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February is Boost Your Self-Esteem Month. What Exactly is Self-Esteem?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Self-esteem is a phrase most of us encounter early in life. Our first understanding of self-esteem is typically a simple one. If we like ourselves and think well of ourselves, then we learn we have what the adults in our lives call high self-esteem. But if we don’t particularly like ourselves, think negatively about ourselves, then we learn we have low self-esteem.

Those first impressions and first lessons are accurate, if oversimplified. While reading this article, we encourage you to hold that simple definition in the back of your mind to keep perspective. Although self-esteem is the result of a variety of factors and can manifest in different ways for different people, the basic equation (self-esteem = I like myself) is a solid and reliable baseline. From this starting point, you can add or subtract the various details about self-esteem we discuss.

Let’s get right to that discussion.

Heads up: longish official definition coming up.

According to the dictionary of the American Psychological Association (APA), self-esteem is:

“…the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive. It reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of [their] accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person. The more positive the cumulative perception of these qualities and characteristics, the higher one’s self-esteem. A reasonably high degree of self-esteem is considered an important ingredient of mental health. Whereas low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness are common depressive symptoms.

This definition teaches us that the elements of our lives that result in us liking ourselves are related to factors both inside us and outside us: it’s a balance of the internal and external.

Self-Esteem in Adolescence

We learn about self-esteem early in life, we come to understand the ins and outs of self-esteem later in life, but the one period in life when self-esteem feels most relevant is in adolescence. And it’s also the period in life when adolescence seems at its most elusive and changeable. We’ll explore adolescent self-esteem in-depth during Adolescent Self-Esteem Month in May. In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of adolescent self-esteem. Then we’ll talk about how we can all boost our self-esteem, in general, across our entire lifespan.

Experts agree on the fundamentals of what contributes to self-esteem – high or low – in adolescence:

Support from friends and family.

Adolescents with supportive and loving friends and family members typically develop high, positive self-esteem, whereas adolescents who do not have a loving and caring network of family and friends may develop negative, or low self-esteem.

Skills, goals, and participation.

Adolescents who engage in activities in school, in the home, and with friends outside of school typically develop positive self-esteem. Participating in activities often requires setting goals. For instance, a teen who wants to join the soccer team may need to get in better physical condition before tryouts: setting and accomplishing this goal can help build self-esteem. Participation in activities also builds tangible skills that an adolescent can point to and say: “I can do that.” These skills may be academic, artistic, athletic, or something else entirely. Around the home, they’re related to that specific family culture, meaning those skills could be just about anything, depending on the family.

Adolescents who develop skills, set goals, and participate in a variety of activities typically develop positive self-esteem, whereas teens who do not develop skills, set goals, and participate in a variety of activities – at home or in the world – often develop negative or low self-esteem.

Social and Emotional Intelligence.

Teens who develop coping skills that enable them to handle the ups and downs of middle school friendships and social dynamics often enter high school – and the middle of adolescence – with their self-esteem fully intact. These social skills often develop side by side with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes the ability to identify personal emotions, process those emotions in a healthy and productive way, communicate information about emotions in a productive way, and recognize and respond to the emotions of others with empathy, understanding, and compassion.

The one thing we haven’t mentioned here is puberty. It’s the backdrop for everything we mentioned above and informs everything adolescents do. Hormonal and related physical changes and development affect all aspects of emotion, cognition, and behavior. During adolescence, teens go through a process called differentiation, during which they develop a personality and set of opinions and perspectives that are separate and distinct from those of their parents. They develop their own brand of moral and ethical decision making, they become more independent, their emotions may become intense and go up and down, and they develop their individual sexuality. These changes develop alongside – and have a direct impact on – their sense of self-esteem.

To learn more, please read our article Understanding Adolescent Development, and keep any eye out for our article coming in May for National Teen Self-Esteem Month.

Now, we’ll talk about how anyone – from children to adults – can boost their self-esteem.

How to Improve Your Self-Esteem

It’s important to understand that if your self-esteem is low, it may not suddenly change overnight. You’ll need to take proactive steps every day to build your self-esteem, until those steps become second nature. You’ll develop daily habits that support your positive self-image, and they become a positive, self-reinforcing cycle: you do things that improve your wellbeing because they feel good, and the better you feel, the more likely you are to continue doing those things – and the more likely you will be to seek out new and different activities that support your overall sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

The foundation of self-esteem across your lifespan includes those critical elements we mention above: family and social support, personal skills/goals/activities, and social/emotional intelligence. That means anything you do to boost your self-esteem will be more effective if those elements are already in place in our life. If they’re not, then we recommend reading the tips below with the perspective “how can I use this to solidify my foundation?”

Let’s get to that list.

Five Ways to Boost Self-Esteem

1. Be Kind to Yourself.

This is close to a chicken-egg situation. People with low self-esteem often engage in negative self-talk. For instance, in their minds, they say things like “I’m no good at this” and “Nothing ever works for me” or “FML!” Here’s something to try: whenever you think anything negative about yourself, let the thought have its place, then let it go. Don’t fight it or try to stop it: just let it be, then watch it fade. When it fades, replace it with a positive thought about yourself or your life. This is one version of a technique called reframing. It works – and it helps.

2. Reach Out to People.

Humans are social creatures by nature. Sure, there are hermits among us who thrive on isolation, but most of us are somewhere in the middle. We’re neither social butterflies nor shut ins. That means if you’re feeling down, and haven’t been around people in a while, find a way to be around people. Reach out to family and friends. Granted, this is a challenge during COVID because in-person contact (hugs!) work really well – but a Zoom call with friends or loved ones can change your whole day and give your self-esteem a boost.

3. Participate in Activities.

There’s a phrase from the mental health profession we’ll apply here: You have to act your way into healing, not think your way into healing. And although self-esteem does involve how you think about yourself, the best way to improve the way you think about yourself is by doing things. Find new activities to try. Think back to old activities you used to love, and try them again. The idea is to behave your way to a more positive mindset. That’s more effective than waiting for it to come to you.

4. Set Boundaries in Relationships.

It’s possible to develop low self-esteem by allowing people in your life take too much of you. Too much of your time, too much of your energy, and too much of your – well, your self-esteem. If you can identify the people in your life who deplete your energy and vitality rather than refresh and restore it, then those are the people you need to create boundaries for. If you can, be specific, and learn to say and use the magic word “No.”

5. Create Goals for Yourself.

Your goals can be anything you like. For instance: eat a healthy lunch today. That’s achievable – and when you do it, you feel good about it, which boosts your self-esteem. Start small, with goals you know you can accomplish. Every time you achieve an objective – even if that means simply keeping a promise to yourself, like “I’ll go to bed early tonight” – it lifts your self-esteem. Over time, self-esteem boosting goals will become your default modus operandi – and your self-esteem will continue to grow and improve.

When you want to improve your self-esteem, it’s important to remember that you can do it. It’s not a mystery. The elements we describe and the tips we offer work for people around the world every day. Be patient, give yourself time, but don’t wait. You can start applying these five tips right now, this very moment.

However, we should mention one more thing. If you experience a persistent, depressed mood – and it lasts every day for two weeks or more – you should understand that may be a sign of clinical depression. If that’s your situation – persistent depressive thoughts or mood lasting two weeks or more – then we urge you to seek the support of a mental health professional. They’ll help you get back on track, and back to living life on your terms.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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