Who would you say is your worst enemy?
In 2014, Professor Hal Hershfield, a renowned psychologist at UCLA University, asked this question to a thousand people. Half of them agreed on the answer: “myself.”
If you also think that our own fears and prejudices are the biggest obstacle in our life, read on. Because by the end of this article you will have learned how to defeat them all.
Without self-esteem, our fears lock us in the comfort zone, punish us and prevent us from fighting for what we really want. The media and social networks do not help either, placing us in constant comparisons with others. As a consequence, self-help has become a business that moves millions of dollars a year.
But all business usually ends up being corrupted. That is why there is so much unchecked information and empty advice that does not add anything new such as stop punishing yourself or think positive . The result is that, despite putting them into practice, we still feel as bad as before.
Still there is hope. Some methods created by great researchers have proven capable of improving our self-esteem. They are not magic formulas, but these strategies have helped thousands of people to live better and they can do the same for you. In this guide you will discover them all, but first, let’s lay the foundations.
What is self-esteem really?
The definition of self-esteem is the way we judge and evaluate ourselves. In other words, self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves.
It consists of the entire set of beliefs, evaluations and thoughts that we have about ourselves, and that we have been creating from our experiences. In addition, self-esteem has several psychological functions, although it sometimes causes just the opposite:
- Satisfy your need to feel good about yourself
- Reduce the impact of the rejections you suffer in your life
- Protect yourself from fear and uncertainty
- Motivate you to fight for your goals
We could all be smarter, prettier and richer, but it has been shown that self-esteem does not depend on what you have, what you know or what you are. It depends on how you accept yourself .
Although relatively recently people with high self-esteem were associated with narcissism, the scientific evidence denies it. Having a solid self-esteem does not imply being arrogant, but being able to accept our strengths and weaknesses to recognize our own value .
Nor are you born with low or high self-esteem: it evolves as we live new experiences. The events that have the greatest influence are usually those that marked our childhood, such as the way our parents, teachers or friends treated us. That is why certain situations can have a profound impact on your self-esteem:
- If they ignored your ideas instead of listening
- If they physically or psychologically abused you instead of respecting you
- If you received indifference, and no affection
- If they demanded even more of you instead of recognizing your effort
- If they blamed you for your failures instead of accepting them
During our childhood we receive many opinions about ourselves, both positive and negative. But for a reason that you will discover in this article, the bad ones are the ones that prevail above all.
Low self-esteem: how does it affect you?
It’s like a prophecy: if you don’t feel valuable, sooner or later you’re going to end up behaving the same way. Low self-esteem can change people’s behavior to confirm their suspicions about their own worth, creating a vicious cycle from which it is very difficult to escape.
Not being comfortable being who you are or not trusting in your abilities has dire consequences. You will probably stop attending social gatherings, trying new things, and facing challenges that would add richness to your life. You will know that you suffer from low self-esteem if the following usually happens to you:
- You feel inferior to others
- You get demotivated easily and don’t finish what you start
- You avoid any situation in which you can fail
- You keep blaming yourself for your past mistakes
- You don’t think there is anything special about you
- You don’t feel attractive
- You avoid interacting with others
- You do not express your ideas or opinions
- You usually feel anxiety and deep sadness
- You are very perfectionist and do not value what you get
- You have a hard time making decisions
- Envy corrodes you when others achieve something
You will find a multitude of books, articles, videos and courses on how to improve your self-esteem. Unfortunately most of them are based on ideas that have not shown any real efficacy. What’s more, some are even bad for your self-esteem!
That is why we will first break those false myths so that you never fall into the mistakes of the past again, and then you will learn the scientific methods with which you can leave behind your fears and insecurities once and for all.
4 myths that do not work to achieve high self-esteem
1. Always look for the positive side
This would be good advice if it weren’t for the fact that your mind isn’t really programmed to do it.
Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you are destined to suffer. For example, what if after presenting your project to four people, three of them congratulate you but one tells you that it was full of mistakes? What opinion do you think will weigh the most about your emotional state?
