How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

Experts offer tips that enable teenagers to boost their self-esteem.

Medically Reviewed by John M Goldenring, MD, JD, MPH on February 01, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Looking for ways to improve your self-esteem? You're not alone! It's normal to have doubts about yourself during adolescence.

Look what happened to "Lauren" (not her real name) when she dressed for PE the first day of school. As she tied her tennis shoes, she noticed she had on two different colored socks -- one pink and one white. She was mortified! What would the other students think when they saw her?

Lauren quickly took the socks off and stuffed them in the left pocket of her gym shirt. She hated attention of any type and hoped no one would notice. Yet when she walked into the gym and sat down, a boy who was always obnoxious stood up, pointed to Lauren, and said, "Hey, girl. Why is your gym shirt so lopsided?"

Lauren looked down. The stuffed socks in her pocket made her look very busty -- on her left side only. With tears running down her face, she stared at the floor until the teacher excused the class to run laps.

While Lauren normally had good self-esteem, the way she handled this embarrassing situation is typical of many teens, who may feel insecure in a large group or among people they don't know well.

What Is Self-Esteem?

According to Nathaniel Branden, PhD, noted author and expert on the subject, "self-esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness."

Basically, having healthy self-esteem means thinking as highly of yourself as you think of your friends and peers. Many people have become so used to negative feedback that we are more aware of our weaknesses than our strengths. Often, we cannot enjoy our successes -- no matter how large or small they might be -- because we think of ourselves as "failures."

Why Is Self-Esteem Important?

Healthy self-esteem plays a role in almost everything you do. Teens with high self-esteem have better relationships with peers and adults, feel happier about their accomplishments, and find it easier to deal with disappointments and failures. They are more likely to ask for help and support from family and friends. They're also more likely to do well in school, setting reasonable goals and accomplishing them.

As Branden notes, "Positive self-esteem is the immune system of the spirit, helping an individual face life problems and bounce back from adversity." So we can conclude that having high self-esteem is vital during the turmoil of your teenage years.

We all have a mental image of who we are, what we're good at, and what our strengths and weaknesses might be. This self-image plays a role in developing our self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem is based on your ability to assess yourself accurately, while still being able to accept and value yourself unconditionally.

Your daily experiences can certainly affect your feelings about yourself. The grade you get on an exam, how your friends treat you, the ups and downs in a romantic relationship -- all can have a temporary impact on your well-being.

For teens with good self-esteem, these daily "ups and downs" may lead to temporary fluctuations in how they think about themselves, but only to a limited extent. But for teens with poor self-esteem, these ups and downs may make all the difference in the world, leaving them feeling dejected and filled with negative self-awareness.

The good news is that self-esteem is something you can work on -- and improve.

How Can I Build My Self-Esteem?

Before you begin to improve your self-esteem, it's important to believe deep down that you can change it. Change doesn't necessarily happen quickly or easily, but it can happen. Consider the following tips:

  • Stop thinking bad thoughts about yourself. Instead, celebrate your strengths and achievements. Write down five things you do well, and tape it to your bedroom mirror. Read the list repeatedly until you can say these five things without thinking. Remember this list when you start to feel low, and use it to bring yourself back to reality.
  • Beware of perfectionism. Aim for accomplishments, even simple ones, rather than perfection.
  • Overlook your mistakes. Forgive yourself for your mistakes and see them as learning opportunities.
  • Stop putting yourself down. Don't beat yourself up for your weaknesses. Everybody has them.
  • Try new things. Be proud of new things you learn to do.
  • Start doing something for others. Try tutoring, volunteer work, or mentoring a younger student. When you feel like you can make a difference in the world, your self-esteem will soar.
  • Know what you can change, and accept the things you cannot change. There are certain "givens" in life, such as eye color, body type, and race. These are things we all must accept. But if you need to, say, lose weight or smile more, you can do something about it. Talk to your doctor about a healthy diet and exercise plan. Practice smiling in a mirror and challenge yourself to smile 25 times each day.
  • Stop the "stinking thinking." In other words, when you hear negative thoughts in your head, stop them. One way is to put a rubber band on your wrist. Each time you have a negative thought, snap the rubber band. Ouch! After awhile, you can "reprogram" yourself to avoid those negative thoughts.
  • Exercise daily. Exercise boosts endorphins, the body's natural opiates, which make you feel good inside. When you exercise daily, you'll ease stress and feel better about yourself.
  • Remember, no one can "make you" feel bad. Only you can make yourself feel bad!

In cases where emotional pain and self-criticizing habits are deep or long lasting, you might need the help of a counselor or therapist. Or, seek help from your primary health care provider, who can give you a referral to a therapist if needed. Mental health professionals can help teenagers change negative behaviors by teaching positive ones that help to boost self-image.

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SOURCES: Cool web site: "Self Esteem." web site: "How Can I Improve My Self Esteem?" The University of Texas at Austin's Counseling & Mental Health Center web site: "Better Self-Esteem." National Association for Self Esteem web site: "Review of Self-Esteem Research."

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