Building Healthy Self-Esteem

One summer afternoon, many years ago, a colleague of mine confided to me, “I have really, really ugly legs. Bad, bad-looking knees.” We were sitting in the hospital garden having lunch and talking about work, and I wasn't sure I’d heard her correctly. By most accounts, this woman had a bubbly personality, a sunny smile, and a pretty normal looking body (whatever that means). She was also professionally accomplished, had a loving family, etc. etc. To be quite honest, she had worn a skirt to work on a number of occasions, and I had never noticed her legs one way or the other. Quickly I glanced down at them, and then looked her in the eyes. I said, with no flattery intended, “I really don’t see what you’re talking about.” Mind you, I was probably much more aware of my hair at that moment – which was an odd combination of flatness and frizz from the humidity, a stray tendril clinging moistly to my temple. Not exactly my most camera-ready look.  I’ve had lifelong hair angst, but have surrendered to the fact that it will never be thick, lustrous, well-behaved, shampoo-ad type of hair. And at this point, it doesn’t really bother me all that much. Truly. But it did throughout my adolescence and teens and probably through college as well. I tortured it with highlights and perms and had numerous hair disasters along the way.

As I think of my own stuff, as well as the stuff of my friends, colleagues, family and patients, I am aware that most everyone has something about them that challenges their sense of self-confidence. The degree of one’s distress about a body part or skill or other issue need not be based on consensus opinion, and can cause deep wounds over time. Examples include the heavy (or thin) person who believes they need to lose weight to feel okay (the majority of external complaints I hear); the student who believes if they do not receive the top score, they will be a total failure; the single person who worries that their unpaired status proves that they are not really lovable; the professional who believes that they will “matter” when they’ve crossed a certain earning threshold, and the like. Although for some, the internal insecurities feel arguably less obvious than the physical ones, they are no less powerful at shaping what we think we are worth.

As this summer gets off to a slow, wet (in the New York City area, anyway) start, it creates for many a small delay before the beach/shorts/tank top anxiety kicks in. For the uncomfortably single, the abundance of summer weddings that prompt bride-friends to ask, “Are you seeing anyone?” can feel like a spotlight shining on one’s life status. And the Facebook postings from friends gushing about their latest exotic vacation can highlight the feeling of being one of the “have-nots.”

It’s cliché to say that self worth “comes from within,” but few statements are more true, I believe. After all, there are plenty of well-known beautiful/successful/partnered/wealthy public figures who confess to feeling like “something is missing.” Putting all of our eggs in the basket of others’ opinions sets us up for perpetual anxiety and minimizes the value of our own abilities to assess how we’re really doing. So although it’s normal to have aspects of ourselves that we may feel are less than thrilling, when these things interfere with our ability to accept who we are, or interfere with our social or emotional functioning, it’s time to address the issues head on. Here are some thoughts about how to begin to reevaluate what’s important for us, nurture ourselves more, and rely less on outside validation or internal comparisons with others:

  1. Ask yourself, “What is it that I value?” Another way to phrase this may be, “What qualities do I admire in others.” Even if we may envy someone’s swanky pad or trim thighs, chances are, what we respect about them has a lot more to do with how they conduct themselves, what’s important to them, and how we feel when we are with them. Is this person charitable? Kind? Loving? Helpful? These qualities are likely the ones we, too, possess, or would like to further develop in ourselves.
  2. Once you have answered the above, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to live in accordance with what I value?” For example, if you value charity, find ways in which you can be charitable. This could be through formal volunteer work or by helping out a friend or loved one. There is a good reason that people all over the world know who Mother Teresa was, and why no one ever mentions her thighs or hairdo. Her charity and service to others were legendary.
  3. Practice (self) forgiveness. Often it feels safer to consciously focus on something external or material that seems “not good enough,” and not on the things we wish we’d done differently. I emphasize to patients that making mistakes is a normal part of learning. No one learns to walk right out of the womb – we first learn to sit up, and crawl, and toddle  - falling innumerable times – before we can walk, and run, and play! Acknowledge what you’d like to do differently now – the only time period in which we can act to make things better.
  4. Set goals that are discreet, measurable, and in accordance with what you value. Leave room for goals that are fun when possible. Realizing you can accomplish the things you set out to do – even mundane things – is part of how we build self-esteem.
  5. Ask yourself each day, “For what am I grateful?” Everyone – and I do mean everyone, if they are willing, can find at least one small thing each day for which they can be thankful. Even when things seem bad, we can be grateful for someone’s kindness, for some part of our body that works (even if we are ill), for the sun shining, for the lessons we can learn even from the difficult people in our lives, etc.
  6. Visualize yourself shedding the harsh, outdated ideas about yourself that you (really!) no longer need. They actually don’t do any good. See yourself feeling as you’d like to feel, doing the things that are most meaningful to you. Imagery and self-hypnosis can be very powerful tools to this end. My self-hypnosis programs, “Healthy Self-Esteem” and “Self-Esteem during Sleep” can help change the negative “trance” of feeling “not good enough” and help you move forward, creating more of the life you really want.
  7. If you find yourself needing additional help with the ideas mentioned above, it’s worth consulting with a mental health professional.

Reflecting on these suggestions can help us to put things in perspective, create evidence of success, and bring attention to some of the positive things we may have overlooked in our lives.

Be well!

For more information about Dr. Traci Stein, and to read her health-related articles, follow her on Facebook (, Twitter (@DrTraciStein), or visit her blog: