Editor’s note: this is Part 2 of an article that was previously named How to Cultivate a Strong and Positive Sense of Self, Part 1. I changed the article’s name, based on conversations with readers that came up in the writing of Part 2.
Part 1 explains how self-image is created through a person’s actions, words, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as how all those factors actually help create your self-image. If you want a more in-depth explanation of how this cycle works, and why approaching it from both sides is important, please go back and read Part 1!
Today I want to talk about concrete ways to build self-esteem as a grown-up.
When I asked my readers to submit their tips and practices for cultivating a strong and positive self-image, I was shocked by what came up. Most people know about the importance of building self-esteem in children, but that’s where the conversation around self-esteem stops. Unfortunately however, most of the techniques for raising confident children (like offering her options, asking her opinion, and helping her express her feelings) don’t really apply to adults.
This is a problem, because according to important and official science, having low self-esteem sucks. It makes you unhappy, and it’s linked to tons of issues, like anxiety, depression, risky behaviors, and eating disorders. Most importantly though, it holds you back from chasing the life of your dreams, and from expressing your unique purpose, passions, and gifts.
I’ve discovered through my work with women that I can’t really talk about body image without also talking about self-esteem. Negative body-image is almost always linked to overall low levels of authentic self-worth. Our culture makes it easy to fall into the trap of believing that a woman’s worth is based on her appearance, body, beauty, and sexual desirability. Spending your time, energy, and resources pursuing an arbitrary standard of beauty robs you of the opportunity to cultivate skills and experiences that actually prove and reinforce your worth. Therefore, one of the best ways to heal a hateful relationship with your body is to start living a life that makes you feel purposeful, valuable, valued, important, and worthy.
As I compiled this list of the most important practices, tips, methods, and advice for building self-esteem, I struggled to keep it short. Honestly, I could write a book about this stuff. Maybe someday I will.
Disclaimer: If you’re looking for quick and easy life hacks, you won’t find them here. I’m talking about deeply life-altering behavior and mindset shifts. I believe this is the most important work that a person can do, and it is the dedicated work of a lifetime.
HOW TO BUILD SELF ESTEEM AS A GROWN-ASS ADULT
1. Find empowering movement. Moving your body is a massively powerful resource for healing, processing, evolving, and cultivating a new identity. Choose a movement practice that makes you feel better at the end (physically, mentally, and emotionally), than you did at the beginning, and make it a consistent, regular part of your life. I personally think lifting weights is amazing for personal growth and feeling like a badass, and I’m also a huge fan of rock climbing, snowboarding, and dancing. But I recognize that everyone is different, and I encourage you to experiment with different types of movement, and see what makes you feel your best.
2. Expand your comfort zone. My friend Adam Bornstein recently wrote about how lifting weights creates “situational discomfort,” meaning it teaches him to be comfortable in his own skin, despite whatever new scary/difficult situation comes up. (Incidentally, he wrote this about the experience of holding his brand new baby, not about setting a squat PR.)
Lifting weights teaches you how to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and so does every single time you step out of your comfort zone, try something new, or push past fear to take action. Consistently practice the skill of courage, and see how much bigger and juicer your life gets.
3. Express yourself. The more ways you can bring your innermost Self to the surface, the more authentic and confident in yourself you’ll become. I’m a big fan of learning how to express your thoughts and feelings with accurate and specific language, but I think creative expression tends to be just as, if not more, important for many people. Coloring, crafting, cooking, building something with your hands, designing a room or an outfit; all of these help you express externally what feels true to you internally. This skill (not the actual creative skill mind you, but the skill of expressing yourself) cannot be overstated for it’s role in self-esteem.
4. Carefully choose your friends. There are some people who, when you’re around them, somehow put you at total ease and bring out your best Self. Around those people, you feel dazzling, funny, smart, and beautiful. Find those people, and carefully tend to those friendships. Don’t allow yourself to be surrounded by anyone who doesn’t see, fuel, and value your best self.
5. Learn to say no. Your time, attention, and energy are exceptionally valuable, but people often don’t treat them that way. Many women struggle with saying no to favors or social obligations, so they end up spending their time and energy in ways that drain them, instead of fuel them. By constantly saying yes when your heart isn’t really in it, you are showing yourself (and others) that you do not value your time, your attention, or yourself.
6. Lean into your gifts. For some reason we are often taught that by engaging in our gifts, we are somehow “bragging,” or “showing off,” and that it’s better to lay low. I say phooey! What are you really effing good at? What are your unique gifts and strengths? Share that shit with the world, as often as possible!! (Then comes the really scary part… accepting the positive feedback and compliments!)
