How to Let Go of Shame and Build Self Esteem
Shame is one of the most destructive and debilitating emotions humans can feel and occurs when people feel bad about themselves in comparison to their standards for themselves as well as those of society.Feelings of shame can lead people to engage in self-destructive and risky behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse, and can also cause long-term physical and emotional problems, including bodily pain, depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety.However, you can avoid this path entirely by making a concerted effort to let go of shame and instead value yourself and your contributions to the world. It's important to remember that you are so much more than just the one thing you may have done, said, or felt.
Letting Go of Shame
Give up the pursuit of perfection.Trying to be perfect in any one part of our lives is an unrealistic expectation and it sets us up to feel low self-worth and even shame when we don't measure up.The idea of perfection is a social construction produced by the media and society that suggests we can be perfect if we look, act, and think a certain way, but this is not a reflection of reality.
- We all have ideas, thanks to society and the media, about what we "should" do and who we "should" be. You need to let go of these beliefs and, indeed, try to avoid putting stock in the word "should". "Should" statements imply that there is something you ought to be doing or thinking and that if you're not, something is wrong with you.
- Holding yourself up to impossibly high standards that you can never meet will only create a vicious cycle of shame and low self-esteem.
Avoid rumination.Rumination of negative feelings can lead to inappropriate levels of shame and self-loathing. Research has suggested in fact that ruminating on your feelings of shame can lead to depression, social anxiety, and even increased blood pressure.
- In general, people tend to ruminate more over something that happened to them in a social context, such as a public presentation or performance, rather than a private experience, like a fight with a spouse. In part, this is because we care deeply about the opinions of others and worry especially that we have embarrassed or shamed ourselves in view of others. This causes us to dwell and get stuck in self-shaming and negative thinking.
- Remember that rumination is easy to fall into, but doesn't actually solve anything or make the situation better. In fact, it can make everything worse.
Show yourself compassion.If you feel yourself in danger of ruminating, nurture self-compassion and kindness. Be your own friend. Instead of berating yourself and engaging in negative self-talk (i.e., "I'm stupid and worthless"), treat yourself as you would a friend or other loved one. This requires careful observance of your behavior and the ability to step back and realize that you would not let a friend engage in this kind of self-destructive thinking.Research has suggested that self-compassion has numerous benefits, including mental well-being, increase life satisfaction, and decreased self-criticism, among others.
- Try journaling. When you feel the urge to ruminate, instead write a compassionate paragraph to yourself that expresses awareness of your feelings but also recognizes that you are simply human and that you are deserving of love and support. Even just 10 minutes of this expression of self-compassion can make a positive difference.
- Develop a mantra or habit that you can draw on when you feel a dwelling spiral about to happen. Try putting your hand on your heart and saying, "May I be safe and kind to myself. May I have ease of both mind and heart." In this way, you are expressing true care and concern for yourself.
Avoid focusing purely on the past.For many people, shame paralyzes them in the present; it makes them anxious, fearful, depressed, and cause feelings of low self-worth. However, it's important that you let the past be the past; you can not change or undo the past, but you can choose how your past affects your present outlook and future. Leave your shame behind as you forge ahead to a better life.
- Change and transformation is always possible. This is one of the beautiful things about the human condition. You're aren't beholden to your past for all eternity.
- Remember that life is about the long haul, and that you can always bounce back from a tough period.
Show flexibility.Try to avoid responding to your experiences with "all or nothing" thinking or judgment. This kind of thinking only creates tensions between the expectations we hold for ourselves and what's actually possible. So much of life isn't black or white but gray. Be aware that there are no true "rules" for life and that people behave and think differently and live their own variation of the "rules".
- Be more open, generous, and flexible about the world and try to refrain from passing judgement on others. Cultivating a more open attitude about how we view society and the people within it often reverberates back into how we think of ourselves. Over time, you may be willing to let go of some of those rigid judgments that result in feelings of low self-esteem and shame.
Let go of the influences of others.If you have negative thoughts in your head, it’s possible you have people around you who giving fodder to those same types of negative messages about you, even close friends and family. In order to let go of shame and move forward, you'll need to minimize "toxic" individuals who bring you down rather than lift you up.
- Consider the negative statements of others to be 10 pound weights. These weigh you down and it becomes more difficult to bring yourself back up. Free yourself from that burden and remember that people cannot define who you are as a person. Only you can define who you are.
