Self-Esteem Is Unreliable But Not Immovable
Switching off your inner critic
Dr. Jeremy Sutton
Self-judgment and self-rejection can be extremely damaging.
We may find ourselves taking fewer career risks, withdrawing from social engagements, and even avoiding making new friends (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
Research has shown self-esteem to be a powerful internal monitor of the degree to which our “need for social inclusion is satisfied or threatened” (Orth & Robins, 2019, p. 336).
Self-esteem is vital for our psychological wellbeing, and its absence is likely to leave many basic needs unfulfilled (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
This article explores what we mean by self-esteem and introduces techniques and tools to develop it further.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself, but also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
What Is Self-Esteem?
While researchers have long been fascinated by what self-esteem is, how it first emerges in childhood, and how it changes across our lifespan, only in the last couple of decades has a more precise understanding begun to emerge (Orth & Robins, 2019).
Self-esteem is a subjective construct, well suited to being measured through self-report. It does not necessarily offer an objective reflection of a person’s competencies, characteristics, or even how others see them.
Typically, researchers distinguish between global and domain-specific self-esteem. Globally, it relates to how the individual evaluates their worth, while domain-specificity indicates feelings of worth in a single area, such as physical appearance, relationships, and intellectual capability (Orth & Robins, 2019).
How does self-esteem develop?
Although research suggests global self-esteem is influenced by both genetic (approximately 40%) and environmental factors, it remains unclear exactly how it emerges in early life (Orth & Robins, 2019).
While one bottom-up view suggests self-esteem arises as a child forms beliefs about their talents in specific domains, another proposes it evolves from early experiences of meaningful interpersonal relationships. Self-esteem research recognizes the importance of the family environment, including the quality of the parental relationship (Orth & Robins, 2019).
How stable is self-esteem?
Self-esteem varies across situations and age; much of the research suggests it is low in childhood, increasing in adolescence, at its maximum in adulthood, then reducing in old age. However, it remains relatively stable throughout our lives in relation to others, and “the evidence supports the notion that self-esteem is an enduring personality characteristic” (Orth & Robins, 2019, p. 331).
Unless we focus on changing it, if we are insecure as children, we are likely to be so in adulthood.
What influences the development of self-esteem?
We all differ in how our self-esteem changes over time. Much of these individual differences are influenced, sometimes indirectly, by the following factors (Orth & Robins, 2019):
- Gender and ethnicity
- Social relationships
- Socioeconomic status
- Work success
- Stressful life events
- Cultural context
For example, the influence of gender on self-esteem is small and typically reduces as adolescents move into adulthood (Ramachandran, 2012). Any effect of gender on self-esteem is also, most likely, indirect. In some cultures, women are given lower status, and in some situations, women are treated differently in work and educational environments (Orth & Robins, 2019).
Social relationships have a considerable impact on our self-esteem. “Self-esteem is an internal monitor of the degree to which the individual’s need for social inclusion is satisfied or threatened” (Orth & Robins, 2019, p. 336).
2 Real-Life Examples
Orth and Robins (2019) describe a series of documentary films that followed 14 British children throughout their lives from the age of seven.
Every seven years, the children were interviewed up until they reached middle age.
At seven years old, one of the participants, Suzy, was a heartfelt young child, very capable of expressing enthusiasm and pleasure in her life. By the age of 14, she had become withdrawn, stepping back from what interested and excited her as a young child.
By 49, having led a turbulent life, she expressed “regret that she failed to take responsibility for herself in life and develop a stronger sense of her self-worth” (Orth & Robins, 2019, p. 328).
It seems a romantic relationship in her 20s had led Suzy’s life satisfaction and self-esteem to soar, but a rollercoaster life thereafter had led to many ups and downs, impacting her degree of self-esteem.
The story of a young entomologist is taken up by Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning (2016) in their bestselling book Self-Esteem. During job interviews, the entomologist would make bold judgments about the interviewers based on how they were dressed. And when asked questions, he would weigh up what he believed they wanted to hear against a continuous, self-critical monologue.
He had listened to this voice for years. “That was a stupid answer […] you’re a fraud […] do something!” By the end of the interviews, his self-esteem would be through the floor. Having tuned out, his answers became increasingly vague; he developed a slight stammer and had all but given up (McKay & Fanning, 2016, p. 19).
While it may seem that our self-critic can be beyond our control, that is not the case. The problem is that we are so used to listening to it that we forget how to turn it off; however, we can change (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
How to Boost Self-Esteem
When we learn to switch off or refute our inner critic, we can stop the cycle of self-sabotage and regain control before harming our sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
Importantly, research suggests that therapy can increase clients’ sense of self-worth; they begin to see themselves as more deserving and capable (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
Along with cognitive restructuring, which we discuss below, many techniques can help defeat the inner critic, including:
- Identifying strengths
While specific virtues, such as humanity and temperance, are associated with good self-esteem and a positive self-view, recognition and repeated use of our strengths can bolster how we see ourselves (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019; McKay & Fanning, 2016).
