Esteem Building Techniques
The Mirror Exercise
This is one of the most powerful techniques to build self-esteem. I have been practicing this technique for many years and it has been the most important tool to my developing a high level of self-esteem. Its simplicity belies its power. Just do it as I present it and you will be pleasantly surprised by its effectiveness.
The exercise: From now on, every time you see your reflection in a mirror, you must:
- Smile even if you don’t want to. Fake a smile if necessary.
- Say one verifiably nice thing about yourself. That nice thing must be something that you 100% believe is true. That nice thing can’t be an affirmation (which is basically a lie that you tell yourself enough time until your inner mind believes it is true.) It must be one that you know, without a doubt is true about yourself. It can be something external, such as your great looks (if you really believe, 100% that they are great) or, preferably, an internal quality such as your being a loving person, highly intelligent, etc. That’s it…. other than….
- If you use the mirror to beat yourself up, you must come up with two nice things for every nasty one! Most people’s worst habit is beating themselves up and the best way of replacing a habit is doing another one more, hence rule #3.
This exercise accomplishes a couple of things. It very effectively builds self-esteem and because repeatedly smiling upon seeing one’s face will make the face become a trigger to a smile, it becomes an automatic recovery tool for when you are in a down-state or a funk. It is impossible to feel bad and smile at the same time, so that smile will break that down-state, giving you an opportunity to move to a better state.
Take the Win
There are opportunities to reinforce self-esteem that are regularly missed. What is even worse is that those opportunities are converted into negative reinforcers of lousy self-feelings due to inappropriate responses. I could have subtitled this section as, how to use compliments to reinforce good self-esteem. For people who are in the habit of putting themselves down, their usual response when given a compliment is to negate it. For example, when complimented on the beautiful tie or other pieces of apparel, they have to tell how they got it on sale or at a thrift shop or when thanked for providing some special service, respond with “Oh, it was nothing.”
The only appropriate answer to compliments is “Thank You!” They are not complimenting the manufacturer of that clothing, they are complimenting your tastes and your choices of clothing. To take the win, just acknowledge it with a “Thanks.” The same goes for compliments about things you do or did. Just say “thank you.” That makes the compliment yours.
Compare and Despair Rabbit Hole
One of the easiest ways to beat yourself up is to compare your insides with someone else’s outsides. It is a good example of the follies of attempting mindreading. The reason this is a disastrous endeavor is that what you observe about other people is what they want you to see. It does not necessarily match the way they feel. Assuming that their appearance or the things they own or tell you they are doing reflect their feelings about themselves or their feelings about all those goodies, accomplishments or, most important, themselves is pure folly. All you know is what you observe. You do not know any of the backstories. That apparently very successful entrepreneur might be upside down in debt attempting to keep that enterprise afloat and be on the verge of suicide though he appears to be happy, successful, and content. To then compare that assumption with your own feelings is a great way to instantly feel bad and less than.
If you understand the law of opposites this folly becomes even more apparent. The law of opposites is that what people must keep telling you or showing you about themselves is most probably the opposite of the way they feel about themselves. The bully is a wimp inside. The bully keeps people far enough away to never see the wimpishness or other failings.
I call this a rabbit hole because the more you try to evaluate your being by comparing yourself with other folks outsides, the more you will come out feeling like a loser and sink into that pit of despair. Winners only compare themselves today with themselves yesterday or some period ago and revel in the improvement.
Psycho-semantics are words that have a very different emotional or meta-message (the underlying message) than their dictionary definition. Emotionally they carry way more weight than one would think.
Try – The first and most important of these words is “try.” Although “try” is used with the general understanding that it is an attempt that will be carried through to completion, its meta-message is that the inner mind already knows that there will be little action attached to the attempt. The chance of success or even starting is very low.
When you hear yourself saying that you will “try” to do something, your inner mind is already discounting any chance of successful completion of the task. This one will be dead on arrival. When your friend tells you he will try to call you, don’t hold your breath. It is not going to happen. If he really wanted to call you, he would have said, “I will call you on Tuesday of next week.
I have banished “try” from my vocabulary when used as a synonym for “attempt.” It is OK to “try” on a new pair of shoes, but to “try” to clean my desk is a sign to me that I already know the negative outcome.
Should vs. Could – “Should” carries lots of emotional weight. Regardless of whether it is used as self-talk or by others about a suggested course of action for you, its meta-message is that if you do not do what is suggested, you are a bad person and ought to be ashamed. If you are already full of shame, “shoulds” can be counted on to reinforce those negative feelings.
