath. In the words of an unknown author, “If you put a small value upon yourself you can be sure that the world will not raise your price.”
Every single person on this planet has something positive to contribute — yes, even the nasty ones (although it might be buried deep down inside!). We’re all individuals and that means that we each have something unique to contribute to the world, no matter how big or how small… the trick is to find what makes you unique and then to start from there — but I’ll come back to that a little bit later. First, however, let’s dig into some definitions.
What is self-esteem?
‘Self-esteem’ is how we think about ourselves, as well as how we value ourselves and our ability to see our worth as a human being. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (BC Division), “Self-esteem is how you value and respect yourself as a person — it is the opinion that you have of yourself inside and out. Self-esteem impacts how you take care of yourself, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Self-esteem is about your whole self, not just your body.” (Source: https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/infosheet/body-image-self-esteem-and-mental-health)
Self-esteem shouldn’t be confused with self-criticism, which is our ability to monitor our own words, actions and feelings to ensure that they are in line with our values and beliefs — healthy self-criticism is a big part of self-improvement and plays an important role in regulating our own behaviour, however sometimes it can get out of hand and tip over into low self-esteem. According to the same source I just mentioned;
“When you have good self-esteem, you value yourself, and you know that you deserve good care and respect — from yourself and from others. You can appreciate and celebrate your strengths and your abilities, and you don’t put yourself down if you make a mistake. Good self-esteem means that you still feel like you’re good enough even when you’re dealing with difficult feelings or situations…”
Further, Better Health Victoria (here in Australia) note that, “While everyone lacks confidence occasionally, people with low self-esteem feel unhappy or unsatisfied with themselves most of the time. This can be remedied but it takes attention and daily practise to boost self-esteem.” (Source: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/self-esteem)
When someone is experiencing low self-esteem it often means they have a low regard for themselves. Over time that can lead to feelings of guilt about mistakes they have made in the past, having unkind thoughts about themselves, having difficulty in decision making as well as difficulty in being assertive, being oversensitive about criticism, being fearful of trying new things (or difficult things), having a lack of self-care or just not looking after your overall health (physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social and/or financial), being more inclined to focus on the negatives in your life rather than the positives, and even potentially having thoughts of self-punishment or that you might deserve bad things that have happened to you.
Low self-esteem can also make it difficult to establish and maintain healthy relationships and friendships, and it may cause difficulties for you at work (or school, depending on your age). It can lead you to withdraw from people and activities, and can also cause issues with body image, alcohol or substance abuse, and may prevent you from standing up for yourself or taking action if you’re being bullied or subjected to abuse.
Low self-esteem isn’t specifically its own mental health condition but, as noted by the UK’s Rethink Mental Illness, “…in combination with other symptoms it can point to conditions including (but not limited to) anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and personality disorders.” (Source: https://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/about-mental-illness/learn-more-about-symptoms/low-self-esteem/)
So what causes low-self-esteem? Well, like most things in mental health there’s no simple answer because your self-esteem can be affected by a range of factors. It can change suddenly or it can be something you experience over a longer period of time. Mind UK noted that:
“There might not be one particular cause… Difficult or stressful life experiences can often be a factor, such as:
- being bullied or abused
- experiencing prejudice, discrimination or stigma
- losing your job or [having] difficulty finding employment
- problems at work or while studying
- ongoing stress
- physical health problems
- mental health problems
- relationship problems, separation or divorce
- worries about your appearance and body image
- problems with money or housing.”
So how do you know if you might have low self-esteem? Health Direct (Australia) note that, “[common] signs of low self-esteem include:
- saying negative things and being critical about yourself
- focusing on your negatives and ignoring your achievements
- thinking other people are better than you
- not accepting compliments
- feeling sad, depressed, anxious, ashamed or angry
Why is self-esteem important for good mental health?
In general, your self-esteem directly affects how good you feel about yourself… and how good you feel about yourself directly affects how you experience the world around you. If you feel negatively about yourself and your abilities then it’s likely that you’re going to see much more negative stuff to reinforce that mindset, whereas positive self-esteem tends to help you to see more of the positives in life as well as enabling you to focus more on what you’re good at rather than what you’re not good at (or at least ‘not good at right now’, because everything can be improved over time!).
Self-esteem is a big part of mindset (which I talked about in its own episode, back in Episode 31) and in fact this week’s episode is the first of four in September that I’m referring to as ‘Mindset Month’; several topics that are directly related to different aspects of having a positive mindset (covering forgiveness, assertiveness and optimism). In a recent episode about kindness (Episode 41) I mentioned the old saying, “As within, so without,” and the whole notion of mindset goes back to what I’ve said a few times before in Let’s Talk About Mental Health which is that how you view yourself directly affects how you experience the world, and vice versa. Having good self-esteem and valuing yourself will help you to be kinder to yourself and to be more satisfied with who you are as a person as well with your life in general, and it will also give you the confidence to be more assertive and make changes where there are things that you’re not satisfied with. Which leads us very nicely to the how-to part of this episode…
How do you improve and maintain your self-esteem?
So, yet again I feel it’s important to point out that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to good self-esteem. What works for me is not necessarily going to work for you, because we’re all individuals… and so, part of the conversation here needs to be about reminding you that nobody has all the answers and that it’s up to you to put the pieces together in a way that feels right for you. As always, I’m going to provide you with some ideas and guidance however you’re going to have to do the work to identify what works for you, and that takes time, effort and perseverance. It would be lovely if someone could just give you a list of things to do or if you could read a book and be done with it, but life doesn’t work that way… I know, it’s annoying right?!
So, before I jump into the how-to stuff let me just take a moment to say that you’ll find you gain the greatest value from the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast (as well as other self-development tools like books, etc.) if you consciously make the time to sit and reflect on what you take away from it, why you identify with that specific idea (or series of ideas), and then (most importantly) how you’re going to apply those ideas on a daily basis. Keep it simple and don’t bite off more than you can chew; try one or two new things, give it some time and see what happens, then try more new things. I did an episode a while back on reflection (Episode 12) and it goes into a lot more detail so I’d encourage you to check that out.
Alright, with all that said now let’s get into the how-to part and discuss ways to improve your self-esteem.
Let’s start with the biggest thing of all which is understanding what’s going on. Ask yourself: do you like yourself? Do you see the value that you have to offer to the world? If so, great! If not, why not? I mean, I don’t want you to get too bogged-down in the ‘why’ here (not yet anyway), but we need to be realistic and to do that involves identifying the current situation and accepting things as they are.
If you’ve been struggling with your self-esteem, what has been happening that has contributed to that? Is it a recent thing? Is it linked to a specific event? Or is this something that has been going on for a while, or something that has lots of different reasons? I talked about self-talk in a lot of detail back in Episode 9 and one of the things I discussed was that things that happened in our past can have a way of burrowing in to our subconscious and over time they can eat away at our self-confidence, causing us to become overly self-critical and focusing more on the negative. In order to take steps to improve your self-esteem you need to be honest with yourself about what’s going on inside your head, so that if there are a lot of negative thoughts happening about yourself then you can begin to tackle them directly instead of letting them whisper away in the back of your mind and undermine all your attempts to be the complete and utter superstar that you really are.
Once you’re clear on what’s happening in terms of your self-esteem, the next piece is to identify why you may be struggling with your self-esteem. I’ve said it a thousand times before in this podcast that in order to make any lasting change to your mental health and wellbeing you first need to tackle the root cause of any challenges that you’re facing, and today will be no different because I’m going to say it again! If you don’t treat the root cause of issues then you’re more likely to experience additional problems later… I’m a firm believer that many of the things that happen in life have the potential to teach us important lessons that we need to learn, and if we don’t learn them then we can wind up experiencing the same (or similar) negative things over and over until we finally learn what we need to learn (just to be clear, that’s not the case with seriously traumatic events). So, take some time to reflect on your self-esteem and explore what may be contributing to any issues you might be having (and look within rather than blaming others… for example, many of my own self-esteem issues when I was younger initially stemmed from the behaviours of my parents towards me but ultimately it came down to my ability to find healthy ways to process and to cope). If you’re finding the ‘why’ part difficult or confronting, this is where I very much recommend talking to a professional (such as a counsellor or therapist) who can guide you through in a safe environment (especially if you’re dealing with serious trauma)… don’t try to go this stuff alone, get professional support.
Once you understand your ‘why?’, now look at your value as a person. Ask yourself:
- what do you like about yourself?
- what are you good at?
- what do other people like about you?
For some of you this might be uncomfortable work, especially if you’ve been living with low self-esteem for a long time. If that’s the case, get support. And also, part of this is about going back to basics about who you are as a person: if you do no harm to others or yourself, if you are kind to others and to yourself, and if you give more than you take from others and yourself, then you are a pretty damn good person and you should be proud of yourself — those are the three most fundamental things I talk about all the time in this program in terms of the core things you can do to be more satisfied with life and with yourself, and those three things go a very long way towards being able to genuinely value yourself as a person. If you’re not currently able to say ‘yes’ to all three things for the way you treat yourself and others — doing no harm, being kind, and giving more than you take — then rather than judging yourself harshly, you can instead see this as an opportunity; now you have a starting point for what to focus on in order to start to feel better about yourself and about the way you contribute to the world around you. Focus on judging yourself less harshly as well as being less judgemental of others; as long as other people aren’t doing any harm then just let them be. You don’t have to agree with everyone and you don’t have to have an opinion on everything… I know this might sound a little off-track for a conversation about self-esteem, but like I said before: “as within, so without” and it goes the other way as well; how you treat others goes a long way towards influencing how you treat yourself.