Cultivate mindfulness.Research has shown that mindfulness-based therapy can facilitate self-acceptance and help reduce shame. Mindfulness is a technique that invites you to learn to observe your emotions without heightened emotions. In other words, you open yourself up to the experience in a non-reactive manner, rather than trying to avoid it.
- The principle of mindfulness is that you need to acknowledge and experience the shame before you can let it go. Mindfulness is not easy because it means becoming aware of the negative self-talk that often accompanies shame, like self-condemnations, comparisons with others, etc. However, the task is to acknowledge and recognize shame without getting caught up in or giving power to those emotions that arise.
- Try to find a quiet space to practice mindfulness. Sit in a relaxed position and focus on your breathing. Count the inhales and exhales. Inevitably, your mind will wander. When this happens, don't chastise yourself but take note of what you are feeling. Don't judge it; just be aware of it. Try to bring attention back to your breath, as this is the real work of mindfulness.
- By acknowledging but de-centering your thoughts and not letting them take over, you are learning how to cope with negative feelings without actually trying to change them. In other words, you are changing your relationship to your thoughts and feelings. Some people have found that in doing this, eventually the content of your thoughts and emotions changes (for the better) too.
Embrace acceptance.Accept the things you cannot change about yourself. You are who you are and that's fine. Some studies have shown that acceptance can help individuals step out of a cycle of shame and move forward onto more functional ways of living.
- You will have to accept that you cannot change the past or go back in time. You have to accept yourself as you are today, right now.
- Acceptance also involves acknowledging difficulty and showing awareness that you are able to withstand painful feelings in the present moment. For example, say, "I know I feel bad now, but I can accept it because I know emotions come and go, and I can work to resolve my feelings."
Focus on the positive.Instead of spending your time feeling shame for not measuring up to your or anyone else's standards, focus on all of your accomplishments and achievements. You'll see that you have lots to be proud of and that you offer real value to the world and to yourself.
- Consider writing down your achievements, positive attributes or things you like about yourself, and the ways in which you have helped others.You can write in a freestyle manner or create a list of different categories. See this exercise as never-ending; always add to the list as you do new things, such as graduate from school, rescue a puppy, or win an award. Also drawn attention to things that make you happy with yourself; maybe you like your smile or like that you are goal-directed.
- Return to your list whenever you have doubts or feel that you are not measuring up. Recalling all of the things that you have done and continue to do will help you build a more positive self-image.
Extend a helping hand to others.There is significant research indicating that people who help others or volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not. It may seem counter-intuitive that aiding others helps you feel better about yourself, but the science suggests that connecting with others increases our own positive feelings about ourselves.
- As a bonus, helping others makes us happier! In addition, you will also be making a real difference in someone's world. Not only will you be happier, but someone else might also be as well.
- There are so many opportunities out there to get involved with others and make a difference. Consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Offer to coach a children's sports team during the summer. Step in when a friend needs a hand and make them a bunch of meals to freeze. Volunteer at your local animal shelter.
Offer daily affirmations.An affirmation is a positive statement that is intended to build your confidence and encourage you. Offering yourself positive affirmations each and every day works to restore your sense of self-worth as well as increase the compassion you show for yourself. After all, you probably wouldn't treat a friend the way you treat yourself; instead you'd show them compassion if they expressed feelings of guilt or shame. Do the same for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Set aside time each day to say aloud, write, or think affirmations. Some examples include:
- "I am a good person. I deserve the best even if I have done some questionable things in my past."
- "I make mistakes and I learn from them."
- "I have lots to offer the world. I have value to myself and to others."
Know the difference between opinions and facts.For a lot of us, it can be hard to separate out opinions from facts. A fact is a true statement that is irrefutable, while an opinion is something you think that may be based on some facts but is not itself a fact.
- For example, "I am 17 years old" is a fact. You were born 17 years ago and have the birth certificate to prove it. There is no challenging that fact. However, "I'm stupid for my age" is an opinion, even if you might seem to offer evidence confirming this, like not being able to drive or not having a job. However, if you think more carefully about this opinion, you can evaluate it more critically. Maybe you can't drive because your parents work too much and haven't had time to teach you or you can't afford driving lessons. Maybe you don't have a job because you spend your after-school time looking after your siblings.
- Thinking more carefully about the opinions you hold will help you realize that negative opinions can often be reevaluated with a closer look at the details.
Appreciate your own uniqueness.When you compare yourself with others, you are cheating yourself out of valuing your own individuality. Remember, you are a unique individual and you have a lot to offer the world. Put your shame behind you, and shine like you were meant to shine.
