Improving Self-Esteem: Get More Out of Life

Question:

I am socially isolated, I have low self-esteem and have always been shy. As I have got older and now live alone I spend most of my time alone. I also have suffered with depression for several years and I am on anti depressants. How can I overcome feelings of self hatred and get more out of life?

Answer:

It is difficult to live a satisfying life when experiencing self-hatred. It can seem like a never-ending cycle: low self-esteem leads to isolation.... which leads to even lower self-concept... causing further isolation... until eventually depression and extreme isolation seem inescapable.

The good news about this cycle is that any changes in any area automatically affect the whole system. This means that all you need to change initially is one small thing to start to experience overall positive changes.

The process for promoting self-esteem is ongoing. I have broken down the process into steps: 1) observation and self-assessment; 2) changing destructive thinking patterns; 3) modifying habits and routines; 4) long-term personal growth. Each step occurs on an ongoing basis, rather than 1, 2, 3, 4, done. These steps do not have to be done in this order; often more than one step will be done at the same time.

Step 1: Observation and Self-Assessment

Thoughts

Notice how you talk to yourself. What kinds of things do you say to yourself? Record on paper the thoughts you were having in one upsetting situation (see the Daily Mood Log in David Burns' books or the Thought Record in Greenberger and Padesky's Mind Over Mood).

Questions to ask yourself - record the answers on paper: Do you have very many negative thoughts? Do you have very many positive thoughts? How much do you believe these thoughts? How often do you think negative things about yourself? Do you talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend? Do you talk to yourself as if you have high self-esteem or low self-esteem?

Behavior

Record on paper how you spend your time in a typical day. Write down the things you typically do, how you behave, and how you treat yourself. You may want to record behaviors and activities for a typical weekday and a typical weekend day.

Questions to ask yourself - record the answers on paper: Do you spend time doing things you enjoy? Do you have too much to do, to little, or just the right amount? What are some ways you treat yourself kindly? What are some ways you treat yourself unkindly?

Mood

Rate your mood at least once each day, using an assessment tool (such as David Burns' Brief Mood Survey). This will allow you to track changes and have an objective measure of where your mood is at, instead of simply seeing your mood as "good" or "bad."

Questions to ask yourself - record the answers on paper: How would you describe your mood today? List several words describing the moods you have experienced. Are there any events, thoughts, or behaviors that seemed to have triggered these moods?

Step 2: Changing Destructive Thinking Patterns

Examine your thoughts, and choose just one negative thought to work on first. By overcoming one negative thought, you will probably notice positive changes in your thinking overall. Changing thinking is not simply a matter of forcing yourself to repeat positives. Thinking can be changed by using techniques that put the lie to the negative thoughts you believed. For example, you may use techniques such as the double standard technique (re-framing your thoughts as if you were talking to a friend who was just like you), examining the evidence for and against the thought, or doing an experiment to prove or disprove the truth of the negative thought.

You can find a variety of cognitive (and other) techniques for improving mood and self-esteem and changing negative thinking in the following books:

Step 3: Modifying Habits and Routines

Changing the way you think needs to be accompanied by changes in the way you behave.

Many of the activities you would do if your self-esteem is high are very difficult to do when self-image is low. It can be surprisingly difficult to get out and do things when your mood is low. Start small. For example, if going out to a restaurant seems daunting, perhaps you may start with a walk around the block, or a trip to the library.

Social isolation is painful, worsens mood, and perpetuates depression and low self-esteem. It can be frightening to think about socializing after you have been isolated for a period of time. It can help to know that you are not the only one to experience this. Most communities have clubs and groups where you can meet new people and get comfortable socializing again and making new friends. Check out newcomer's clubs, toastmasters groups, classes on hobbies and interests, and support groups. If you cannot find a group in your community that you are interested in, you may want to consider online support groups.

Volunteer work is another way to get out of the house and decrease isolation, while also providing a meaningful contribution. If the prospect of a committed volunteer position sounds like too much at first, you may want to start with single-session volunteer opportunities (for example, hand out water at a running race, help out with a one-time fundraiser, or volunteer for a holiday event).

Questions to ask yourself - record the answers on paper: Think about what it would look like if you had high self-esteem. How would you spend your time? How would you treat yourself? How would you behave? Now look at the way you have behaved lately. In what ways have you behaved as if you have high self-image? In what ways have you behaved as if you have low self-image?

Think of one thing that you would do if you had high self-concept. Think of something that you are not currently doing. It can be a new activity or one you have done in the past. Now schedule in that activity for sometime this week - and do it!

Add one small activity each day that you would do if you had high self-esteem. By acting as if you have high self-esteem, it will be much easier to start to have high self-esteem. Small changes in habits and routines can lead to larger changes... eventually you will be acting in ways that promote self-esteem rather than ways that make you feel worse.

Step 4: Long Term Personal Growth

Once you begin to have some success in changing negative thinking and engaging in positive behaviors, you can experience a positive snowball effect. Small successes add up to big changes. You will start to experience joy again, and feel like you are finally able to live life.

At this stage, you can start to envision larger goals... the bigger things that seemed out of reach before. Think about where you want to be, and what you want to be doing down the road. Set a goal with small, achievable steps along the way. Start to make small behavior changes to get closer to this larger goal.

It is essential to think about relapse prevention. Once you start to feel good, it can be easy to assume that everything is "fixed" and you can quit doing all that work you did to try to improve your self-esteem. In truth, self-esteem is a work in progress. It is something that needs to be nurtured every day.

This may come as a shock, but even after achieving high self-esteem and hapiness you will certainly experience low moods and feelings of self-hatred again at some point. When (not if) you do, it will be a minor setback instead of a major problem. Having dealt with these feelings before, you will know what to do. Again examine your thoughts and behaviors, and make changes accordingly.

When you are feeling well, make a plan for how you will handle the inevitable setbacks, down days, and stressors. When these roadblocks arise, rather than being surprised, you are prepared to face them - and overcome them.

Many of the steps necessary for improving self-esteem can be done independently, but the process does not need to be done alone. It is important to seek support. There are many sources of support available besides friend or family relationships. For example, community supports (groups, agencies), peer support groups, and professionals. Also consider other forms of support, besides face-to-face contact, such as online forums, e-counseling, or telephone crisis lines.

Questions to ask yourself - record the answers on paper: How could you get more out of life over the next few months? What would you like to be doing a year from now? What is most important to you in life? Think of one way you can devote time this month to something that is important to you.

What kinds of things will you be saying to yourself in the future when you have a bad day? List 10 things that you can do when that happens to help yourself feel better.

Summary

Improving self-esteem is not easy - but it is achievable. The process of taking care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally is ongoing. It is important to make a conscious effort to continually engage in thoughts and behaviors that promote self-esteem.

Any single change you make will have far-reaching effects. Don't feel like you must do everything right or must make numerous changes. Simply focus on making one small change at a time, one small step at a time, toward feeling good and living life.





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