We all receive outside messages that can warp our self-esteem every day. Unfortunately, sometimes these may come from a family member or “friend,” someone who should be building us up rather than tearing us down. Even if everyone in our lives is wonderful and supportive, though, we still have to face onslaughts to our self-esteem from advertising media and social media on a regular basis.
With all of these voices trying to convince us that we aren’t good enough, the last thing we need to do is add to that noise with our own self-criticism. Too often, we sabotage our own self-esteem with negative patterns of thought. The sooner we recognize these harmful patterns, the sooner we can start changing them.
#1 Negative self-talk
Example: “I’ve tried to lose weight four times in the past year and failed every time. I just can’t do it; I’m a failure at everything, so why should this be any different?”
Negative self-talk is probably the most common form of self-sabotage, and the hardest one to stop because it’s so easy to do automatically without even thinking about it. Some people even make the mistake of thinking that it will motivate them. Others are actually more comfortable with negative self-talk than positive self-talk because if they think of themselves negatively then they never have to challenge themselves. Negative self-talk will only ever lead to unhealthy self-esteem and unachieved goals.
Better self-talk: “I’ve tried to lose weight four times in the past year and failed every time. What was it that went wrong those times? Is there a pattern about what causes me to fall back into old habits? What can I do to break that pattern?”
#2 Unrealistic expectations
Example: “I’m so tired of feeling like a loser living at my parents’ house. If I don’t spend any of my paychecks on anything but food and gas, I should be able to move out of my parents’ house in a couple of months.”
Having high expectations for yourself might seem like a good thing, and it is. But there’s a line between high expectations and unrealistic expectations. No matter how hard you try, it’s going to be impossible to hold yourself to a goal of not spending any money on non-necessity purchases for several months at a time, for instance. If your expectations are unrealistic, then you’re sure to fail at them and then you’ll just beat yourself up further.
Better expectations: “For the next year, I’ll save 10% of each paycheck. Then I’ll have enough to move out as long as I keep budgeting carefully after that.”
#3 Comparing yourself to others
Example: “Everyone I follow on Instagram drinks green smoothies and never skips leg day at the gym. I can’t even give up my Reese’s addiction for a day.”
Comparisons are the absolute enemy of self-esteem. Not only do you never, ever need to worry about what anyone else is doing because your goals are not the same as theirs, but the life you think you’re seeing that looks so much better than yours might not be as good as it looks. Your favorite Instagram fitness guru could be struggling with depression. That couple you graduated with who travels all over Europe every summer might be having major communication issues. You never know what’s truly going on in anyone else’s life, but the one thing you can be sure of is that no one’s life is perfect, just like yours isn’t.
Better way to handle comparison: “The people I follow on Instagram tend to make me feel worse about myself. I need to take a break from Instagram or only follow accounts that don’t trigger my self-hate.”
#4 Putting things off until tomorrow
Example: “I told myself I would give up smoking today, but I only made it until noon. Might as well call today a wash, finish this pack, and start over tomorrow!”
There’s something so appealing about the “fresh start” or the “blank slate” of tomorrow. But if you push your goals off until “tomorrow” every time you don’t quite stick to your resolve, then those temporary failures will add up to make you feel incapable of accomplishing your goals at all. Allow yourself to experience partial successes; partial successes are better for your self-esteem than repeated total failures, and will do more to get you toward consistent change than perpetually waiting until later.
Better plan: “I told myself I would give up smoking today, but I only made it until noon. Quitting cold turkey might not work for me. Maybe I’ll have one more after dinner and see if I can hold out one or two hours longer tomorrow.”
#5 Thinking that mistakes are not acceptable
Example: “My boss wants me to oversee next week’s project, but I’ve never done that before. I don’t know if I’ll do well … maybe I’ll just ask my co-worker if she wants to do it instead.”
Holding yourself to a no-mistake standard is disastrous for self-esteem. For one thing, if you think this way then you’ll never take any chances at anything. For another, expecting yourself to be perfect shuts down the process of growth. The people that you see who look successful got there by making mistakes and learning from them. They still make mistakes and learn from them. If you hold yourself to a standard of perfection, then the weight of making a mistake, as you’re bound to do eventually, will crush you and lead you to stop trying completely.
Better thought process: “My boss wants me to oversee next week’s project, even though I’ve never done that before. She must have confidence that I can handle it even if it doesn’t go perfectly, so I’ll try to see in myself what she sees in me.”
#6 Thinking your past is going to automatically control your future.
Example: “Two of my partners have cheated on me in the past. That’s just how women are, I guess; my next girlfriend probably will, too.”
Your past is an important part of you, no doubt about it. And even if you didn’t want it to, it has, to some extent, shaped who you are today. But it doesn’t have to control your entire future. Of course, some of us are automatically more controlled by our pasts than others. Those of us who have lots of areas of privilege, for instance, are less inhibited by the details of our past than those who don’t have the same advantages. Things like your race, gender, sexual orientation, etc will affect your life. But in the realm of behavior and actions, your future doesn’t have to be the same as your past if you’re willing to think critically about what you can do to change old patterns.
Better thinking for the future: “Two of my partners have cheated on me in the past. Before I start a new relationship, I need to take some time to think about those relationships. Is there a certain type of person I’m attracted to who’s bad for me, who’s more likely to hurt me? How can I avoid going for this type of person again in the future?”
There are too many challenges to your self-esteem in the world for you to add your own self-sabotaging thoughts on top. When it comes to the stories you tell yourself about yourself, be charitable, be forgiving, be motivating, and be loving. Anything else is a waste of energy, and a roadblock to happiness.
If self-esteem is a problem you’re struggling to work through on your own, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult to learn more about how working with one of our therapists can help you improve your life.