And so beyond those bigger-picture things, it’s then up to you to identify different things you can do every day to improve your self-esteem (and then actually do them). Some of the things you can do include:
- using your strengths and the things you’re good at more often (as well as the things you’re passionate about)
- finding tools to help you overcome the things you’re maybe not-so-good at — courses, books, videos, therapy… there are a thousand and one ways to improve your skills or knowledge; it’s just a matter of finding what works for you (and yes, I’m well aware I sound like a broken record at this point!)
- work on improving your self-talk— check out Episode 9 for a more detailed look at improving your self-talk; also, if you have negative thoughts about yourself then challenge them when they occur. Remember: not everything you think is true.
- work on reducing over-thinking if you’re prone to it — check out Episode 4 for a detailed guide to tackling over-thinking
- focus on what you can directly control (your own words, actions and feelings); if you can make changes for the better, then do so (and be gentle with yourself as you do — change takes time, effort, perseverance and patience)
- for everything outside of your direct control (such as other people, world events), remind yourself that you only have two main choices on how to deal with each person or situation: accept things as they are and go from there, or let it go. When it comes to your relationship with other people, you cannot change them, and so if the first two options don’t work then that ‘let it go’ bit can extend to a third option: walk away. The choice is always yours, and the more you work on reminding yourself of these options the more you will find peace and calm.
- cultivate healthy relationships — spend your time with people who make you feel good about yourself, because this will encourage you to focus more on the positives about yourself. If you have a relationship where this isn’t the case and it seems difficult to change the relationship (such as with close family), you can work on setting and maintaining clear boundaries (something I talked about in Episode 19: Family).
- choose to see mistakes less as failures and more as learning opportunities — I have made so many mistakes in my life and I hope to make many more, because mistakes are evidence that we’re trying. You’re never going to get it right 100% of the time and when you let fear hold you back from trying new things it can have a negative effect on your self-esteem (not to mention making you feel stuck, because trying new things is how we grow!). I talked about mistakes all the way back in Episode 2 and I’d encourage you to check that out for a how-to guide on the topic.
- do more of what you love — you know what makes me feel good? Being creative, and also helping people… so I found a way to do both of those things through Let’s Talk About Mental Health. Find what makes you happy and do it as often as you can (and if that’s not often enough, then make time to do it more often!)
- let go of perfectionism — nobody is perfect. Nobody. When we put too much pressure on ourselves to achieve, especially when we’re seeking our validation from other people rather than ourselves, we set ourselves up for failure. Focus on being the best version of yourself you can be — someone who does no harm, who is kind, and who gives more than they take — and to hell with what other people think. Life is too short to be worried about opinions (which I talked about in Episode 21).
- work through and let go of regrets — letting go and regrets are things I talk about often (they had their own episodes; Episode 32 and Episode 22 respectively, plus I talked about dealing with baggage in Episode 7 and insecurity in Episode 35) because holding on to the past does way more harm than good. Being kind to yourself means letting go of yesterday and focusing on today, in order to set you up for the best possible tomorrow.
- work on maintaining a positive mindset — which I talked about extensively in Episode 31, so check that out.
- be clear on your identity — as I discussed in Episode 30, knowing who you are and what you have to offer the world (and staying true to that) enables you to be more satisfied with your life and your place in the world.
Summary and Close-Out
When it comes to self-esteem and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: you are unique, and that is your strength. When we allow our self-esteem to be affected by negative thoughts we take away our own power; the power that we each have to be the very best version of ourselves and to live in a way that makes us feel satisfied and fulfilled. You don’t have to be a celebrity or wealthy or in a position of power to live a good life, because life is a collection of small moments and we each have the power to make a positive difference. It starts and ends with how you think about yourself, and how you value yourself, so remember that there is nobody else on this planet like you and that makes you incredibly valuable… so treat yourself every single day like the rare and wonderful individual that you truly are.
That’s nearly it for this week. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Maya Angelou, and it is:
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”Maya Angelou
Next week I’ll be talking about forgiveness. I’ll be discussing what forgiveness is, why it matters, and how to incorporate greater forgiveness into your life for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here).
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.