7. Take action. A common part of having a negative self-image is feeling like you don’t matter, like you’re insignificant. Seeing yourself that way, even if you see everyone that way, causes inaction and apathy, which creates a self-fulfilling negative cycle. Making choices and taking action, even if it’s in small, seemingly insignificant ways, will help you get instant feedback from the world that you have the power to affect change. This is extremely important, and truly the definition of “empowerment.” Start as small as you need to; maybe just look your barista in the eye and say hi today, or send a text thanking someone for being in your life. Action has a way of snowballing.
“Research also tells us that the best predictors of a person’s disposition to be happy are (1) self-esteem and (2) the belief that we ourselves, rather than external forces, are the most significant shapers of our destiny.”
8. Stop comparing yourself to others. Another woman’s success, beauty, and gifts don’t say anything about yours. Refuse to engage in body-bashing or judgement/comparison conversations. I wrote a whole post about how to do this here.
9. Spend less time with mainstream media. You may think you’re too smart or self-aware to be affected by the images you see, but unfortunately it’s built into the way we’re all wired. Like food, everything you consume affects you. Viewing images of thin bodies has been proven to make you instantly prefer thin bodies. Watching the news reinforces the idea that people are inherently bad and the world is a terrible and terrifying place. What you see/hear/read/watch deeply affects how you perceive things. Be diligent about what you allow yourself to consume mentally, emotionally, and visually.
10. Replace judgement with curiosity. This is a huge part of my personal practice. Being judgemental of others (and yourself) causes you to constantly being on the lookout for faults, flaws, and the endless ways you’re in danger of messing up. This breeds negativity, jealousy, anxiety, bitterness, and fear. Instead of assuming, or making up a mean story, allow yourself to wonder! Anytime you catch yourself thinking or saying something judgemental, try to reframe it with compassion, curiosity, and childlike wonder.
My friend Elizabeth DiAlto, creator of the Wild Soul Movement, puts it beautifully:
“I talk often with clients about the question, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ There are two places from which to ask that. The victim place, where we seek to blame and justify. Or, the curious place where we seek to grow and learn so as not to repeat this again. The curious place requires a lot of surrender.”
11. Mirror practice. I wrote a whole post about this practice, if you want more info on it. The basic gist is to spend time in front of the mirror, borrowing the eyes of someone who adores you. You can use your creativity and imagination to re-program what you see when you look at yourself; view yourself through the eyes of someone (real or imaginary) who finds you perfect. I do this practice with photos and social media as well.
12. *READER SUBMISSION!* Role Play. Along the same lines as my mirror practice, this tip came from one of my readers, who has asked to remain anonymous:
“This is superbly geeky and kind of a bit embarrassing, but, I’ve found it to be immeasurably effective: I role play my ultimate fantasy lover to myself.
Basically, I imagine my absolute dream lover… the ‘perfect’ man who just absolutely adores and cherishes me fervently, is completely obsessed with my body, mind and heart and just always says and does the absolute PERFECT thing at the perfect time. He does and says all those secret things I wouldn’t really admit I’d want a guy to say, or do to me… he is there when I’m secretly vulnerable. He’s interested in my feelings and thoughts and dreams. He loves me absolutely unconditionally. And then whenever I think of it, I imagine what I’d want my ultimate fantasy lover to do to/for/with me and then I give that to myself. For some reason, I find this easier, more pleasurable and more effective than just ‘loving myself’.”
13. Fake it till you make it. Our body language, vocal tone, the words we choose, and the choices we make INFORM how we feel. I see no reason to wait until you’re Captain Confidence to walk and talk like you are. Create a confident alter ego if need to: someone who is comfortable in the spotlight, someone who never apologizes for her gifts, or someone who simply keeps her shoulders back and maintains eye contact at parties. (I mean, it worked for Beyoncé, right?)
14. Practice Radical Vanity. We’ve been trying this whole “modesty is a virtue” thing, for women especially, for like 1000 years. It’s not really working. So let’s go the other direction for a while and see what happens. How would you act if you weren’t afraid of being called vain, or full of yourself? What would you say or do if you knew people were going to respond to your confidence with respect and admiration, like they might for a man in a position of confidence and power? Try accepting compliments with grace, speaking openly about your accomplishments, and making it clear that you respect yourself. This isn’t about bravado; it’s about removing the modest “good girl” filter. (Check out my TEDx talk below, on the topic to hear more about radical vanity!
15. Keep track of your achievements. Literally, keep a daily accomplishment journal, or just a running tab of impressive stuff you’ve done, to reference later. This is an extremely effective tool for self-assessment, motivation, and perspective, and it helps you shift your awareness and mindset to notice what’s impressive about you.
16. Identify what about YOU made those achievements possible. While a feeling of accomplishment and success is awesome, a lot of people tend to feel empty when they look at things they’ve done, because they’re unable to see those achievements as impressive or special.