The better choice is “could” because “could” has little or no emotional weight. It just suggests a choice, do it or not, it’s just a choice. If it doesn’t work out, there is no blame or shame. If doing it is important enough, you will just make another choice.
Must or Have to vs. Could or Choose to– These fall into the same area as “should” the meta (underlying) message is that not only do you have no choice, but if you do not do it or fail to achieve having done it, you are a bad person. Using “could” or saying, “I choose to” takes the emotional weight off of the thought.
Most people with low self-esteem are in the habit of putting themselves down. This is the habit of habits, and there is a whole section of this book devoted to overcoming it. Suffice it to say, negative self-talk is one of the most effective ways of maintaining a negative opinion of oneself. Some examples of negative self-talk include:
- Mislabeling positive experiences and accomplishments. I remember listening to a person sharing about a perfectly chaotic day he just had. He labeled himself as, “I was so crazy today!” and then went on to describe all the crazy things that happened and the difficult people and situations he had perfectly handled and through which he had exquisitely navigated. Instead of labeling the day as a crazy one, he called himself crazy. By mislabeling his skillful performance, he missed an opportunity to give himself some good props and take the win.
- Using negative outcomes and poor choices to beat up oneself. Have you ever said to yourself, “How stupid was I (or that)!” or “God, am I dumb!” or something similar? These are self-putdowns that reinforce loser feelings. The truth is that we learn through trial and error. Winners understand that what is labeled as failure is in fact just feedback. Pure and simple, it just didn’t work. No blame or shame, just a learning experience so that by better crafting the next attempt, there could possibly have a better outcome.
- Dismissing and down-playing compliments. This was already covered in the “Take the Win!” section, above.
Eliminating all negative self-talk will go a long way towards building a great self-image, especially if it is replaced with positive self-talk by giving oneself mini-compliments, maxi-compliments using the mirror exercise, and making sure to always take the win by merely saying, “thank you!
Many of us were raised with the idea that self-praise indicates a lack of humility. My Mother used to say, “Self-praise stinks!” anytime we gave ourselves credit or compliments. What a terrible thing to teach a kid! That robs a person of the basic tool for building self-esteem. If I am prohibited from recognizing my worth, I am beholden to others to tell me I’m OK. If the only way to get those good feelings is when others tell me or throw bits of praise, there is little opportunity to build internal self-love/esteem, and is a perfect setup for codependency.
Religions preach humility and 12-Step programs talk about busting/smashing the ego. Both of those concepts are misinterpreted as a prohibition for self-praise. Those concepts are about bragging about one’s abilities and obsessively needing to “one-up” everyone, which are activities that people with low or no self-esteem engage in to cover up how bad they feel about themselves. That is very different from being able to recognize and accept one’s positive values, achievements and accomplishments in a way that does not put down or trample on others.
There is an old Buddhist saying that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” What is meant is that the Buddha, being an enlightened soul, has achieved total self-love and acceptance and has no need for any recognition or praise from others. If you met the real Buddha on the road, you would not know he was the Buddha because he has no need to tell you. Therefore if you meet someone on the road who tells you he is the Buddha, he must be an imposter.
People with high self-esteem and self-love have little or no need for external recognition of their essence, therefore they can be understated in their dealings with others. Of course, props from others are nice, but not necessary. Actually, the ego that 12-Step programs refer to when they say there is a need to “smash the ego” is actually the bravado and braggery that are poor attempts to cover up and compensate for low self-esteem. The bully is really a wimp inside. The way to smash that ego and to be humble is to build up a strong, positive evaluation of one’s self. Humility is not subjugating one’s self to others but rather being comfortable enough in one’s skin to have the luxury of being able to support others in their journey toward self-love.
Doing Esteemable Acts
This is one of those long-recognized “good things” to do. In the Jewish religion, these acts are called Mitzvahs. They define a mitzvah as an act or deed that deserves a blessing. Now they frame mitzvahs and things to please God. More practically, these are acts that generate internal good feelings and greatly contribute to enhancing self-esteem.
There are two types of estimable acts, ones the recipient know about and ones done anonymously. Although both are worth doing, the second type, the anonymous ones, seem to benefit self-esteem the most. Most likely that is because they are totally without any chance of recognition or secondary gain from the recipient, so they are an absolutely pure good deed.
Change to a More Esteemable Appearance
I need to preface this section with the disclaimer that the following suggestions are strictly inner-focused. The only consideration that is important in deciding to adopt the suggestions is how they will affect your internal evaluation of yourself. Doing it just to win the approval of others could have a negative hit on your self-esteem.
