How To Improve Your Relationship With Yourself
We touched very slightly on the idea of self-esteem in a previous post, but you might think it’s strange that, in a post about connecting with others, I’ve left self-esteem skills until last. But the fact is, all of the skills we’ve looked at so far will contribute to improving your self-esteem and the way you feel about yourself. So in this final post, we’ll look at some additional things you can do to increase your self-esteem, and how this will have a positive effect on the way you interact and connect with the people in your life.
What Is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is essentially how you feel about yourself; if you have good self-esteem, you believe yourself to be an inherently good person. You are able to acknowledge that sometimes you make mistakes or do things you end up regretting, but even when that happens, you understand that it doesn’t reflect badly on who you are as a person. It simply means you’ve made a mistake or done something you regret. In other words, you’re human!
When someone has low self-esteem, on the other hand, he has a harder time seeing the good in himself. If you have poor self-esteem, making a mistake means that you are “stupid” or “worthless”; doing something that you regret later on means you’re “evil” or “unworthy.” In other words, having poor self-esteem leads to difficulties in separating who you are from what you do.
Self-esteem is different from self-confidence, and I find that people often confuse the two. You can have good self-esteem and not be self-confident, or you can have low self-esteem and still feel confident in certain situations. Self-confidence is more about your belief in your abilities than how you see yourself as a person. Rebecca, for example, doesn’t feel very good about herself as a person and believes that people will remain friends with her only if she does things for them—this is low self-esteem. However, let’s say Rebecca is really good at math, and so she’s really confident that she’s going to ace her math exam next week—this is self confidence. On the flip side, Rebecca’s selfesteem will hopefully increase over time, especially as her relationships improve; she’ll come to see that she has value as a person in and of herself, and not just for what she can do for people; she’ll come to love who she is and see that others love her as well. But even if Rebecca develops better self-esteem, there will still be times when she won’t have confidence in herself; for example, when she starts learning how to play volleyball, she might not be at all confident in her abilities.
To develop your self-esteem, it’s important to separate what you do from who you are. You can’t control whether you get on the cheerleading squad or the baseball team; what you can control is how hard you try, and your attitude (that is, how you talk to yourself and to others) about the outcome. It’s not effective to rely on external events to make you feel good about yourself or happy with who you are. We’ll look at this further in a moment when we discuss core values and their impact on selfesteem.
Your Journey So Far
Now that you know what self-esteem is, let’s take a look at the skills you’ve learned so far that will help improve how you feel about yourself.
Although it’s easier to be assertive when you already feel good about yourself and as though you deserve to tell others what you want and how you feel, communicating assertively will in fact improve how you feel about yourself. It’s kind of that “fake it till you make it” ide —the more you act as though you respect yourself and deserve respect from others, the more you actually will come to respect yourself and believe you deserve the respect of others!
Similarly, when you’re managing your emotions more effectively for example, doing things like acting opposite to your urge in order to reduce the intensity of your emotions, or acting from your own inner wisdom rather than allowing your emotions to control you as you used to—you’ll begin to see that you can make wiser choices, and you’ll start to believe in and respect yourself more.
Reducing Judgments and Increasing Self-Validation
This is a biggie: remember our discussion from a previous post about verbally abusing yourself when you’re self-judging? Well, if you’ve been practicing being nonjudgmental, you’ve probably found that you feel better about yourself, not just for not judging others but also because you’re being more gentle with yourself. Likewise, if you’re giving yourself permission to feel emotions that you would previously have judged yourself for, your self-esteem will be on the rise—but keep in mind, these are tough skills to practice, so even if you haven’t noticed a difference yet, keep at it!
Similarly, the more accepting you are of your reality, the less judgmental you’ll be; and the less judgmental you are, the more you’ll find that your self-esteem increases. Remember that fighting reality triggers a lot of anger and other emotional pain, and when you’re feeling these painful emotions on a regular basis, they’re bound to have negative consequences with regard to how you feel about yourself.
Not Acting on Urges
If you’ve stopped or at least reduced some of the unhealthy behaviors you were engaging in previously, this is of course going to make you feel better about yourself. Feeling as if you’re more in control and able to make healthier choices will improve your sense of self-respect.
You might be surprised that I’ve left mindfulness for last this time! But mindfulness, of course, is the overarching theme in everything I’ve just said: it’s being self-aware and using your inner wisdom to make healthier choices; it’s being accepting and nonjudgmental, and stopping the fighting; it’s acting effectively and being able to manage yourself rather than letting your emotions make the choices for you.