Exactly. As studies have shown , humans are designed to value the negative more than the positive. We obsess over the bad and forget the good more quickly. Our mind, if you will allow me to say so, wishes to be unhappy.
This is known in psychology as the negativity bias , a common phenomenon in people who suffer from anxiety or depression. So negativity is not a conscious choice, but something that is deeply embedded within us. This makes us machines to detect threats, even when they don’t actually exist .
But where does all this innate pessimism come from?
The answer is in your ancestors.
To keep our ancestors alive, nature programmed them to prioritize bad news and detect threats within fractions of a second. Because in the middle of the African savannah, being able to detect movement in the undergrowth and identify it as a hazard could mean the difference between living or dying.
Although today most of us no longer have to defend ourselves against predators or enemy tribes, our minds still cannot distinguish between these ancient threats and the psychological challenges we face today.
This legacy is the culprit of our distrust of strangers ( Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005 ), that we often have the feeling that people are watching us ( Mareschal et al., 2013 ) and even the scientific explanation of racial prejudice ( Ronquillo et al., 2007 ).
2. Strive to be happy
You probably think that you would be happier with a high self-esteem, am I right?
It doesn’t surprise me. We live immersed in the culture of happiness. Currents such as positive psychology, self-help books such as The Secret or popular phrases such as “good weather in bad weather” insist on reminding us that we should always be happy.
However, the harder you try to be happy, the more unhappy you will end up being .
The reason is that happiness is fleeting. We can be very happy during a stage of our life, but that will not last long. Because human beings always end up adapting to new circumstances. Proof of this is the study that showed that even something as dreamed of as winning the lottery does not mean any increase in long-term happiness.
The more importance you give to your happiness, the worse you will feel. Why? Because it has been proven that wanting to be happy and being aware that you are not achieving it will make you even more unhappy.
Worrying so much about your well-being also ends up affecting your social life . A study from 2012 linked the pursuit of happiness with loneliness: the more the participants tried to be happy, the more alone they felt. And it wasn’t just a perception: her progesterone levels decreased as a hormonal response associated with loneliness.
3. Set big goals
A classic self-help tip is to set yourself goals, right?
Well, ambitious goals have a very dark side. They can become so obsessed that it is impossible for us to imagine ourselves without them, sacrificing aspects of our lives that are actually more important.
This is what happened in May 1996, in what is probably the greatest mountaineering tragedy in history . In just two days, 12 people from three different expeditions died while trying to reach the top of Everest.
The mountaineers had become so attached to their goal of topping the mountain that they lost sight of everything else. They even ignored the meteorological reports that announced the very strong snowstorm that ended their lives.
Despite the fact that all the forecasts advised against starting the expedition, they did. His goal had become part of his own identity . How could they not even try after so many months of grueling training?
Setting goals is a serious problem if you are unable to recognize that you can fail. Then they become something that defines you, and for them you will be able to sacrifice your health, friends or family.
4. Reprogram the mind with positive self-affirmations
There is a stream of positive thought according to which your mind believes what you tell it. Supposedly, if you repeat mantras like “I am an extraordinary person and I deserve to be loved” , your mind will internalize it and you will begin to act like someone extraordinary.
We humans like to imagine that there are mystical ways to regain control of our destiny. But luckily, the books that popularized these types of theories have been disappearing from the shelves.
A study published in 2009 in Psychological Science wanted to verify the effectiveness of this type of reprogramming. The result was that the participants who used these positive affirmations not only did not improve, but they ended up feeling worse.
The reason is that when you repeat to yourself that you are exceptional or wonderful, your brain immediately asks a question: why?
Your brain is not naive. If they can’t find the answer, they won’t believe what you’re saying. They will reject the claim and consequently you will feel worse. Positive self-affirmations only work when they fall within the range of what is credible.
How to increase your self-esteem: 10 scientific keys
Now that you know the pitfalls of self-esteem, it will probably be easier for you to understand how to improve it.
