How to stop Working on Self-Esteem and Actually get Some

Everybody always wants to improve self-esteem.

But self-esteem might be the biggest red herring in self help.

Because having self-esteem or self-worth is incidental to, rather than an enabler of, qualities such as confidence and purpose. It is a cool by-product at best.

Think about it; you can’t actually go practice ‘a bit of self-esteem now’. And generally speaking, how content we all feel is associated with the practices, and not the fruits of our pursuits.

In fact, self-esteem can wind up becoming just another benchmark to measure ourselves short with.

This post talks about the problem with endlessly working on self-esteem, and one key thing that has the effect of raising self-esteem indirectly.

stop over-valuing self-esteem


A definition of self-esteem is that it “reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth”.

The challenge is inherent within the definition.

Don't monitor your self-image at such a close level. Be more interested in your self-talk Click To Tweet

How you define your worth from day-to-day is going to vary quite a lot. On some days, you won’t be able to string a sentence together, and your lifestyle choices will reflect the habits of an impatient teenager. On other days, you’ll be more in control of your urges and life will resemble a swim downstream. To an extent, self-esteem and self-image can ebb and flow unbidden.

Therefore, it is not worth paying too much attention to how great your self-esteem is at a close level. Having consistently high self-esteem might not be as fundamental as we have all been led to believe.

Provided self-esteem levels aren’t very low (important), they won’t stop you from doing what you want to do, and having a good time whilst you’re doing it.

how excessive self-esteem can be a hindrance


It is interesting to consider that having overly high levels of self-esteem can be obstructive to progress. You can’t say that about things like self-compassion.

Research has shown that perceiving yourself as an expert is an impediment to knowledge (classic ‘know it all’ syndrome). In fact in Buddhism, a beginner’s mind is considered a desirable trait to cultivate for humility and wisdom. Similarly, we all know that perceiving yourself as successful, smart or otherwise over-estimating your abilities may also cause you some complacency and self-entitlement, both of which lead to non-action.

Thinking too highly of yourself can actually obstruct your progress Click To Tweet

(Again, this only applies in non extreme cases but) if anything, we’re probably better off having slightly lower self-esteem. It might spur us to actions that help us understand ourselves and others more.

the relationship between self-esteem and motivation


Many of us have the belief that self-esteem is a necessary precursor to success.

But this belief is baseless. Lots of successful people battle with crippling low self-esteem (Tim Ferriss being one high profile example). It affects their experience of themselves, not their success.

In order to work towards our goals, all we need is to have the belief that we can work towards our goals. In order to think that you have a chance in love, you just need to believe that you have a chance in love. These things do not require any kind of judgment about your ability or worthiness at all.

In truth, when it comes to pursuing things that matter to us, it is better to be pulled by something more intrinsic to who you really are (underneath your strengths, weaknesses, failures and achievements).

‘if it isn’t because of my low self-esteem, what is it?’

If you are unable to enjoy your successes, or if you’re putting up with bullshit at work and in your relationships, then that’s not purely because your self-esteem is on the low side. If these things indicate anything at all (and that’s hard because the above can happen for any number of reasons), it might be that you are being paralyzed by reoccurring thoughts and emotions. And the relevant practice for that is mindfulness.

Our ephemeral feelings and thoughts need not to dictate our enjoyment of life. We get to decide.

Rather than judging them to be ‘wrong’, another approach to feelings of unworthiness when they surface is acceptance and self-compassion.

how you raise self-esteem without trying


I have struggled during certain life periods with low self-esteem (those where I felt the most lost and far away from my true self, funnily enough).

My current base-point is pretty good. And that has happened as I worked on my ability to monitor my self-talk, as well as the content of my self-talk.

Specifically, my self-talk now reflects self-compassion. Practicing self compassion creates structural changes to your psyche.

So why does compassion succeed where self-esteem fails?

Self-compassion lets you see the facts and accept that you’re not perfect. It is deceivingly difficult to do. It is a stance you adopt in response to failings, setbacks, and feelings of unworthiness.

developing self-compassion


We often talk about having compassion, but not so much in terms of ourselves. But we are the most important recipients of our compassion.

Compassion is another word for presence. If you let that sink in, you’ll know what adaptations you need to make to your thinking and self-talk in order to be practicing compassion.

Practicing self-compassion is how you raise self-esteem indirectly Click To Tweet

In effect, you are learning to witness your own self-talk. What do you tell yourself about you? Start getting curious about the origins of the judgments you make.

Work on noticing inner directed judgments, and then extend that to the external judgments you make through the day. Drop the struggle that constantly judging everything creates. It won’t make you passive; just peaceful.

If you don’t feel like analyzing every single negative self judgment, then don’t. It is okay just to notice and replace with something a little kinder. This kind of self-soothing comes in really useful during relationship challenges too, according to therapists.

Changing self-talk is instrumental if you want to improve self perception.


Self-esteem isn’t the pot of gold you might think it is.

And having days (or maybe whole weeks) where self-esteem is a little sketchy need not affect your quality of life. In fact, it probably makes you a more likable, relatable human being.

We don't always need to feel sky high self-love and worth for life to be fun and interesting Click To Tweet

It isn’t necessary to wait until you feel awesome before you enjoy yourself. You can do it anyway.

Learn to listen to that inner self-talk. And work to have it reflect the kind of good grace, generosity and compassion you’d show a child.

This is how self-esteem happens without your even trying.