While recognizing our positive qualities and our enduring strengths is vital for self-esteem, it is critical to adopt an attitude and language of non-judgment and self-acceptance of ourselves and others
- Inflexible rules and should’s — Our unbending sense of right and wrong often results from cultural, parental, and peer expectations.
- Perfectionism — Reframing mistakes requires learning to think of mistakes without the painful qualities that make us believe we have failed.
- Extreme vulnerability to criticism — “The trick to handling criticism is not to let it make you forget your self-esteem” (McKay & Fanning, 2016, p. 188).
- Non-assertiveness — Low self-esteem can prevent us from asking others for what we want.
Discussing each problem in therapy and exploring and practicing strategies that help reframe our beliefs can be enormously influential in managing and developing self-esteem.
3 Self-Esteem Activities & Exercises
Ethan Kross (2021) describes our internal monologue, when harmful, as chatter.
It is made up of the “cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing” (Kross, 2021, p. xix).
Catch the critic through self-awareness
Feeling depressed or generally down on ourselves is often the product of our inner critic. It can, therefore, be helpful to catch self-criticism in the act.
Try the following steps (modified from McKay & Fanning, 2016):
- With your eyes closed, take some slow, deep breaths.
- Relax your body, eliminating tension across your shoulders, legs, abdomen, face, neck, and shoulders.
- Become aware of where you feel tension in your body.
- Focus on that area of your body, and become fully conscious of how it feels.
- Listen to your thoughts that go with the feelings focusing on that body area.
What are those thoughts saying to you?
Try to remember when those feelings began.
What was the critic saying then?
Regularly performing this exercise will help you become more familiar with the content of your inner critic’s attacks.
Once you know how your inner criticism can be damaging and when it typically occurs, it is possible to challenge it.
Talking back to your critic may seem a little odd, but learning to reject your negative programming is incredibly valuable.
When you observe your inner critic at work, try the following two talking back methods (McKay & Fanning, 2016):
- Ask the price
Ask yourself, what price am I paying for the attacks by my inner critic?
Create a list of what your inner critic costs you.
I avoid socializing with new people.
I constantly think people at work don’t respect me.
Combine the points into statements that you can use to challenge the critic:
I can’t afford this; you are costing me my social life and damaging my career.
- Affirmation of worth
To disarm the critic, especially with deeply held negative beliefs, you must learn to replace its voice with “a positive awareness of your own worth” (McKay & Fanning, 2016, p. 42).
And it’s not easy. You need to challenge long-held beliefs, and recognize you are valuable as a human being.
McKay and Fanning (2016, p. 42) offer the following affirmation examples:
I am worthwhile because I breathe and feel and am aware.
I feel pain, I love, and I try to survive. I am a good person.
Your aim is to create a statement that feels authentic for you, one you can use to replace your inner critic.
CBT for Improving Self-Esteem
The cognitive model associated with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) proposes that dysfunctional thinking exists in all psychological disturbances. A person’s emotional state and behavior can be helped when they “learn to evaluate their thinking in a more realistic and adaptive way” (Beck, 2011, p. 3).
While there are many tools and techniques to improve self-esteem, cognitive restructuring techniques have proven rapid and highly effective.
McKay and Fanning (2016, p. 6) suggest “an exploration of chronic self-talk, a systematic confrontation of cognitive distortions, and the development of a more accurate and compassionate self-evaluation” to elevate a client’s sense of self-worth.
The therapist begins by exploring the client’s thoughts. What were you thinking or saying to yourself at that time?
It can be helpful for the client to give a name to their inner critic. Providing the voice with an identity means it can be externalized and experienced as an external factor rather than ‘me.’
The client should also be introduced to their healthy voice (their ‘accepting’ or ‘rational’ agent), the one who thinks realistically.
Through helping the client see the dichotomy, it is possible to challenge their harshest critic (themselves) using their healthy voice.
Next, the client should be helped to recognize why they use their critical voice and how it may appear to protect them. For example:
What was the critic saying when you were meeting new people?
What do you think the critic was trying to protect you from?
How was the critic doing this?
Perhaps the critic was preparing you for rejection or protecting you by encouraging you not to engage.
Once the critic’s function is better understood, it is possible to ask the client what they would be forced to experience if the critic weren’t stopping or limiting them (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
How does the critic help you in this or other similar situations?
What are you scared might happen if the critic were silenced?
The client can learn what reinforces the inner critic and how some of their important needs can be met in healthier ways (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
Distorted ways of thinking can also lower our self-esteem. By identifying the many types of distortion, they become easier to spot, and it becomes possible to replace toxic language with something more accurate.
Socratic questioning can be a powerful way to expose logical inconsistencies in what is being said and produce a more accurate statement (modified from McKay & Fanning, 2016):
- Questions used to expose overgeneralization:
Is it true that you always mess up?
Are you saying you never do anything right?
- Questions used to expose faulty labeling:
Is it true that a B on the test means you are failing?
- Questions used to expose a lack of evidence:
What evidence do you have that people think you are messing up?