Here are several methods you can use. With some you will feel more comfortable than with others, but there is no single way to achieve greater self-esteem. Although each of them acts on a different aspect of your personality, the results they have shown are the same: more self-esteem and self-confidence. Let’s go there!
1. Find the source of your low self-esteem
It never ceases to amaze me the number of authors who start directly by giving advice. What’s the point of trying to fix something that you don’t know where it’s broken?
Self-esteem problems usually develop during childhood and their causes can be very different. But if you don’t know them, you will never be able to work on the origin of your fears!
Having formed in childhood, lack of self-esteem has been created by a child’s perspective and is surely skewed. Since you could not understand what was really happening, it is very useful to go back to look for its origin and rethink your beliefs.
To find the source of your low self-esteem and put your beliefs on trial, ask yourself at least three times the Why? of your fears .
- Why am I afraid to meet new people? Because they will ignore me.
- Why do I think they will ignore me? Because I am not interesting.
- Why do I think I’m not interesting? Because when I was little they told me that I never spoke.
Aha! You are afraid of meeting people because you think you will not know what to say. But if you finally realize that the important thing to meet people is not talking, but listening, you will probably start to overcome that fear.
2. Try it even if you know you’re going to fail
Now that you are knowing the origin of your low self-esteem, I am going to show you the psychological keys that will increase your confidence in yourself.
But do you know what? Even if everything you read below was false and had not proven any efficacy, putting it into practice would still make you feel better.
The reason is that it has been empirically shown that the main enemy of our self-esteem is simply doing nothing.
When we feel threatened, our instinct is to seek escape routes because we believe that this will reduce our anxiety. So when you feel fear or discouragement, instead of facing them directly, you try to avoid them.
And it is logical: the moment you decide to avoid what worries you, you notice an immediate feeling of relief. The problem is that this behavior can end up becoming a habit.
Because how do you think you will end up feeling in the medium term? Avoiding what you fear and acting like a coward is not something you can be proud of, and that closes the damn circle of low self-esteem again. So the more you avoid what worries, the worse you will feel about yourself.
The good news is that science has also proven that self-esteem does not depend on the outcome of your actions . It simply depends on which act . It increases when you face circumstances, and decreases when you avoid them. As simple as that.
In other words, not trying is the worst of failures. Stay hidden without exposing yourself to anything for fear of failure and you will end up feeling like a failure.
From the entire article this is what you should never forget. Self-esteem does not depend on what you achieve, but on what you try . Only by facing your fears will you be able to break this vicious cycle.
I know it is not that simple. When your fears appear again, you will probably be tempted to run away, so in this video you will find one of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself to overcome it:
3. Replace your goals with values
Do you remember that setting big goals is usually synonymous with frustrations and loss of contact with reality?
Okay, but then what do you do without goals in your life? How are you going to make decisions? And how will you find the motivation to face your challenges?
You need something solid. Something that allows you to move on when you feel tired, anxious, depressed, or discouraged. Something so powerful that it motivates you to get out of your comfort zone to expose yourself to what you fear.
I have what you need. I’m going to give you something that has all the benefits of goals and none of the drawbacks.
You will be guided by your values.
Values are our most fundamental definition, our roadmap. They set the direction for us when we think we are losing ourselves and give us energy to keep fighting.
Imagine that you were training to finish a marathon. Your values would probably be effort, perseverance, self-improvement and the capacity for sacrifice, right?
Think wisely. Even if you were not able to finish the marathon in the end, by putting in effort and sacrificing yourself, you would still be able to remain true to your values. Unlike the goals, your values will always be there for you to fulfill and make you feel proud of yourself .
Thanks to your values you will also be able to get a boost of self-esteem when you need it most. Remember that positive self-affirmations do not work when they are false? What if you remembered your values instead?
In a University of California study, participants had to improvise a speech in front of a relentless jury. And not only that, but at the end they were ordered to start a countdown from the number 2083 in intervals of 13! Without a doubt, a situation capable of testing the self-esteem of any person.