It’s important to identity the actual root of the accomplishment. What specifically about you made it successful? For example, if you had to learn a new skill to give a presentation at work, and it went really well, you might identify that it was your passion and dedication to the topic that helped you succeed, or your inherent ability to learn new skills quickly when you’re motivated. Learning to identify the specific traits about YOU that lead to your accomplishments helps you internalize your successes; you start to realize it’s who you are led to your success, not just what you did.
The root of our self-esteem is not our achievements per se but those internally generated practices that make it possible for us to achieve.
17. Gratitude journal. I’m a big fan of the gratitude journal, because it forces you to adopt the habit of scanning your life for the positives instead of the negatives. Not only does this help you rate yourself and your life as being better, but training your brain to look for what’s working and going well (instead of all the stuff going wrong) takes you from a victim mindset to an active mindset. This means you make more choices and actions, participate more fully in your life, and end up with even more to be grateful for.
18. Focus on the process. Find ways to fall in love with the process of living your life, instead of waiting for and working toward some imaginary end-point. Lots of people say “I’ll be happy when…”, in regards to weight loss, a new job, the right partner, or whatever. But not only has it been proven that you probably won’t be happier when you achieve said goal, it also means you miss out on all the amazing experiences and opportunities to be happy during the journey! If you can embrace the processes of achieving, striving, working, resting, learning, sharing, and growing as the important stuff in life worth being present for, you will find value and beauty and joy in every moment.
19. Use empowering language. I talk often about the confidence-boosting power of strong body language, and how Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on how your body language shapes who you are changed my life. But the word choices we use may be just as important, because they signal to ourselves and to those around us how we want to be treated!
“One of the best things I’ve done to improve my self-concept is to stop referring to myself or other adult women as ‘girls.’ I’ve never been a fan of saying things like “girl’s night” or “girl push-ups,” but it wasn’t until I got this tip from a badass engineer that I understood why. Calling ourselves “girls” in contrast to “women” is a subtle but profound signal that we give people permission to take us less seriously. Like ‘I’m not a grown woman with legitimate ideas. I’m still a child, a girl.’ No way!” –Mica
20. Spend less time/energy on how you look. Instead, focus your time, energy, money, mental resources, and attention on stuff that really matters, like what you can do, how you want to feel, how you can affect the world, and who you are. It may seem harmless, but spending so much of your time and energy thinking about, buying products for, fixing, discussing, altering, hiding, highlighting, and worrying about your appearance sends yourself the message: how you look is the most important thing about you. Moving away from an identity that is based on how you look, even in tiny ways, can be terrifying and liberating. It forces you to own your natural state, and reconnect with the other aspects of what makes you YOU.
21. Don’t settle for conditional self-love. So many women only love their bodies conditionally, like on “skinny days,” or days when their abs show up. This is not real love. It’s actually a way of saying to yourself: most days, I don’t love you. Or even worse: in your natural state, you are not good enough. Same goes for emotional and energetic states. Learning to love yourself and your life means finding value and meaning, even in the experiences or circumstances that might not feel as good.
Embracing, accepting, and how things are right now doesn’t mean you have to quit trying, or stop striving to improve. In fact, quite the opposite. But change is constant, and if you’re attached to only one small part of the human experience, you will constantly feel let down and subpar. Unconditional self-love just means your worth doesn’t change based on external circumstances. You know you’re “good enough” in all states, stages, fluctuations, and changes.
22. Learn to listen to your intuitive wisdom. There is nothing quite so empowering as knowing you already have all the answers to whatever it is you are seeking. Learn to listen to your body; it will always tell you what it needs. Learn to listen to your heart, it will guide you, and help you understand and express your true desires and feelings. Learn to listen to your gut (meaning that instant feeling that something is right or wrong, even if you can’t justify the feeling with logic), and you will be shocked by how confident you become.
Your intuition plays into all these types of wisdom and more. The more you learn to listen to your own intuitive wisdom, the louder those messages will become, so don’t stress if you can’t hear them yet! The more your learn to trust and follow your intuitive wisdom, the more you will see that you already have the power, worth, and validation that you’ve been seeking elsewhere.
Whether this wisdom connects you to a higher power, or simply to a primal animal instinct we’ve forgotten about (personally I see those two things as the same thing), learning to hear and trust your own intuitive messages offers you an infinite source of confidence and self-esteem.
I am passionate about helping women learn to love their bodies. That includes unlearning what a woman “should” be, feeling empowered and confident in yourself, embracing your authentic power, and creating a life so kick-ass and beautiful that you hardly have any time or energy left over to think about how your body looks. 😉
That’s why I created The Empowered Women Project
— for women like you, who are sick of being judged for what you look like, and want to focus instead on all the amazing things you can do and be. Click here to know more
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