6 Ways to Build Self-Esteem

“Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered – either by themselves or by others.” – Mark Twain

People with healthy levels of self-esteem are able to appreciate themselves fully for who they truly are.  There is a calm sense of accurately perceiving strengths and weaknesses without feeling a sense of hubris or self-deprecation.  It is being able to take an honest internal inventory of all of the qualities that make up “you” and feel content with all that you find.  No one is perfect.  Having a healthy amount of self-esteem is not reserved solely for those of the highest moral virtue.  Self-esteem has a great deal to do with acceptance, happiness, and contentment with who you truly are.

When you have a healthy amount of self-esteem, you are able to take stock of and truly appreciate your own self-worth.  You are accurate in your assessment of what you really have to offer to others and to the world.  You are capable of acknowledging your imperfections and are able to place those imperfections in perspective since you are also accurately aware of your strengths and virtues.  You don’t allow your faults or weaknesses to unrealistically overshadow all of your good qualities and overwhelm you.

Ways to Build Self-Esteem

If you feel as if you could benefit from strengthening your own level of self-esteem, consider devoting some of your time and attention to building this quality.  Dr. John Grohol, founder of PsychCentral, suggests the following six ways to build self-esteem:

(1) Take a Self-Esteem Inventory

Take the time to sit down and make an honest inventory of your authentic strengths and areas for growth.  This can be a clearcut process of simply drawing a line down the middle of a piece of paper and writing “strengths” and “weaknesses” (or using a term like “growth areas” if you prefer) at the top.  Write down 10 of each.

If you find yourself having difficulty thinking of 10 strengths or weaknesses that fit for you, reflect upon what feedback you have received from other people throughout your life.  What qualities do other people regularly see in you that perhaps you do not see so clearly in yourself?

Once you have your list, evaluate how factual those weaknesses truly are.  What evidence do you have for and against those negative beliefs about yourself?  Sometimes, we have had beliefs about ourselves for so long that we simply assume that they are true and we never take the time to really question them.

If you do find real validity in some of your weaknesses, take stock of how realistic it is for you to begin to take active steps towards changing those qualities.  If you find genuine limitations that seem truly resistant to change, then work towards finding peace and acceptance of those attributes.

(2) Set Realistic Expectations

Imagine that you have uncovered a weakness that you believe is both grounded in reality and possible to change. This may be an exciting and motivating moment in the course of your personal growth.  You have identified something “real” about yourself that you want to work on.  Recognize that lasting change rarely happens with the snap of your fingers.

If you want to make a real change that will stand the test of time, you must be willing to take a realistic approach and set attainable goals for yourself.  Few things will damage your burgeoning self-esteem quite like unrealistic expectations for yourself.  The trick is to set the bar just high enough that it is pushing you out of your comfort zone, yet it is still within your reach.

(3) Let Go of Perfection – Embrace Accomplishments & Mistakes

In order to develop a healthy level of self-esteem, you must be willing to let go of the idea that you can be “perfect” in every way.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot reach your full potential.  It simply means that you are human and subject to making mistakes from time to time.  It is unrealistic to expect to have the “perfect” job, relationship, family, body, house, children, or life.  When you decide that you are attached to these things being perfect, you lose sight of embracing the beauty inherent within imperfections.

Seize your accomplishments as you attain them.  Revel in your success and allow yourself to feel proud of yourself when you reach your goals.  Let go of the idea that feeling good about yourself somehow means that you are “selfish” (and that this is “bad”).  Many of us have internalized messages from childhood about what it means to be “good” and “bad” and sometimes these beliefs can interfere with being able to truly enjoy success as an adult. Don’t play down your authentic virtues, your greatest gifts, and your hard-won accomplishments.  If you do not feel proud of yourself and of your real success, you are sending the message to others that your work is not valuable.

The way that you think about mistakes and handle them is also incredibly important in building healthy self-esteem.  Work towards finding a balance between wallowing in self-pity or guilt and pretending that your mistakes have not happened.  Honestly evaluate the role that you play in your mistakes.  As much as possible, try to avoid shifting blame onto other people or external circumstances.  When you deflect blame elsewhere, treating it like a “hot potato,” you are depriving yourself of learning important lessons.

(4) Explore Yourself

One of the best ways to develop self-esteem may seem counterintuitive to people who already feel badly about themselves.  When you make the choice to increase self-awareness and self-knowledge, you are gaining valuable insight into the kind of person you truly are.  Many people are afraid of honestly looking within, out of fear for what they may find.  This fear only serves to keep you paralyzed and is a common form of experiential avoidance.