- Focus on highlighting your individuality and those neat things that make you you, rather than hiding behind a veil of social conformity. Maybe you like mixing quirky clothes and patterns together in your self-presentation. Maybe you have a passion for Europop. Maybe you're really skilled at building things with your hands. Embrace these aspects of yourself, rather than try to hide them; you might be surprised (and impressed!) at what kind of innovations can come from honing in on your particular skills and thoughts. After all, Alan Turing, Steve Jobs, and Thomas Edison, were all individuals whose uniqueness helped foster their exceptional discoveries and contributions.
- Nowhere is it written that you HAVE to look like everyone else, be interested in the same hobbies, or follow the same life trajectory. Not everyone, for example, actually has to follow current fashion or music trends, or settle down by the time they're 30 and get married and have kids. These are just things that the media and society promote, but are not in fact real-existing truisms. Do what you feel is best for you and what makes you feel good. Remember that the only person who has to feel good about you is you. You have to live with yourself, so follow the beat of your own drum and not anyone else's.
Surround yourself with positive social support.Almost all humans benefit from social and emotional support, whether it be from families, friends, co-workers and others in our social networks. It's helpful for us to talk to and strategize with others about our problems and issues. Oddly enough, social support actually makes us better able to cope on our own with our problems because it increases our self-esteem.
- Research has consistently shown a correlation between perceived social support and self-esteem, such that when people believe they have social support, their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth increase. Thus, if you feel supported by the people around you, you should feel better about yourself and better able to cope with negative feelings and stress.
- Know that when it comes to social support, there is no one-size-fits-all mentality. Some people prefer to have just a few close friends whom they can turn to, while others cast a wider net and find support among their neighbors or church or religious community.
- Look for people you trust and who maintain a personal code of confidentiality. Remember, you don't want to rely on someone who may actually make you feel worse about yourself, even if this person doesn't really intend to do so.
- Social support can also take new forms in our modern age. If you feel anxiety about having to talk to someone face-to-face, you can also stay connected with family and friends or meet new people via social media, video chats, and email.
Consult a mental health professional.If you are struggling to improve your self-esteem and/or feel that your feelings of shame are adversely affecting your daily mental and physical functioning, you should make an appointment with a counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
- In many cases, a therapist can help you develop useful strategies to improve your self-image. Remember sometimes people just can't fix everything on their own. Moreover, therapy has been shown to have a significant effect on raising self-esteem and quality of life.
- In addition, a therapist can help you cope with any other mental health issues that you may be facing as a cause or consequence of your shame and low self-esteem, including depression and anxiety.
- Know that asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of personal failure or weakness.
QuestionWhat if I've made a mistake in the past?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerForgive yourself and work on a brighter future. Learn from what you did.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I stay confident even after I do something regrettable in front of others?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerRealize that you shouldn't care what they may say or think, because you're the only person whose opinion about yourself matters.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I overcome shyness while in a group of well-educated people?Community AnswerRemember that highly educated does not always equal smart. They are just people. It is possible you know many things they don't know about, and vice versa. Always judge people by their character, not their acquired diploma. There are very smart and socially adept people in all social groups. Similarly, not having a degree does not mean you are somehow stupid or inadequate. Cultivate a strong self-esteem and learn to appreciate yourself - that way others will appreciate you and you are better able to appreciate them.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I build my self esteem when I'm constantly surrounded by negative people?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerKeep in mind that some people are negative because they don't know any better, and because they don't know better you don't need to focus on them. Read books and listen to lectures from great minds like Louise L. Hay and Steve Maraboli. Read their work and focus on that. If you can't persuade those people to be more positive, isolate yourself in another room and read positive stuff. Then, try to spread your positivity as much as you can.Thanks!
QuestionCan I be born with low self-esteem?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerYes and no. Some people, for a variety of reasons, are more prone to self-doubt and issues with self-esteem. However, these issues often develop during adolescence and can be avoided by working on improving your self-confidence and happiness.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I like myself if I can't find a job?Community AnswerYou shouldn't base your self-worth in any outside achievement, not even having a job. You are still an important individual. You could consider all aspects of your life and how you are spending your time - there are surely many good things you are doing, unemployed or not! You could also consider volunteer work - some people do just that their whole lives! Do things you like and are good at, cultivate your talents and acquire new skills. Don't let your job (or lack thereof) define you.Thanks!
What can I do to stop criticizing myself and feeling ashamed?
Sources and Citations
- Lewis, Michael. Shame: the exposed self. New York: Free Press, 1992.
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