At the end of the study, the level of cortisol, a hormone that increases in situations of anxiety, in the saliva of the participants was verified. But there was a small detail: before the speeches a group of them had written a reflection on one of their personal values.
The results left no room for doubt. The volunteers who wrote about the meaning of their personal values had significantly lower cortisol levels than the rest of the participants . The pressure affected them much less.
4. Identify your true strengths
In addition to your values, to build your self-esteem you need to convince yourself that there is something good in you. And I assure you that we ALL have strengths, the problem is that people with low self-esteem do not know how to identify them (while narcissists find them in excess).
- To find your strengths, think about five achievements you have achieved in your life , such as finishing your degree while working, learning to cook alone or seducing your partner. If you find it difficult to find them, it is because you are not being generous with yourself, so imagine that this success had been achieved by a friend, what would you say? How would you recognize it?
- Then think about what positive personal characteristics are necessary to achieve each of them. In the examples above it could be perseverance, curiosity and initiative. These are your strengths.
5. Turn your negative thoughts into rational responses
Now you have your set of values and strengths to start believing in yourself. But our past experiences, even those we no longer remember, continue to affect our lives in the form of our “inner voice.”
In people with a healthy self-esteem this voice is usually kind and comforting. But in those with low self-esteem, he becomes their worst critic, punishing them for their mistakes and despising their achievements. This internal dialogue causes anxiety and locks us into our circle of comfort, so it is key that you are also able to overcome it.
The problem is that this inner voice is irrational . They usually interpret any situation in the worst possible way, even when there is no objective evidence to reach your conclusion.
Does your partner come home late for a whole week? Because of your fear of abandonment, you can interpret that he is being unfaithful. But if you didn’t have that fear, you would surely translate it as simply having more work.
Since these irrational thoughts do not need any real basis to exist, you must put them to the test so that your reason can overcome them. Is it a real threat or is it totally unfounded?
The process to beat them is as follows:
- Identify in which situations they appear and what they tell you. Your negative thoughts are usually always the same, so how do they make you interpret situations? What emotions do they provoke in you?
The better you understand the emotions they cause you, the less power they will have over you. One study found that when participants who identified and named their emotions aloud, the frontal cortex did not have as high a limbic response to them. In other words, acknowledging the emotion you feel reduces its impact on you .
- Finally, rationalize your irrational negative thoughts by answering these three questions:
- Are you sure that is going to happen?
- If it really happens, how will you be in a year?
- What would you say to a friend who was telling you that?
6. Separate yourself from your fears with acceptance and commitment
It is possible that after identifying and rationalizing your negative thoughts you still have some fears so deep that they continue to block you.
Don’t worry, because for that we have the strategy of acceptance and commitment , a method that has been shown in studies to be enormously scientifically effective in overcoming these beliefs.
Most people, when there is something that worries them, they try not to think about it. We try to block our thoughts or distract ourselves by thinking about something else. But not only has it been proven that it doesn’t work , it also makes your fears come back stronger.
Instead of trying to ignore them, you have to learn to detach yourself from them .
The real reason your thoughts are blocking you is because you think you are them. You give them all the credibility in the world. But, as the philosopher Eckhart Tolle argues , you are not what you think.
Isn’t it true that when these thoughts assail you, you are aware that you are listening to them? That shows that you are not really them: you are their observer . Our mind loves to bombard us with negative thoughts and your task is to stop identifying with them. Then they will lose all their power.
To achieve this, practice this process every time you feel that fear invades you:
- Don’t block the thought that causes that fear . Give it space and feel it.
- Familiarize yourself with your fear . Give it a name and imagine what its physical form would be like (if you draw it even better).
- Use a little mindfulness to get it flowing and going . You can imagine a spring of water that drags some leaves. Visualize your fear on top of a leaf as the river carries it away and slowly disappears. At first you will need practice, but with time you will get it.
7. Forgive yourself with self-pity
Leaning on your values, identifying your strengths and rationalizing and detaching yourself from your negative thoughts is necessary, but to achieve a healthy self-esteem you lack something essential.