When you truly know yourself better than anyone else, you are opening yourself up to the widest range of possibilities of who you can become.  The self is not static and fixed… you can change personal attributes and qualities and let go of problem-saturated stories about who you “are.”  Once you realize that you do not have to remain so attached to your personal narrative of being “bad” in some way, you are free to explore new ways of being in the world.

(5) Be Willing to Adjust Your Self-Image

Self-esteem is not going to serve you in any useful way if it based upon an old image of yourself that no longer exists.  We all used to be good at certain things and bad at certain things at different stages of life.  Perhaps you used to be a star athlete in high school and now the fact is that your body has changed.  Or maybe you used to be fluent in another language but have since forgotten it from lack of use.

You do not have to be so attached to these aspects of your identity.  It is possible to step back from these narrow and limited stories about who you used to be and embrace who you are today, in this present moment.  Reflect upon how all of your past experiences have shaped you into who you are today.  It is likely that many of those past experiences were painful and caused you great suffering.  If you are able to find meaning in suffering and make sense of how it has helped you to grow, it was not in vain.

(6) Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Comparing yourself to other people is generally foolish, even though almost all of us have done it from time to time.  We are usually incredibly inaccurate in our perceptions of other people’s lives.  We imagine that some people must have a “perfect life” because they come across as confident, put together, or attractive.  Or maybe we imagine that they have it “all figured out” and that we will never be as “good” as they are in some way.  These beliefs are usually full of cognitive distortions.

There is no way of knowing what another person’s life is truly like by looking in from the outside.  People often have very personal stories and experiences that go against the image of them as being “perfect” in the eyes of others.  There is no such thing as a “perfect person.”  As soon as the word “person” is included, the idea of “perfection” must be relinquished.

Even if someone else has certain genuine strengths or abilities that you truly do not possess, make the choice to use your emotion of envy constructively.  If it is possible for you to become “better at” whatever it is that you perceive they are capable of, then direct your efforts towards improving yourself.  Use your envy in a healthy way by allowing it to tell you what it is that you truly value.  Examine how attainable those qualities are for you.  If you can become “better” in some way, then commit yourself to doing just that.  If not, then let it go.

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Grohol, J. M. (2011, October). 6 tips to improve your self-esteem [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/10/30/6-tips-to-improve-your-self-esteem/

Featured image: Morning by h.koppdelaney / CC BY-ND 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on October 31, 2011 at 8:57 am

    It strikes me that we often perceive others to be not unlike folks tend to project themselves on their Facebook profiles… everything is all hunky-dory. And why wouldn’t folks project themselves in social settings this way? No one wants to go around being all gloom and doom all the time, and no one wants to hang out with such people either. People tend to disclose their weaknesses to others only in more intimate circumstances, and appropriately so. But that does not mean that everyone doesn’t experience their own personal struggles on a daily basis. It worth remembering this when our own personal struggles feel overwhelming… we are not alone.

    • Laura on November 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm

      James – I agree with you that people tend to project themselves in a positive light and generally draw attention to things that make them appear competent, happy, and other positive qualities to other people. When people are struggling with significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, it can be quite difficult to realize this, which can create a pattern of believing that other people are “so happy” or have “perfect lives.” This can then spiral into greater depression through translating that (false) belief into thoughts about how they are “not as happy as other people,” etc. It seems to me that the fact you are able to clearly recognize this indicates that you have a balanced and realistic view of what most people tend to disclose about their lives. It is certainly a helpful reminder for everyone (and perhaps especially for those struggling with depression or anxiety) to remember that we all experience personal struggles. We are certainly not alone. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Amy Looper on October 31, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Hey Laura!

    Awesome post on 6 ways to build self-esteem. I appreciate how you give real “how to” suggestions that are “doable” to begin making shifts in one’s behavior. Thanks so much for your insights!



    • Laura on November 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm

      Amy – I’m glad you enjoyed this post on ways to build self-esteem! It seems helpful to remember that building realistic and healthy self-esteem takes honest self-appraisal and practice. It is easy to fall into patterns of failing to see one’s (realistic) positive qualities. It is important to achieve that healthy balance of recognizing one’s strengths and areas for further growth/improvement. To recognize that we are all “works in progress” can serve as a motivator to build on our existing strengths and work towards improving areas for growth. Thanks for your comment!

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