Low self-esteem is a problem that is thought to be at the core of several difficulties, including depression, eating disorders and social anxiety. Even outside of these conditions, low self-esteem can impact our productivity, how we shape our goals and how we approach relationships. In short, it affects a whole lot! There are many ways therapists aim to help improve self-esteem. In this article, we are focusing on five strategies from cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) that can help you with self-esteem.
When your self-esteem is low and your mood is impacted, often times we withdraw and distance ourselves from activities that boost our positive emotions. This can include working on goals or ambitions that are important to us. When we achieve something we set out to do (even if it is a small, bite-sized goal), we feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment. This feels pretty good and can make us feel more confident.
Work on setting small, realistic and achievable goals that you can start achieving today. Think of a larger goal (e.g., volunteering for the humane society) and think of the first step you need to take to head in that direction (e.g., look up the volunteer page for your local humane society to learn more).
This technique involves identifying key moments in the past that have impacted your self-esteem and confidence. Perhaps, you had a critical parent or teacher growing up? Maybe you were compared a lot to your older sibling? Maybe you were bullied by a classmate? With imagery rescripting, you envision these events and then re-envision them with key changes. These changes might involve you imagining you being assertive with a parent or teacher or imagining someone supporting you after having a difficult experience.
A central part of cognitive therapy, involves increasing awareness of unhelpful thoughts and then changing them so they impact our mood and anxiety in a positive way. This is a process that takes time and involves looking at facts that either challenge or support our internal dialogue. To start, learn about thinking traps like personalization or catastrophizing that tend to occur with low self-esteem. See if you can first increase your awareness of when these thoughts come up. Then, use a thought record to help you evaluate your thinking. Mind Over Mood is a great self-help workbook focused on guiding you through this strategy step-by-step.
While exposure is often used for different kinds of anxiety, it is not normally looked at as a way to impact self-esteem. However, research shows that with graded exposure, one’s self-esteem and confidence can improve. Doing challenging things and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can make you feel empowered and better about yourself (especially if you do something you have been avoiding for a while!).
Behavioural experiments are similar in that you are going outside your comfort zone, but you are testing an assumption that might be incorrect. For example, you might assume that no one is interested in talking to you, but you never test this assumption because you avoid reaching out to others. Or you might assume that people don’t like you, but you might avoid eye contact that prevents others from connecting with you. Behavioural experiments could include make eye contact and smiling at a cashier or creating small talk with someone to see what happens. Don’t forget to try it multiple times to get a good sample of information!
There are many different kinds of interventions we used in CBT and letter writing can be one of them. This intervention, specifically with letters focused on themes of self-compassion and validation have been shown to make improvements in how one feels about oneself. The negative self-talk for people with low self-esteem includes core beliefs like “I am incompetent”, “I’m defective”, “I’m worthless”, “I’m weird and I don’t belong”.
Self-compassionate letter writing would start off with you expressing something you don’t like about yourself. You would use CBT techniques like perspective shifting, problem solving and cognitive restructuring to look at this issue in different ways. This could include imagining how someone supportive of you would respond to this thing you don’t like about yourself. Or thinking about whether others have thought this about themselves or if there are things you’ve experienced that have contributed to this problem. The goal is to address the negative thinking head on, but also to increase the compassion you show to yourself.
We hope this article was a helpful introduction to helping you build up your self-esteem. Remember low self-esteem isn’t created over night, so it takes time to chip away at it. Being consistent in working on building your self-esteem is important. While you can use multiple strategies, it might be best, at first, to picking one strategy and include it as part of your regular self-care. What are your thoughts about this approach and about the strategies we’ve listed above? We’d love to know, drop us a comment!
We love to help people feel better about themselves. If you are considering virtual therapy in Ontario for helping you work on your self-esteem, feel free to reach out to us for more information or to book an appointment! Check out our team of virtual providers that can help you on your journey to self-compassion.