You need to learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.
In psychological jargon this is called self-compassion , and it is a strategy that is revolutionizing the scientific community thanks to its spectacular results.
You are your worst critic. If after preparing for two years to pass an examination, you did not succeed, you would probably be very disappointed. But if it happened to a friend of yours, wouldn’t you comfort him by telling him that the important thing was to try? Who will already have more opportunities?
Well, self- compassion consists of treating yourself with the same empathy with which you would treat that friend of yours . It means being supportive and understanding of yourself, rather than criticizing and judging you. It involves learning to calm down and comfort yourself to try again, rather than punishing yourself every time you make a mistake.
There are many ways to develop self-compassion, but the simplest of all is to talk to yourself as you would to a friend who is having a hard time . Something like “I am suffering because I feel that I have lost control of my life, it is a difficult moment but I am going to fight to get out of this” can be a good start. In this way, you will begin to see your problems as something that you are experiencing, and not as something that defines you.
Sounds too simple? Well, the scientific efficacy of self-pity is impressive. An extensive meta-analysis showed that people who treat each other with more affection and forgiveness suffer much less anxiety and depression.
8. Increase your confidence with power poses
Although almost everyone believes that self-esteem is born in our minds, the most recent studies by researchers such as Dr. Amy Cuddy suggest that it also originates from the body.
Until recently it was believed that the communication path between mind and body only had one meaning. But the reality is that your non-verbal language also influences your mood. It is a fish that bites its tail: when you feel defeated you express it by shrinking your body, which makes you feel even more depressed.
But it is possible to break that vicious cycle, and it is as simple as using an upright and expansive posture when you find yourself down. These types of poses (head elevated, shoulders back and hands resting on the hips) are called power poses , and it has been proven that holding them for just two minutes is enough to make you feel more confident and sure of yourself.
Not only that, but they are capable of increasing testosterone levels by 20% and reducing those of the stress and anxiety hormone, cortisol, by 25%
9. Multiply your self-esteem with exercise
Your body has something else to say about your confidence, and that is perhaps the fastest way to increase it. The results of the largest study carried out on exercise and self-esteem showed that, as long as it is of medium intensity, doing sports increases self-esteem in the short term.
Thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a day is enough to reduce cortisol levels and increase your well-being thanks to the release of beta-endorphins. In addition to the fact that exercise will help you feel better about your body, it is also capable of increasing mental capacity ( Schmidt-Kassow, 2013 ) by increasing blood flow to the brain, reducing anxiety ( Smith, 2013 ) and even increasing your self-control ( Verburgh et al., 2014 ).
10. Think less of yourself and more of others
The spiral of low self-esteem is a vicious cycle. In our eagerness to feel better we begin to constantly check our mood. How do I feel today? Does this tightness in my stomach mean I’m going to sink again? That only creates more anxiety.
To feel better you should do the opposite: stop thinking so much about yourself and focus your attention outward .
Thinking only about your problems does you no favors, as a study at Yale and California universities proved . In it, the participants who carried out altruistic actions maintained a much more positive state of mind than those who remained focused on themselves.
Helping people has beneficial effects on our self-esteem for two reasons:
- The first is because it helps you distract attention from yourself. Fundamental!
- The second is because it appears to stimulate certain biological systems that reduce anxiety-related emotional responses. It is as if we are programmed to help our fellow man.
Enjoying a healthy self-esteem requires effort and perseverance. Although there is a wealth of information on how to improve self-confidence, only a few methods have been shown to be effective.
Nor should you be alarmist. We all experience ups and downs in our self-esteem. The problem is when our state of mind becomes a permanent curse that makes us suffer. To overcome it, it is essential to know yourself in depth, but above all to remove pressure, be guided by values, accept yourself and learn to forgive yourself. All this you have found in this article.
Allow me one last thought. We all have something unique and valuable to contribute, even if it’s just our own effort. Because no one knows what wonderful work it might end up becoming, so don’t deny us your gifts by getting stuck in your low self-esteem. World needs you.
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