- Personal Conduct/Control
- Life Management/Goals
- Respecting Others/Love
- Accepting Resposibility
- Sexual Responsibilities
“Don’t rely on someone else for your happiness and self-worth. Only you can be responsible for that. If you can’t love and respect yourself – no one else will be able to make that happen. Accept who you are – completely; the good and the bad – and make changes as YOU see fit – not because you think someone else wants you to be different.”
You are much more than the situations in your life and the judgments of those around you. A big part of what defines you is how you react, adapt and respond to such circumstances. There are things you can do, here and now, to change how you feel about yourself. The first step is to realize, as Stacey Charter says in the quote above, that this can only come from within you. Raising your self-esteem will require a combination of changing the way you think and changing what you do.
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at several factors in a young person’s life that promote low self-esteem. Consider the following ways to deal with the causes of low self-esteem discussed in Part 1:
1. Come to terms with uninvolved/negligent authority figures.
The first thing here is to acknowledge that adults often have issues of their own. If your parents or guardians aren’t able to properly care for you or give you support and attention – be it from mental health or substance abuse issues or some other cause – it is absolutely, positively, 100% not your fault. It’s also not an accurate reflection of your worth. If you’re in the unfortunate circumstance of not being cared for properly by a parent or guardian, it’s important for you to consider that the way you’re being treated is not of your doing and is, in fact, undeserved.
Coming to terms with uninvolved authority figures doesn’t mean not caring and not hurting because of them. You’ll probably always care, and it may always hurt. But it doesn’t have to define you. Self-esteem comes from you – not others, not even those who are supposed to care for us most.
That doesn’t mean that supportive and caring authority figures aren’t important. You can seek out such people from youth organizations like a local YMCA, a Boys & Girls Club or an after school program. People who work and volunteer for these services do so because they care about young people. So, if you are not getting support at home, make use of these external resources.
2. Pick positive peers.
You’re in control of who you give your time and energy to. It’s easy to pick friends based on who’s most popular; while this crowd may boost your social status, it can also clobber your self-esteem when your “friends” put you down or encourage you to do things you’re not comfortable with or proud of. You need friends you can be yourself with, who value the person you really are. Surrounding yourself with supportive friends who care about you can help you maintain a healthy level of self-esteem. If you have to make a friendship change – or several of them – to put yourself in a better place as far as such influence is concerned, do it – the sooner the better.
3. Get help for trauma.
Counseling for trauma is very important. If you’re not comfortable talking with parents or guardians about trauma, consider asking them if you can see a therapist or counselor for reasons you’d rather reserve for private sessions. If someone in your home is hurting you or has hurt you, consider talking with a school guidance counselor or other trusted adult about it.
Another resource young adults can make use of discretely is the Boys Town National Hotline (for boys, girls and parents). You can call 1-800-448-3000 anytime, any day to speak with a trained counselor about anything. Boys Town also offers online chat and texting services that teens can make use of. This is a great option for teens who aren’t sure where to go or how to begin dealing with experiences of abuse and other traumatic events.
Visit the Boys Town website for more information.
4. Start thinking about your body differently.
It’s not easy to stop seeing our bodies as objects for pleasing others or meeting some pre-established standard. But we can change the way we think about them. Your body is the house of your heart and mind; it’s the vehicle through which you experience, navigate and have an impact on the world. When thought about from this perspective, there is no ideal body type. The way your body looks and what others think of it become far less important than how well it functions.
It is likely that you aren’t using your body as the precious instrument it is if you see it as an object for others. The organization About-Face reports that a study found girls and young women who objectified their bodies to exhibit poorer motor performance than girls and young women who didn’t objectify their bodies. Researchers asked girls aged 10-17 to throw a softball as hard as they could against a distant wall; those who viewed their bodies as objects and were very concerned about their appearance did poorly compared to those who didn’t objectify their bodies.
Young women aren’t likely to develop strong, capable and healthy bodies when they’re more focused on how they look than how well their bodies function. They may adopt restrictive diets in order to lose weight rather than building cardiovascular and muscular health, which require adequate nutrition. Young men, on the other hand, may think that muscular strength or overall bulk is the most important thing about their bodies. They risk over-training, which can lead to a weakened immune system and other health problems. They may also overeat in an effort to get bulkier, or under-eat in order to shed fat and make muscles more apparent.
Both men and women with body image issues run the risk of relying on their bodies to attest to their worth, rather than using them as instruments with which to pursue worthwhile goals in the world. By shifting your thoughts about your body, you gain a very different sense for how it should be and how you can attain that goal. Rather than destructive practices, you adopt healthy eating and exercise habits to improve your physical well-being. When you’re chasing an unrealistic “ideal,” you always feel far away from it. When you make healthy changes, though, you’re immediately helping your body work better.
If you would like to develop a better understanding of the challenges that “body image” can create and how to deal with them, be sure to read the 2-part series on Body Image (Part 1: What Is It and Where Does It Come From? and Part 2: What Is Positive Body Image?)
5. Get involved in something bigger than yourself.
One of the best ways to find meaning in your life is to get involved in something bigger than yourself, to have an effect on the world around you. Start by acknowledging the fact that, out of over seven billion people on the planet, not one is like you. Sure, you may have lots in common with many people, but none of them has your exact perspective, experience, interests, desires and goals. Use this to boost your sense of self-worth, and think about how to apply your unique assets in the world around you.