Improving Your Relationships Through All These Skills
And, of course, here’s the bottom line: When you’re using these skills, the people in your life are going to notice. They’re going to see that you’re making positive changes and, as a result, your interactions and connections with others will likely improve. When those interactions and connections improve, you’ll feel better about yourself, which will make you more able and willing to practice skills, which will help you feel better about yourself … and you can probably see the healthy, exciting direction this continues to go in!
And the good news is, there’s even more you can do to help yourself continue to move in this direction.
More Ways of Building Self-Esteem
Now that we’ve reviewed what you’ve already learned (and have hopefully started applying to your life) to help improve how you feel about yourself, it’s not a bad idea to stop for a moment to take stock: How do you feel about yourself? Do you love yourself? Do you like yourself? Do you dislike or even hate yourself? Have you started using any of the skills I just mentioned to help improve the way you feel about yourself? Are there other things you’ve been doing to work on this? If you’ve been consciously working to improve how you feel about yourself, how’s that going? Have you noticed any difference yet? When you’re thinking about these last two questions, it’s important to keep in mind that improved self-esteem, like so many other changes we try to make in our lives, doesn’t happen overnight. If you’ve noticed small (or even tiny!) changes, give yourself credit, keep doing what you’ve been doing, and look to see what else you can be doing that might be helpful.
Knowing Your Values
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t rely on external events to help you feel good about yourself, because you often don’t have control over those events. It’s not so much about whether you make the baseball team, but about trying your hardest and having a good attitude, even if the outcome isn’t exactly your ideal.
Acting in accordance with your values is what will make you feel good about yourself. So whether you get on the baseball team or not, if you gave it your all, and if it’s a value for you to try your best, you will feel good about yourself. You’ll probably still be disappointed if you didn’t make the team, but when you have good self-esteem, you won’t let that external event dictate how you feel about yourself as a person. And in the meantime, the skill to work on here to develop your self-esteem is being nonjudgmental toward yourself.
When you tell your boyfriend or girlfriend you don’t want to have sex yet, or you tell your friends you don’t want to try the drugs they were planning on getting this weekend, you might experience difficulties in your relationships. But when you have good self-esteem, you know that you deserve the respect you’re showing yourself by acting in accordance with your values, and you can feel good about yourself for doing this, even if it means you lose some friends or your partner breaks up with you. (When you don’t yet have good self-esteem, you can get there by telling yourself these things.)
Acting in accordance with your core values is about being the person you want to be, rather than giving in to the pressure of trying to be the person others might want you to be. And as you do this, over time, you will start to feel better about yourself as a person.
Taking an Attitude of Gratitude
This is a skill that can help you act according to your core values. Consider what your life might be like if you didn’t have what you have: your parents, your siblings, the place where you live, the friends you have, the school you go to, and so on. What would your life be like if you lived in a country ravaged by famine where you wouldn’t have to worry about getting into college, because you might starve to death before you turn eighteen? What would your life be like if you lived in a war-torn nation, where you wouldn’t have to worry about the fight you had with your friend yesterday, because when you woke up today you found his house had been blown up by a suicide bomber?
These examples might sound harsh. They are—but they are also reality for many people across the world. Thinking in this way can help put things back into perspective so that you can get a better handle on what really matters; and this can help you act in accordance with your values and be less judgmental. It can help you notice the things your parents are doing to support you, rather than focusing on the fact that they said no to your request to stay out after curfew this weekend. It can help you feel grateful for the one friend you do have in your life, rather than focusing on and judging yourself for the fact that you have only one friend. What are the things you’re grateful for?
Another skill that can help you increase your self-esteem is what we refer to as building mastery. This is about doing an activity that helps you feel a sense of pride or accomplishment; you feel good about yourself for what you’ve done. Because this skill is about the feeling rather than the activity, the activity or action that will lead to building mastery will vary from person to person. For Caitlyn, building mastery might mean going to all of her classes today; it might mean practicing a mindfulness exercise to help her manage her anxiety more effectively in the long run; or it could mean calling the new girl she met at school today and asking how her first day was. For Carter, building mastery might mean noticing when he’s starting to get angry and leaving the room instead of blowing up; it could mean playing his guitar; or it might mean starting to exercise.
The idea with building mastery isn’t the activity itself, but the feeling it brings you, so the activity could really be anything, as long as it gives you that feeling of accomplishment and pride in yourself for whatever it is that you’ve achieved. What might building mastery look like for you? Once you’ve identified an activity, don’t stop there! Ideally, you want to be doing one thing every single day that gives you this feeling; over time, this will help you increase your self-esteem.
Of course, the focus of this post being relationships, it’s important to mention that increasing the number of (and improving) your friendships—and relationships in general—is also going to help you feel good about yourself and improve your self-esteem. This is a big topic, so let’s start with what you’ve already got.
