How can being in therapy improve your self-esteem? Once we understand both the roots of self-esteem and the essence of therapy, the answer becomes clear.
Self-esteem has been described in many ways, but it can be thought of—and experienced—most simply as the absence of needless shame. In a sense, high self-esteem is the opposite of chronic shame.
This has nothing to do with thinking everything you do is great or even okay; it’s not an evaluation of your behavior or how “great” you are. People with high self-esteem may criticize their own behavior at times. They can afford to be realistic about how they’re doing because their basic worth as human beings isn’t in question. People with low self-esteem (i.e., those who experience chronic, needless shame), on the other hand, may display a need to be right all the time, or may tend to see themselves as “better” than others. Such tendencies may help compensate for a fragile sense of worth.
How Low Self-Esteem Typically Develops
Most of us learn in childhood we’re far from perfect, and that our words and actions sometimes make other people unhappy. Since kids typically have a hard time mentally separating themselves from their behavior, hundreds of behavior corrections over the course of childhood can lead to shame about the self: If Johnny does something wrong, Johnny feels he IS wrong—as a person.
One of the psychological products of childhood, then, is some level of subconscious shame. Many adults still tell themselves silently all the time, “There’s something wrong with me.” This is low self-esteem.
How Therapy Improves Self-Esteem
Once in therapy, people begin (usually cautiously) to share their inner thoughts and feelings with the therapist. If the therapist responds with acceptance and compassion rather than judgment or correction, the person in therapy generally relaxes into what can be an extremely productive therapeutic relationship.
With consistent acceptance, compassion, and understanding from the therapist, the person in therapy risks sharing even more “shameful” parts of themselves during sessions. When the therapist continues to respond with acceptance, a brand-new idea is born inside the person: “Maybe there’s nothing wrong with me after all.” This is how low self-esteem is often healed.
Therapy creates an experience of being basically acceptable instead of basically wrong, and this naturally improves self-esteem. By treating you as acceptable, the therapist models a different way for you to relate to yourself.
Just as needless shame is the product of a lack of acceptance through necessary social corrections (“Don’t pick your nose in public,” for example), its opposite, high self-esteem, blooms in an atmosphere of acceptance.
Your attitude toward yourself (“I’m okay” as opposed to “I’m not okay”) is not a fact, but a belief. Whatever you believe about yourself is based on experience. For example, if you received a lot of corrections in childhood, as most of us did, you may believe you’re essentially bad and need to be corrected.
To change unwanted beliefs about yourself, you need a different experience on which to base a new belief. This is what psychotherapy offers.
Therapy creates an experience of being basically acceptable instead of basically wrong, and this naturally improves self-esteem. By treating you as acceptable, the therapist models a different way for you to relate to yourself. Using that model, you can continue to improve your self-esteem between therapy sessions and long after therapy has ended.
It doesn’t matter what type or school of therapy you do—as long as you experience your therapist as accepting and affirming rather than judgmental or critical. If you feel as though you’re being judged or criticized, the first thing to do is talk with your therapist about it. If your therapist responds in any way other than with kindness, openness, and humility, it’s time to seek a different therapist. Your self-esteem is too important to place in the wrong hands.
© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, Self-Esteem Topic Expert Contributor
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Our Reader Asks
I have struggled with low self-esteem for a really long time. Sometimes, I don’t think I have what it takes to succeed in life. But I know that attitude isn’t helpful. What can I do to start feeling better about myself?
You’re smart to want to address self-esteem issues. Building a healthy sense of self will take work and it will likely feel uncomfortable, but it’ll be worth it.
Create a Healthy, Supportive Environment
Feeling bad about yourself can hold you back in life. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to improve your self-esteem.
When we believe something, we constantly look for evidence (and create more evidence) that our belief is true. So if you believe you’re unworthy, you’ll view every mistake, mishap, and rejection as proof that you’re not good enough.
When you succeed at something (like you get an award), you’ll likely chalk it up to “good luck” rather than take credit for your effort or skills. You also might unintentionally create an environment that reinforces your low self-esteem.
A 2018 study found that people with low self-esteem tend to surround themselves with people who put them down. When others put them down, their words are in line with what the person with low self-esteem thinks about themselves. And it gives them a twisted sense of comfort as they believe, “You see me the same way I see me.”
Additionally, the study found that people who don’t feel good about themselves are more likely to seek support with indirect methods, like whining, sulking, and complaining. Those strategies increase the likelihood that others will respond poorly, which again reinforces their beliefs that no one cares and they aren’t good enough.
So clearly, it’s important to evaluate the people around you. Are you surrounding yourself with people who subtly put you down? Take a look at your physical environment too. Do you live in a cluttered, crowded space? Perhaps a messy place reinforces to you that you aren’t worthy of living in a neat environment.
Make it a priority to surround yourself with people and things that send a message that says you are good enough. It will feel uncomfortable at first but as your self-esteem improves, it’ll get easier.
Changing your environment and the people you surround yourself with can make a big difference in how you feel about yourself. Work on making changes to your environment that will help support your sense of self-worth.
Utilize Positive, Supportive Self-Talk
Monitor the conversations you have with yourself. If you repeatedly tell yourself, “This will never work,” or “Everyone is going to laugh at me,” you’re going to feel bad about yourself.
When you catch yourself being overly critical or making negative predictions about your chances of success, stop and ask, “What would I say to a friend who was thinking this?” Chances are, you’d likely offer some compassionate words of encouragement. For some reason, it’s much easier to be kind to others than it is to be kind to ourselves.
But self-compassion can be key to helping you feel better about yourself. Speak back to those negative thoughts with a kinder, more compassionate statement, like “You can do this! Do your best and look people in the eye!” Changing your inner dialogue can shift your mindset over time so your brain will begin to recognize that you’re more capable and competent than you give yourself credit for.
Everything You Need to Know About Self-Esteem
Act as If You Feel Confident
Changing the way you think isn’t always enough to change your deep-rooted beliefs and feelings about yourself. It’s also important to change your behavior. A common therapy strategy is to “act as if.” So in your case, it would be to “act as if you felt confident.”
Ask yourself, “What would a confident person do right now?” It might be as simple as shaking hands, introducing yourself, or volunteering to go first.
When you take action first, your feelings often follow. Acting confident shifts your mindset and can help you feel more confident about yourself.
Make sure you’re doing things that help you feel good in the big picture, too. Try new things, meet different people, and challenge yourself in healthy ways. And remind yourself, you don’t have to wait until you feel confident to get out there and do it.
Consider Talking to a Therapist
If you’re struggling to create changes on your own, talk to a therapist. A mental health professional can help you address the factors that affect your self-esteem so you can feel better. And feeling good about yourself is the key to reaching your greatest potential and living your best life.
Having a strong sense of self-esteem is important for your well-being. Take steps to make sure your surroundings and the people in your life help support your sense of self-worth. Treat yourself with the same kindness and encouragement that you would a close friend. Also, work on acting confidently even if you don’t feel confident in the moment.
Finally, consider talking to a mental health professional about your self-esteem issues. A therapist can help you address some of the thinking patterns that contribute to poor self-esteem and develop new coping mechanisms that support a positive sense of self.
Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast
Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares strategies that can help you learn to truly believe in yourself, featuring IT Cosmetics founder Jamie Kern Lima.
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