The benefits of this step are best described through the story of my young friend, Stacy:
Two years ago, 17-year-old Stacy learned in her high school government and elections class that, in Vermont (where she lives) and 30 other states, it’s possible for rapists to obtain parental rights of children conceived out of the sexual assault they committed. Stacy was upset by this, so she and a friend decided to work to change it. Stacy met with one of her local representatives, who went on to find several sponsors for what would become House Bill 88, a piece of legislation that Stacy and her friend drafted. The legislation allows the court to permanently deny parental rights to one parent in the presence of “clear and convincing evidence” that the child was conceived as a result of sexual assault, with or without a conviction. The bill became law in Vermont June of 2014.
I asked Stacy recently how having such an impact on her state laws affected her self-esteem. She said, “I made a difference when I was just 17, but what most people don't realize is that anyone can do that. It just takes time, some research, and never giving up on yourself. I wish teens didn't limit themselves because in all actuality we can do some great things.”
Doing great things, in turn, can lead to great feelings about yourself. Young adults can tap into their power by paying attention to what impassions them and consulting with adult mentors or researching people in positions of power to contact in order to voice their thoughts, opinions, ideas and concerns.
6. Set realistic goals.
Realistic goals set you up for a sense of accomplishment, for something to be proud of. Say you struggle academically. Instead of expecting yourself to get all A’s next term, try setting a more attainable goal, such as finding a tutor or mentor to help you with the subjects you struggle with most. Your goal may simply be to work with the tutor and try your best.
If you excel academically and want to get involved in extracurricular activities, try picking just one and don’t put pressure on yourself to be the “best.” Whether it’s student council, the school newspaper, the yearbook committee, a sport or theater, you’re part of a team. Don’t try to be better than others. Aim to work well with them.
Finally, set reasonable social goals. Aim for cultivating a few meaningful relationships rather than a plethora of shallow ones. Don’t expect everyone to like you; this just doesn’t happen. It’s hard, but remind yourself that your worth is not determined by the judgments of others.
7. Forgive yourself.
When we’ve made several bad choices in the past, as described in the last section, we can begin to feel that we’re just “that kind” of person. We lock ourselves into that “role” or “character” and continue to play it unless we interrupt ourselves by remembering that we write our own scripts. What you’ve done in the past does not have to determine your course of action and decision-making from here on out. It’s important to forgive yourself – not to let yourself “off the hook,” but to accept that some of the choices you’ve made were not the best and resolve to do better in the future. Life is generally pretty long, and when you think of how much time you have in front of you to be a better person compared to the time behind you, it’s certainly worth giving yourself that chance.
8. Challenge negative thought patterns.
Breaking the cycle of negative thought patterns requires some persistence, but the process is fairly simple. Start by identifying negative thoughts – “I can’t do that,” “That person probably hates me,” are some examples. When you have a negative thought, question it. Why do you think that way? You may find that you have no reason to.
Next, work on different ways to interpret situations. “That will be hard, but I can try it out,” or, “I’m not sure how that person feels about me, but I care about him/her and want to work on being friends.” By replacing baseless negative thoughts with more realistic and constructive ones, you give yourself a chance whereas before you would have given up or not tried – you make it possible to prove your old negative thoughts wrong.
Another way to counteract negative thoughts about yourself is to make a list of your strengths. It’s easy to focus on the things we don’t like about ourselves and to ignore the things we may actually love; this prevents us from cultivating our strengths. The first step toward doing so is acknowledging them. Make a list of your strengths (and interests) – this may seem hard, but push yourself to identify as many as you can – at least five. Add your primary or more important interests to this list, things that you might want to do with your life long-term.
The exercise above will help you become more aware of your strengths and interests when you’re exercising them in daily life. Perhaps you’ll find that some of your strengths aren’t getting exercised or you’re not developing your interests; in that case, think about how you can do a better job of focusing on and applying these, and keep your list up-to-date.
Recap: Improving Self-Esteem
The steps above are easier said than done, but you can definitely make some progress if you work at it. Don’t expect to completely reverse your sense of self-worth overnight; working on self-esteem is a process. Re-read this article series (Part 1 and Part 2) several times until you develop a good understanding of the ideas presented within them and have actually implemented them in your life.
There are some situations that you can change to improve self-esteem, and others you cannot. However, when you can’t change a situation that negatively affects your sense of self-worth, it’s possible to change how you think and feel about it.
- You can’t always change how others treat you, but you can choose whom to surround yourself by and what company to keep. You can take steps to incorporate more positive people into your life and eliminate negative influences.
- You can change how you view your body – not as an object or symbol, but as a part of you that helps you navigate the world. You can take steps to become healthier and more capable rather than comparing yourself to some unrealistic “ideal” and adopting unhealthy practices to approach it.
- You can change how you think about yourself by making decisions and acting in a way that improves your sense of self-worth, such as getting involved in something bigger than yourself.
- You can choose to learn from past mistakes and commit to making better decisions from now on.
- You can choose to refocus your thoughts on your strengths rather than weaknesses.
Low self-esteem is only set in stone if you don’t challenge it and take steps to change it. Use the resources in this series to help you identify and combat the causes of low self-esteem in your life. Start now: Grab a pen and paper and write your list of strengths. You may be surprised by what you find within yourself. Once you acknowledge your unique interests, passions, skills and values, you can start sharing them with the world.
“You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.”
Diane Von Furstenberg
Written by Amée LaTour
- OTHER PART IN THIS SERIES -
8 Common Causes of Low Self-Esteem
Taking Charge of Your Own Worth
Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved
Driven to Learn
Continuing on After High School
Making Decisions from the Heart
- Accepting Resposibility
- Life Management/Goals
- Personal Conduct/Control
- Respecting Others/Love
- Sexual Responsibilities