DEEPENING CURRENT RELATIONSHIPS
First of all, it’s important to realize that there are many different types of relationships and friendships. You might have acquaintances—people you know, but wouldn’t consider friends and don’t see them outside of their current context (for example, school or your martial arts club or the soccer league you play in).
Then you might have people you consider friends, but not close friends. These are the people you might call to go to the movies or the mall with you on the weekend, but they’re not people who know that you have social anxiety, or that your parents are talking about separating, or any of the other really difficult things going on in your life because you don’t feel comfortable sharing that much with them.
That brings us to your supports. Hopefully you have at least one person you can confide in and talk to, even if you don’t do this all the time—that is, you know that person is there for you if you need him. I’ve purposely labeled this as “support” to be general, because this person could be a friend but it could also be a teacher, coach, or guidance counselor; it could be a parent or your sibling; it could be a religious leader, a therapist, or a close family friend really, it could be anyone. So think for a moment about the supports you have in your life.
If you’re a person who doesn’t have many friends or support people, it’s important to work on increasing this group. As humans, we are social creatures; we’re not meant to be alone, and being socially isolated is unhealthy for us both emotionally and physically. So keeping this in mind, I hope that you will consider making a commitment to working on this as a goal for yourself.
If you’re able to make this commitment, the first step is to consider how you might deepen any existing relationships. Consider your acquaintances—the people you play sports with, go to school with, work with, are on the debate team or in Spanish Club with—and think about whether there is someone with whom you might be able to form more of a connection. Maybe there’s someone who had reached out to you once before, but because of your social anxiety you declined the invitation to the movies; or maybe there’s someone you regularly sit beside at band practice, so it wouldn’t seem that out of the ordinary if you tried to talk to him a bit more. This is typically the easiest place to start, so give it some thought and see if you can set a small goal for yourself. If you draw a blank here, of course, there are other options.
REKINDLING OLD FRIENDSHIPS
If you can’t think of a way to deepen a connection with someone already in your life, here’s your next thing to consider: is there anyone you used to be closer to and could consider reconnecting with? It’s important to recognize that friendships wax and wane sometimes you’re close to a person, and then for whatever reason you drift apart. That doesn’t mean the friendship is over; there wasn’t necessarily a falling-out. It just means that your lives headed in different directions. And just because this happened doesn’t mean you can’t reconnect with that person and develop a friendship with him again. So think about it: is there anyone in your life who fits the bill?
If so, consider how you might go about reconnecting. Social media? E-mail? A phone call? Maybe he’s still in your chemistry class and you can just go talk to him. Now’s the time to practice mindfulness, of course: Don’t think about how your reaching out might look to the other person. As best as you can, stay in the present, rather than worrying that your old friend will think it’s weird that you’re suddenly seeking him out. When you notice yourself trying to anticipate his reaction, bring yourself back to the here and now. This is about being more effective in your life, and better relationships through reconnection are a possibility, so you owe it to yourself to give reconnecting a chance.
Having said all that, of course, keep in mind that you can’t control the outcome, and here’s where your values come into play. Give it your best shot, treat yourself and your old friend respectfully, and work on being okay with the outcome, whatever it is. Worst case scenario, he becomes angry with you, maybe says something hurtful and walks away; but best-case scenario, you might rekindle an old friendship and have someone playing a closer role in your life.
LOOKING FOR NEW FRIENDSHIPS
If you can’t think of anyone you might want to deepen a relationship with or rekindle a friendship with, your last option—and often the most difficult—is to look for new friendships. I say this is often the most difficult because it involves going out of your comfort zone even further and meeting new people.
How might you do this? Sign up for a new activity at school that will get you interacting with people you don’t know—join a drama club or an outdoors club; sign up to be on a fundraising committee. Or join an activity outside of school altogether—go skating at the community center; join a gym or sign up for classes at a dance school. Once you get into the activity, of course, you need to work hard on developing new relationships. Think about ways you can break the ice and start talking to others. Of the people you meet, consider who might have the potential to be a new friend, and when you do meet someone with potential, think about how you can purposely nurture this new connection.
You might be surprised at how far a simple smile can go. Smile at others and pay attention to the results: Do people smile back? Do they initiate conversations? Once you’ve smiled at someone and that person has smiled back, you might find that it tends to happen again the next time you see each other. Notice this. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re smiling at others, and when they smile in return.
It’s also important to remember that not everyone is going to like us, and we won’t like everyone. This sometimes takes a lot of acceptance, and again goes back to core values—even if you don’t like someone, work on treating him with respect. Remembering that everyone wants to be happy and is trying to be happy can help you understand others and their behavior.
