Ask Alexis: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

Charcoal portrait sketch of a young woman
Erika, 2004.

Caroline wrote to me with the following question:

I struggle with my self-confidence. Do you have any suggestions for building self-esteem? I love your confidence. Do you remember any lessons your parents taught you that helped your self-esteem/confidence?

Thanks for the question, Caroline!  First, let me say this:  You have just as much right to be on this planet as everyone else.  You are a unique, worthy person who has many gifts to give: gifts of perspective, kindness, creativity, and more.  We are all works in process, learning and growing as we move through life.  Though it may at times seem like others have everything figured out while you’re still struggling to feel comfortable in your own skin, rest assured that everyone has moments of self-doubt.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me and praised me as a child, which I’m sure helped my self-esteem.  Even so, there were times in my life that I felt awkward, unsure of myself, and completely lacking in confidence (hello, adolescence).  While I am fairly self-assured now, I still sometimes encounter situations where I feel out of place and self-conscious.  This is probably the case for anyone who ever challenges themselves to meet new people or try new things.  In order to learn and grow, we have to push ourselves outside our comfort zones, which can be, well, uncomfortable.

If you feel shy or self-conscious in social situations, I think one of the best ways to get over that is just to force yourself to interact with lots of new people.  See if you can find some Meetup groups or clubs centered around things that interest you, and then go to some events. In my experience, Meetup groups are very welcoming of new people, and because you probably won’t know anyone at the event, you’ll have no choice but to get out of your shell and talk to new people.  The more you do this, the more comfortable you will become.  And there’s really nothing to lose.  If the event goes badly or you feel embarrassed about something, who cares?  Most likely, you’ll never have to see these people again if you don’t want to.

Also, since these people have never met you before, you can present yourself in any way you like.  They have no idea what you were like in high school or what baggage you may have.  They know nothing about you except what you tell them and how you act around them.  You might spend some time before the event thinking about how you’d like to introduce yourself.  What are your hobbies?  How do you spend your days?  How would you describe yourself?  Come up with a few potential talking points for when someone says, “Tell me about you.”  You might also think of a few questions you can be prepared to ask others to strike up a conversation.  People love to talk about themselves!

I do think there’s something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” approach.  You may think that everyone knows how nervous you feel inside, but the truth is, they probably don’t.  If you act confident, you’ll become more confident.  Try striking a power pose before social interactions to boost your confidence.

Mastering new skills can help you to feel more confident, too.  I think there’s a spillover effect; when you know you can do one thing really well, your confidence in that area can help you to feel more confident in general.

You asked about lessons my parents taught me that instilled self-confidence.  My parents allowed me to be pretty independent when I was growing up.  They were by no means helicopter parents.  I was free to explore, I often entertained myself, I was expected to make my own friends, and I did a lot of things for myself.  I believe this built resourcefulness and confidence that I could figure out how to do whatever I needed to do in life.

You may want to examine the beliefs that underlie your low self-esteem and the early experiences that shaped those beliefs.  A good therapist can help you with this.  Were you bullied as a child?  Did a particular failure traumatize you?  Once you recognize the underlying events that contributed to your low self-esteem, you can begin replacing your unhelpful negative beliefs with more healthy, positive beliefs.

I hope these tips are helpful, Caroline, and best of luck to you!

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