There are things that you can do for yourself that will help you to overcome low self-esteem. These include:
- Testing your anxious predictions, approaching situations that you have been avoiding, reducing your safety behaviours
- Identifying and challenging your self-criticism
- Retraining yourself to focus on the positive
- Modifying your rules and assumptions
- Challenging your bottom line and building a new one
- Rehearsing positive aspects of your self-image so that they ‘win’ the memory retrieval competition
Testing your anxious predictions
Anxious minds are focused on danger: their main motivation is to keep us safe. Anxious minds make predictions about negative things that might happen, but they often take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. The result is a feeling of anxiety. When we are feeling anxious we tend to do things in an attempt to feel safe – such as avoiding situations, or taking precautions if we do have to confront them. One problem of avoiding or using ‘safety behaviours’ is that we never get to find out whether our anxious predictions are true. Some things that you can do are to monitor your anxious predictions and then test how accurate your anxious predictions may be.
Identifying and challenging your self-criticism
We all speak to ourselves, and when we do it in encouraging ways we can feel pretty good. People with low self-esteem often have a harsh and critical inner voice though. Some call this a ‘bully voice’. One way of overcoming low self-esteem is to change the way we speak to ourselves, or to have a different relationship with your inner voice.
Retraining yourself to focus on the positive
Negative beliefs make us pay attention in biased ways. If your bottom line is “I’m a failure” then you are much more likely to pay attention to your struggles than your successes. The problem of this ‘biased perception’ is that you only see half the picture – you don’t get to see yourself fairly, and nothing changes. One helpful strategy is to identify some of your positive qualities, and to pay close attention to times in your day which illustrate these.
Challenging your bottom line and building a new one
Ultimately, you will need to understand what your bottom line is. If you have monitored your self-critical thoughts you might have noticed patterns in the kinds of thoughts you have, or the kinds of labels you apply to yourself. It can be helpful to treat your bottom line like an opinion, or a theory to be tested. Many people find it helpful to come up with some alternative bottom lines and then to collect evidence in their daily life to see which belief (old bottom line or new positive belief) is a more accurate way of looking at the world.
Modifying your rules and assumptions
Low self-esteem beliefs can be ‘protected’ (maintained) by our unstated rules and assumptions. The problem of rules is that they are often excessive, unreasonable and overly strict: they’re not real rules about how the world works, but are assumptions that keep us stuck in unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving.
Rehearsing positive aspects of your self-image so that they win the memory retrieval competition
Low self-esteem is based on an idea about how your memory works. Let’s say the cue is “think about what kind of person you are” – your memory could select from many, say kindness, patience, caring, thoughtful. But for people with low self-esteem it may be in the ‘habit’ or picking from well-rehearsed negative traits which you might not like about yourself. This idea about how memory works is called retrieval competition, and a treatment for low self-esteem based on this principle called Competitive Memory Retraining (COMET). Some of the steps of the COMET protocol include:
- Identifying your negative self-image
- Naming the opposite self-image (collect qualities that contradict your negative self-image)
- Identifying examples of your opposite self-image
- Use imagination exercises to practice making the opposite self-image particularly memorable