Hundreds of self-help books are published every year. If you check Amazon.com, you’ll find a whopping 5,000+ books under the sub-category of self-esteem.
The vast majority of these books will tell us why our self esteem & self confidence might be low and how to change it – particularly through the power of positive thinking and affirmations.
This, allegedly, is supposed to help us find more success in life.
Which in turn, is supposed to make us feel happy, confident, powerful, satisfied, effective and fulfilled.
Apparently, until recently, nobody bothered to check whether these ideas actually work. Because while the self-help movement brings in millions of dollars annually, it turns out their golden goose – self esteem, doesn’t lay golden success eggs the way we’ve long believed.
From Psychology Today:
“High self-esteem does not predict better performance or greater success. And though people with high self-esteem do think they’re more successful, objectively, they are not. High self-esteem does not make you a more effective leader, a more appealing lover, more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle, or more attractive and compelling in an interview.”
Ex-Greek oligarch and CTHC correspondent Sisyphus would agree, adding that his incredibly high self esteem landed him with a minimum wage, 168 hour-per-week job rolling a boulder up a cliff, and such a thing is not highly conducive to personal success.
There is a whole wide world of useless and counterproductive advice when it comes to building self-esteem – as in a serious smoke-enema sort of bad.
For instance, you may have heard that you should buy nice clothes or lose weight in order to improve your self esteem.
At first this advice seems somewhat sensible – because it works, sort of. It can give us a bit of a boost and make us feel better about ourselves.
But we might feel better initially, it’s not going to last. If our clothes are like some sort of self-esteem shield, then we’ve only made the improvement so long as we’re fashionable. We haven’t changed our internal state or our base levels of self worth.
Add to that the fact that the hedonic treadmill, the adaptive mechanism that helps us adjust to new circumstances, will quickly return us to our initial state.
At which point we have two options, feed the beast and buy new clothes, to repeat the cycle in a way that Sisyphus would understand all too well, or give up and feel defeated by the fact that we couldn’t buy our one-way ticket to self-esteem land.
Similarly, losing weight can have a superficially positive effect since the achievement of goals improves our sense of self-efficacy.
However, creating a connection between a certain weight and being worthy of feeling good about ourselves is a dangerous proposition.
We already have more than enough neurosis about what foods we should be eating in our society, we don’t need to add a self-esteem neurosis to the world of nutrition, dieting, health and fitness.
We should use and enjoy our bodies because we are our bodies, regardless of their shape or size. Those activities are the things that will truly build solid, lasting self esteem, more than maintaining a target weight (something we could easily lose) ever could.
The whole premise of the self-esteem movement is essentially about ego inflation. It doesn’t matter whether the tactic is buying clothes, losing weight, or telling our mirror “I’m a rather swell guy/gal” 100 times every morning.
This is where the whole “power of positive thinking” thing runs headlong into a smiling brick wall.
If our happy mantras don’t correspond with reality, then all that ego massage disappears as soon as our rigid corpse lands on the tarmac.
From Dr. Randy Patterson:
If the happy thoughts happen to be true, I have no problem with them. But most of the affirmations I hear are happy lies:
•I have all the resources I need to accomplish all of my goals.
•I can achieve anything I set my mind to.
•I’m perfect, just as I am.
•Everyone loves me.
These might be nice thoughts, and we might tell ourselves such things (or any variations). But if reality doesn’t agree, we’ve just wasted a bunch of time and energy that we could have put into something useful.
I don’t know about you, but I find that I feel worse when I lie to myself.
For instance, right now I’m learning Russian. I am a reasonably functional beginner, most likely rather average for an amateur language learner.
I could tell myself, “I speak fluent Russian” 100 times in the mirror every morning or write it in my journal.
Then, I would get out into the world and receive an unforgiving reality check in the form of copious vocabulary, complex syntax, and fast speech that would shatter my illusions of perfection.
I know, because I’ve tried.
It makes far more sense, if I’m going to tell myself anything, that if I work on my Russian every day, I will continually improve. (The popular affirmation “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better is bullshit because we don’t improve in every area every day – only in the areas we apply conscious effort).
But I think it’s best of all not to bother with the pep talk at all and do the work.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re learning Russian, cello, cake decorating, trying to pick up lady-boys, become Pope, or anything else. Pumping up your head with “I’m the best there ever was” in all its wonderful and strange forms is a recipe for disappointment.
So then, if conventional self esteem techniques and ego inflation aren’t the key to an eternal romp through daisy fields on the backs of silver unicorns, what is?
And if we feel badly about the state of our lives, how can we make positive change?
The answer, I think, is quite elegant.
If you want to feel good about yourself, then do good for yourself.
Forget the posturing, the hot air, the preening and self aggrandizing behaviors.
Get down to the nitty-gritty. The actions of happy, confident people.
Exercise, forgive your mistakes, eat well, bring joy to others, create something beautiful, do meaningful work, relax. These are the things that will make us feel good – and feel good about ourselves.
So without further ado, here’s a bullshit free list of things we can do to build permanent and real self esteem – the confidence that we can do what we set out to, and feel good about who we are:
Cultivate Ruthless Integrity: The closest thing we will ever find to a self-esteem hack is this: Say what you’ll do and do what you say.
This starts with what you tell yourself. If you say you’re going to wake up at 6 tomorrow. Do it.
If you say you’re going to go shopping after work, do it.
If you tell a friend you’ll meet them at 9:30, be there and don’t be late.
When we keep our word to ourselves and to others, our self esteem builds like crazy.
On the other hand, if we don’t keep our word, we undercut our self-worth by showing ourselves that our word doesn’t mean anything – that we are incapable of following through on our desires.
And it doesn’t matter how big or small the act is. Our subconscious mind doesn’t know if we’re talking about marathons or making dinner.
This is, for most people, an ongoing learning process. There are two main things we can to do aid our progress:
It turns our Yoda was right, if you want good self-esteem, then “do or do not, there is no try.” We don’t want to use words like might, would, could, should, and try. Use “will” and “won’t” instead.
So “I’ll try to be there at 6″ becomes either “I will be there at 6″ or “I won’t be there at 6.”Then, more importantly, is make fewer promises.
We habitually say things like “I’ll be there at such and such a time” or “I’ll do this or that” without really thinking about the truth of these statements. They’re simple speech habits we use unconsciously.
It takes a mature and confident mind to be able to say “I don’t know” when pressed for details. When will you be there? What will you do? Stick to the facts, and don’t over-promise.
For instance, when asked about what time we’ll get home from work, we could factually state that “work ends at six, and I will be on the highway by 6:10 and head straight home, but I don’t know when I’ll get there.”
By ceasing to make offhand, unreliable remarks and becoming someone who has ruthless integrity – only making strong statements about things they definitely will or won’t do, we can cultivate unshakable self confidence – not to mention the respect and trust of our peers.
Brush & Floss: As it’s not what we’d normally think about when talking about self esteem, this suggestion might sound silly at first.
Looking a bit deeper though, it becomes apparent that self-care is really the core of self esteem. If we feel good about ourselves, we are worthy of our own love and our own care.
And if we provide ourselves with such care, it sends our mind the message “I am important, I deserve this” in a way no affirmation can – because the action is the most accurate reflection of reality we can ever have.
In this way, we are also acting with integrity. We don’t have to tell ourselves we’re taking good care of our health if we already are.
Make Decisive Decisions: Confident people make most of their decisions quickly and then follow through on their choices.
Of course, some decisions – such as what university program to go into, whether to have a child, or whether to start a new career, deserve more attention.
However, a lot of us spend too much emotional energy deliberating over minutia.
This saps our strength and erodes our confidence, as worrying about whether each little decision is “right” takes a toll on our minds.
Making decisive decisions has the opposite effect. It sends the signal that we’re confident and in control of things, that we are capable of making good choices and the best of the situations that end up being less-than-ideal.
Again, notice that no self-talk is necessary. The actions we take speak volumes.
Sleep: If you want to feel good about the world and good about yourself, then getting enough sleep should be near the top of your priority list.
Memory, attention span, alertness, reaction time, reasoning skills, and creative thinking all suffer when we don’t get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation (even mild cases) also wrecks havoc with the hormones cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin, which can result in a loss of appetite control and increases the risk of type II diabetes
How are we supposed to cope with the stresses of life if we are putting ourselves in a compromised mental and physical state day after day?
How are we supposed to feel good about ourselves if we feel like crap all the time? No amount of positive thinking can overcome the chronic misuse of our bodies. We have to take care of our bodies if we want our mind to have a shot at a healthy, optimistic outlook.
Body Language: We’ve long known how the mind can shape the body and the power of positive thinking. But we’re just beginning to realize the depths of the power of the body to shape the mind.
I guess it should be kind of obvious, since our minds are a product of our bodies, and unable to function if our bodies aren’t performing well (like when we suffer from a lack of sleep)
Amy Cuddy goes into detail during her TED Talk:
Learn to Say No: Being able to turn down the demands and requests the world puts to us shows that we value our own priorities.
By saying no, we are giving ourselves the space to pursue the things that matter to us – which is one of the most important factors of building solid self esteem.
Healthy boundaries are equivalent to self-respect, and maintaining these boundaries will bolster our self esteem every time they are challenged and we resist.
That being said, we can’t say no to everything. It’s important to realize that when we do let something past our boundaries, it’s an experiment, not a failure. We still have the option to say no next time, and will be able to do so with more knowledge of the consequences of acquiescing.
Do What You Want: The first lesson Katia taught me and words I still hold dear (unlike most affirmations). Doing what we want most, making time for what matters, fulfilling those burning desires we have inside – those are the ultimate acts of integrity.
Achieving a goal we have is one of the best ways to build our sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and create joy.
This goes hand in hand with saying no – it’s the reason we bother to say no, because there are things we value that matter to us.
For instance, I love writing new material for this website, and that means that every day I say no to 5, 10, or 100 different opportunities to use my time.
Sometimes I do those other things, but every time I sacrifice what I want most for what the world expects of me, I feel badly.
On the other hand, every time I keep my integrity, I write, publish, connect with readers, and so on – I feel confident & powerful, as if the whole world is at my fingertips.
You might have to get back in touch with what it is you’re passionate about – because doing so will have the most invigorating effect on your self confidence.
While the self-help movement has made self-esteem out to be the foundation of personal success and then found an ass-backwards way to not achieving it, I think self-esteem has a more important purpose.
Or rather, self-esteem is more a reflection of our purpose.
Because we don’t build self-esteem in order to do great things or achieve success.
We build self esteem by doing great things – the things that make us feel good, happy, fulfilled.
By acting with integrity as it pertains to our innermost desires we can create all the self esteem, self confidence, and self efficacy we could ever ask for. And it will be in our power to build and control, not through affirming it, but by acting upon it – every day, so long as it takes.