Such questioning reveals that our inner voice is not only inaccurate, but incorrect, and there are healthier ways to view our performances and behavior.
Refuting the critic
Over time, the client can learn to confront distortions every time they hear them. By challenging them during self-esteem therapy, it can become easier to fight them in real-world scenarios (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
6 Helpful Workbooks & Worksheets
Catching Your Critic
It is necessary to catch the critic early to build and maintain self-esteem.
It requires vigilance, especially when meeting strangers, people you find attractive, situations where you have made a mistake, and when you risk failure or rejection (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
The Catching Your Critic exercise can help you recognize that inner critic. You should begin to understand when you are most critical and when you need to challenge or reign in your inner critic.
Three Column Technique
Vigilance is crucial in handling cognitive distortions. Once identified, we can refute them (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
The Three Column Technique is helpful for the identification and rebuttal of cognitive distortion when a situation makes you feel depressed or discouraged.
Discovering and Revising Your Should’s
The Discovering and Revising Your Should’s helps you recognize the statements that define how you feel you should behave and then consider their positives and negatives.
If the ‘should’ is undermining your self-esteem, and the negatives outweigh the positives, then it needs to be cut from your internal self-talk (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
Being Realistic About Your Weaknesses
The Being Realistic About Your Weaknesses worksheet can help you take a fresh look at the qualities you consider weaknesses without using them as instruments for destructive self-attacks that damage your self-esteem (modified from McKay & Fanning, 2016).
Wants Into Words
When our self-esteem is low, it can be difficult to ask for what we want or need.
The Wants Into Words worksheet can help you prepare in advance by constructing an assertive request (modified from McKay & Fanning, 2016).
Goal Setting for Self-Esteem
Goal setting is invaluable in all aspects of our lives. It is particularly beneficial when areas of our life feel bad.
The Goal Setting for Self-Esteem worksheet can help you capture aspects of your life that currently feel bad and assign goals to fix them or reduce their impact.
Assessing Self-Esteem: A Scale & Questionnaire
One of the most widely used and well-validated measures of self-esteem is the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
The questionnaire contains 10 items (five positively worded and five negatively worded), scored on a Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree (University of Maryland Department of Sociology, 2021).
I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
I feel that I do not have much to be proud of.
On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
Our article discussing the 9 Best Self-Esteem Questionnaires also includes the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many self-esteem worksheets and exercises that you can use with your clients to develop and grow their self-esteem. Some of these are part of our Toolkit, the world’s largest online library of positive psychology exercises and assessments. Here is a recommended selection:
- Accepting Compliments
Compliments can leave us feeling uncomfortable, in conflict with our theory of self. Role-play can help explore underlying issues, such as self-esteem, that may be getting in the way. This exercise will help clients better accept compliments.
- Seeing Through the Illusion of Self-Rating
Self-rating is not always an objective measure of worth for a human being, and this worksheet helps disperse the illusion of low self-worth.
- Self-Acceptance Meditation
This Self-Acceptance Meditation can help us form a stronger relationship with ourselves and overcome feelings of weakness or deficiency.
- Exploring Domains of Self-Worth
We are rarely good at evaluating ourselves favorably or even fairly. This tool describes life domains that act as a frame of reference to explore our sense of self-worth.
- Shifting Codependency Patterns
Codependency could be underpinned by maladaptive thinking patterns, including self-esteem. Use this resource to assess the impact of codependency on relationships.
- Designing Affirmations
This worksheet contains tips to help you work with your client to design and capture goal-oriented affirmations that can have a positive impact on self-esteem.
- Recommended books
27 Best Books to Improve Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, and Self-Image is a related article with suggestions for books to address low self-esteem, self-esteem for kids and teenagers, and even a few audiobooks.
- 17 Self-Compassion Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, this collection contains 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.
A Take-Home Message
Our sense of self – who we are – is based on our identity. It builds on our self-understanding, self-concept (basic beliefs about who we are), and, crucially, our self-esteem (Ramachandran, 2012).
While self-understanding suggests a degree of self-knowledge, and self-concept indicates basic beliefs about who we are, “self-esteem refers to an individual’s subjective evaluation of his or her worth as a person” (Orth & Robins, 2019, p. 329).
And it’s crucial. As McKay and Fanning (2016, p. 1) wrote, “self-esteem is essential for psychological survival,” and without it, our basic needs are likely to go unmet.
While our genes influence self-esteem, it can be transformed by external circumstances and influences, including parenting and therapy. Indeed, cognitive therapy has been shown to raise self-esteem by changing clients’ beliefs and how they interpret life.
Try some of the self-esteem exercises, activities, and worksheets with your clients. They are powerful tools to help them recognize their positive and negative beliefs and cognitive distortions, and identify ways to adopt a less-critical view of themselves.
Dr. Jeremy Sutton
Psychologist and writer in Positive and Performance Psychology (www.positivepsychology.com). Exploring positive psychology and cognitive science to better understand human potential. Owner of the "Learning to Flourish" community dedicated to sharing the tools for wellbeing (link below).