8 steps to rebuild your self-esteem after a setback
What happens if we experience a setback in our lives, our circumstances change and we lose what has been contributing most to our self-esteem? We may lose a job, a relationship may end, or our health, age or other responsibilities may prevent us from performing a role we once cherished or longed for.
Our level of self-esteem is determined by how we think and feel about ourselves. It is related to our sense of self-worth, that is how we value ourselves. Many of us have been conditioned since we were young (consciously or unconsciously) by those around us and society at large, to gain much of our sense of self-worth from external sources, that is the things we do or achieve (such as jobs), what we have (houses, material possessions) and what we are to others (such as partner, mother).
Often, we learn to look to others for approval through doing, having or being these things. We measure ourselves against others and this can dictate how we feel about ourselves. If so, when things seem to be going well in our lives and we are successfully ticking imaginary boxes of things we ought to have or be, it is easier for us to have a higher level of self-esteem.
However, when we experience a setback and lose any of these things, our self-esteem can take a hit. We can be called to fall back on a deeper and internal sense of self-worth that isn’t dependent on external validation. If this is something we have never really developed before, it is still something we’re able to uncover.
In recognising our own intrinsic sense of worth, a setback can become a transformational experience. It can positively impact the choices we make and how we go on to live our lives.
1. Accept how you feel
By acknowledging and honouring our feelings we are recognising that they matter. And therefore, we matter. It’s important to acknowledge the way we are feeling rather than try to ignore or dismiss it. Paradoxically, doing so often allows the feelings to change and to dissipate. Practices such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and mindfulness can help us in accepting and processing uncomfortable emotions.
2. Connect with your true self
Remember that you are not your thoughts or feelings. Our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, whereas we are like the sky experiencing it. The sky symbolises our true self, constant and unchanging. Learning to meditate encourages us to become the observer of our thoughts and feelings and to connect with our true self. It also gives us the space to sit and be with ourselves, without the need to do or achieve anything.
3. Shift your focus to what feels good
When we shift our attention towards what feels good rather than focusing on what doesn’t, we can start to access more positive feelings more regularly, which helps us to feel better about ourselves and our lives. Take some time each day to make a mental or physical list of three to five things you are grateful for and/or three to five things that felt good however small they seem (for example, “the feeling of sunlight on my face as I sat in the garden”).
4. Question your thinking
Become aware of the thoughts you have about yourself and how they make you feel. Start to recognise recurrent patterns and to question whether your thoughts about yourself and your situation are really true. When we notice and question unhelpful thoughts we can begin consciously to choose kinder, more helpful ones. This allows us to change our inner narrative so it is supportive, rather than critical and undermining, thereby transforming how we feel about ourselves.
5. Appreciate your qualities
Write down a list of your positive qualities – the things that you like about yourself that are unconnected to the responsibilities you have or roles you perform. Recognising such qualities helps to build a sense of what makes us unique. The list might include qualities such as “creative, thoughtful, playful, good sense of humour”.
6. Look after yourself
Proactively nurture and look after yourself. Explore the steps suggested here and other positive actions such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise (even if that is just gentle walking or restorative yoga), quality sleep and rest. Treat yourself as though you are a plant that needs loving attention in order to flourish and grow. Signal to yourself that you are worthy of your own love and attention. Doing so will have positive effects on your mood, physical, mental and emotional health.
7. Understand what really matters to you
When we understand what we value most in life, it will guide us to make choices that are right for us rather than what we think is expected of us. Consider what you currently enjoy doing or what experiences you have enjoyed in the past. Identify what was most meaningful in those experiences. For example, perhaps you enjoyed a cooking class and what made it enjoyable was learning new skills, being creative in the kitchen and making new friends.
Looking back, you may recognise that you weren’t always living in a way that satisfied your values in the past, for example in certain jobs or relationships. Going forward, let your values guide your choices in finding a life that is genuinely suited to you.
8. Dig deeper into your beliefs
Digging deeper reveals the beliefs underlying any critical thoughts and internal narratives. For example, you may have a deeply held core belief such as “I’m not good enough” which is affecting your self-esteem. Uncovering these beliefs means that you can start to question what is driving the negative thoughts and the feelings they evoke.
It is often helpful to work with a coach or therapist (or therapeutic coach) to do this. Tools such as NLP, hypnotherapy and EFT can help us to reprogramme our beliefs by engaging both our conscious and unconscious minds.