4 Surefire Ways to Boost Self-Esteem, According to Science
In her popular TEDx Talk, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion,” Neff explains that we’re tough on ourselves in part because we believe self-criticism is what keeps us from being lazy and self-indulgent. In fact, the opposite is true. Over more than a million years of evolution, our brains have been programmed to attack any problems we encounter; this dates back to when threats to our success (i.e., basic survival) were physical in nature. Today, it’s not our selves so much as our self-concept that’s under siege; when we become overly critical, Neff explains, we act as “both the attacker and the attacked.” This can increase stress and may trigger depression. “Most of us know how to be kind, caring, understanding people,” says Neff. “We’re just not used to treating ourselves that way.”
1. Boost Self-Esteem by Cutting Yourself Some Slack
Imagine a good friend accidentally switched the a.m. to p.m. on her alarm clock and missed a major appointment. Or that same friend lost the election for condo board president. You’d probably comfort this person and explain that setbacks and screw-ups are just part of life. Now imagine the person in need of a supportive shoulder was not your friend, but you.
“We tend to be so much harder on ourselves than we are on our friends,” says Kristin Neff, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas and the founder of the emerging field of self-compassion. A cousin of confidence rooted in Buddhist practices, this approach encourages people to boost self-esteem by viewing hardship and failure as reasons to be kinder to ourselves, instead of more critical.
2. Boost Self-Esteem by Treating Yourself with Care
Practising self-care can help to boost self-esteem. In her self-compassion seminars, Neff teaches how to become a good friend to yourself. Step one is simply taking notice of your behaviour: how do you talk to yourself when things aren’t going well? What words are you using? What tone have you adopted? For some, that means keeping a journal; others prefer to check in with themselves throughout the day.
Many attendees of Neff’s workshops are aged 50 and up—representative of the number of people who have a tenuous grasp on their self-worth as they move into the so-called golden years, when validating factors like career advancement are in shorter supply. The good news, she notes, is that it’s easier to adopt a warts-and-all appreciation of your situation at 60 than it is at 16: “After you’ve knocked around for long enough, you start to realize life is imperfect, and you’ve learned a lot from your failures, so why would you beat yourself up?”
In times of stress or self-doubt, Neff suggests touch as an effective technique for triggering compassion—giving yourself a gentle hug or putting your hand on your heart to feel the sensation of warmth. “It may seem awkward or embarrassing at first, but your body doesn’t know that,” she explains, noting that as mammals, we instinctively receive comfort via physical contact. “Research indicates that touch soothes distress and calms cardiovascular strain.”
3. Boost Self-Esteem by Getting Involved
According to a 2014 Concordia University study, when self-esteem decreases in older adults struggling with sadness, anxiety or loneliness, the stress hormone cortisol increases. This can lead to a host of medical issues, such as cardiovascular disease. But that same study also found that when you boost self-esteem in seniors, you may be able to protect them from experiencing psychological distress and health problems.
According to Sarah Liu, a co-author of the study, volunteering can be a great way to boost feelings of usefulness and combat loneliness. She is an advocate of intergenerational programming, an initiative pairing seniors with adolescents—two vulnerable populations who can help each other.
Back in 2002, Joan Jordan was floundering, having suffered a spinal injury five years earlier, when she was 50, that left her feeling isolated and useless. Then one day, through the efforts of Toronto Intergenerational Partnerships, she joined a dozen or so seniors and a group of Toronto high-school students for lunch, conversation and board games.
While playing Scrabble, Jordan recalls, her young opponents seemed stymied by some words. “I teased them about what they were teaching in school these days. We laughed, and I was able to explain what the words meant.” Being able to impart wisdom made Jordan—a lifelong bookworm—feel valued. She returned to the group the following week and, before long, joined Toronto Intergenerational Partnerships as a volunteer; eventually, she became a board member.
4. Boost Self-Esteem by Embracing Your Failures
In her practice as a self-esteem coach, Heather Walter preaches the importance of taking responsibility for our own outcomes. “Our minds are conditioned to suss out strategies and options [to achieve the things we want],” says Walter. When we blame others and feel powerless, she adds, we feel we have no options. To boost self-esteem, the Whitby, Ont., counsellor will have clients make a list of the things that bring them joy (gardening, for instance, or calling a friend) and schedule an activity they like into each day. “There’s a connection between our emotions and our thoughts,” she says. In other words, if you’re mired in negative feelings, you tend to view the things that happen to you through a negative lens.
Vancouver-based inspirational speaker Danielle LaPorte is also a proponent of actively managing our lives—and emotions. In her new book, White Hot Truth, she urges her readers to focus on respecting themselves, rather than striving to please others. “I always say that most people should respond ‘no’ to 80 per cent of the requests they receive,” she says, adding that this simple act of self-compassion provides an instant boost. Over time, clearing the deck lets us focus on accomplishing things that matter to us.