Nurturing Your New Relationships
Once you’ve started to develop new friendships or to rekindle old ones, remember that they take work; you need to continue to nurture the relationships so they turn into healthy ones.
Setting Healthy Limits
In a previous article we looked briefly at how important it is to set healthy limits in order to have healthy, satisfying relationships with others. Setting healthy limits is about having a good balance of giving to and taking from others, rather than regularly doing one or the other, which burns the relationship out. In another post we talked in depth about how being able to communicate assertively will help you set and stick to healthier limits for yourself. You might want to go back and review both these sections to remind yourself of how important it is to set limits and communicate assertively in order to maintain healthy interactions.
If you can be healthy in your new friendships from the get-go, your life will be much easier and your interactions will go more smoothly, because these expectations are set out from the beginning. Think of it this way: we essentially train others (just as they train us) how to be in relationships with us. So if you meet someone and begin to develop a relationship with him, and come to feel that, like Rebecca, you need to bend over backward to do things for him in order to get him to want to become friends with you, you’re teaching him that you will be the primary giver in the friendship, and that you’ll often not want anything in return. Remember, the key for healthy relationships is balance—you want to give and take—so as best as you can, teach your new friend what that balance will look like. Sometimes you’ll offer him a ride home from hockey practice, and sometimes you’ll want him to drive. You’ll buy coffee this week, and next week you’ll remind him it’s his turn. This is balanced; this is healthy.
Balancing Enjoyable Activities with Responsibilities
A final, important word here about working to maintain balance in your life and in your relationships: this is about balancing the things you do for yourself and the things you do because others demand them of you. Often we end up in conflict with others because the things we want to do for ourselves conflict with the things others want us to do; for example, Carter wants to practice with his new band, and Merrin wants him to spend an evening with her; Rebecca wants to sleep in, and her mother wants help with the grocery shopping.
Our world nowadays is a busy one and, as a teen, your life is probably super busy: between attending school and doing homework, trying to get some extracurricular activities in, doing volunteer work so your resume looks good for college, getting your chores done at home, maybe working a part-time job so you have some extra money, spending time with friends, reading this post your parents gave you to help you be more effective in your relationships… The list goes on and it can be really difficult to fit everything in. And although it’s difficult, it’s important to work to fit in both the things you want to do and the things you have to do. The good news is, the skills you’ve learned can really come in handy here, because they help you find a balance.
You can’t be doing only the things you want to do, of course. Everyone has responsibilities, and in fact it’s necessary for us to have responsibilities in order to feel needed and as though we have a purpose, and to be fulfilled in life. But of course, we also need to have things we do just for ourselves, because we want to do them they’re enjoyable, fun, relaxing, calming for us. If we didn’t have these things, we’d be overwhelmed in life. Use your assertiveness skills to help you say no to demands that others are putting on you when you need to do something for yourself. But also use your wisdom to decide when you need to make a sacrifice for the health of your relationships. Remember balance: it can’t always be about you, and it can’t always be about the other person. And the more you work on finding this balance, the better you’ll feel about yourself as you treat yourself and others with respect and dignity.
Your Next Steps
To continue with our theme of self-esteem in this post, here’s a mindfulness exercise that helps you feel good about yourself and also helps you remind yourself of your values. This is called a loving kindness meditation, and it helps you focus positive thoughts on yourself. (You can also direct it toward others.)
Exercise: Loving-Kindness Meditation
Find a place to sit where you’ll be comfortable and able to focus. Start by bringing your attention to your breath—don’t try to change it; just notice how it feels to breathe. Slowly, deeply, and comfortably, focus on your inhalations and exhalations. As you focus on your breath, allow yourself to connect with positive emotions—feelings of compassion, gentleness, kindness, and friendliness. These are the emotions that might come up when you see a person you really care about, when your pet climbs into your lap, or when you do something nice for someone for no particular reason.
Focus on the warmth and kindness you experience toward others; imagine those feelings right now, as though they were happening in this moment, and let yourself feel the joy, love, and other pleasurable feelings that come up for you. As you experience these feelings of kindness and caring, gently say the following words to yourself, directing them toward yourself:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be safe.
You can think these words to yourself in your head, or you can say them out loud; either way, make sure that, as best as you can, you really feel the words as you say them and you put feeling and meaning into each one. If it’s difficult for you to feel kindness toward yourself, remember that habits take time to change, and as best as you can, don’t judge yourself or the exercise; just know that this is something you’ll need to spend more time on.
Make sure that you practice this exercise regularly, and you’ll find that you’re able to take a kinder, more loving, and gentler attitude toward yourself. Over time, this will help you to be less judgmental toward yourself, to validate the emotions you’re feeling, to accept your reality—whatever it is—and to increase your self-esteem.