Physical appearance has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. On a purely physiological level, how our clothing fits can directly affect our level of comfortability. An old Chinese proverb states, “If the shoe fits, the foot disappears.” That means the only time we are aware of our feet is when there is a degree of uncomfortability caused by ill-fitting shoes. Are your clothes ill-fitting or the cause of physical discomfort? If so, make the changes needed to eliminate those discomforts.
Now look in the mirror. Do you like what you see? Would you feel better about yourself if you were wearing a different style? What about your hairstyle”? Does it represent the way you would like to feel about yourself? Are you comfortable with your weight? These questions are designed to let you evaluate the relationship between your appearance and your self-acceptance. I attempted to ask the questions in a way that there was no assumed value in the answer. The bottom line here is that both our physical appearance and our choices of clothing and style play a very important role in our acceptance and love for ourselves.
I have had mixed feelings in writing this section because I know that a lot of our usual choices and evaluations of our appearance are driven by our buying into the norms of our environment. In a business environment where the norm is tie and jacket, one might feel mighty less than showing up in vacation clothes. Dressing appropriately for the environment, though, is the bare minimum. Let’s say that a tie and jacket are the prescribed dress. The point of this section is that wearing ill-fitting, wrinkled, and poorly color-matched tie, jacket, and slacks will be a very different feel than a well-tailored, smart, well-fitting outfit. Both are societally acceptable, though only the latter promotes internal good feelings.
There is an old, standard book called “Dress for Success.” Although the main thrust of that book is about dressing to influence others, I believe that what is really going on with those that follow the book’s dictates is that dressing up adds to self-esteem. This, in turn, automatically translates into the projection of certainty and confidence necessary for successful interactions with others.
It is time to take a physical inventory of yourself. This inventory is to evaluate how you feel about your current appearance. Is your current appearance supporting good feelings about yourself? If it isn’t then you just might take the steps to remedy that mismatch.
One last thought. All of the above really has to do with the topping on the cake. This is self-esteem building 201. The main focus has to be on the cake, of being able to look yourself in the eye and see yourself stark naked in the mirror and be able to like you, AS IS. If nothing else ever changed, if you never lost or gained another pound, to be able to say, “I really love and accept you, as is!” and mean it. With that solid foundation (the cake), the appearance enhancement stuff just adds to the good feelings. Without that solid foundation, all this outside stuff can easily become just another addiction. I used to have a gymaholic, bodybuilder client with a body most would kill for who never felt he had enough muscle because he was building muscle on top of an, “I don’t like me” foundation.
Perfectionism, the Perfect Self-Putdown
People with low self-esteem, usually are in the habit of putting themselves down and not giving themselves an even break.
Perfectionists are people with lots of loser feelings. Because perfection is an unattainable goal, to always be comparing oneself to perfection will always produce a failing evaluation which feeds back into a “see, I told you so! I will never win!” negative self-esteem. How to change this Habit of Habits is covered in detail in another section and as a separate section on my website, http://stage2recovery.com/the-habit-of-habits/
Self-hypnosis programs have assisted me and many of my clients in speeding up the process of self-acceptance. There has always been a bit of hoopla and mysticism surrounding hypnosis. It is totally unwarranted. Plain and simple, all hypnosis is, is allowing our outer mind (the conscious) to drift off into a pleasant trance state so that the inner mind, where all of our programmings hang out can become available for suggestions to change. Normally, the outer mind’s main function is to guard the inner mind against change, so consciously attempting to change inner thought is a long tedious process of constant repetition of the new behavior or thought until the inner mind finally accepts it as the new operating program. Hypnosis and self-hypnosis MP3 programs are very effective tools to directly and quickly reprogram the inner mind.
I have produced and marketed such MP3 programs for not only enhancing self-esteem, but also increasing self-confidence, improving the inner game of salesmanship, and maximizing physical potential. I used them myself, so I know they work.
©2017,rev. 2023, Jason Wittman, MPS, LAADC, CATC-IV
[Permission to reproduce this article is granted as long as this notice and the “About the Author and the copyright information is included.]
*About The Author*
Jason Wittman, MPS, LAADC, CATC-IV (aka Successful People’s Secret Weapon) is the former Executive Director of Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services, Inc. ( http://www.la-youth.org ) and has had a private practice as a Counselor and Coach for over 40 years. His practice, http://Stage2Recovery.com focuses on coaching and advising business and professional clients, who are recovering from alcoholism and addictions, to work and live at their exquisite best. He is an expert on teaching and coaching the “getting-on-living,” self-esteem building and spirituality parts of recovery. He has his master’s degree from Cornell University in counseling-psychology and is certified as a drug & alcohol counselor, a clinical hypnotherapist and a practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or