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How to Build Self-Esteem

How to Build Self-Esteem

To offer a working definition, self esteem is: a perception or feeling that people hold about him/herself, or what a given person believes to be true about him or herself. Clearly the words “perception” and “belief” are very important in this definition.

Self-esteem arises from perceptions/feelings that are both conscious and unconscious. Most of us can readily identify the conscious part of the self-esteem equation because we can identify the explicit messages that we have been given over our life (usually starting very early in childhood).  Most individuals either accept or reject the messages given to them (received from parents, relatives, close friends, teachers and others) but in so doing start to form an idea about who they are –especially in comparison to others. This may be broadly positive or negative but at least the sources of the feelings are known.

The unconscious part of the self-esteem equation is more difficult to discern because none of us are explicitly aware of the more subliminal messages that we progressively take on board as a result of interpreting what we experience in life. This often manifests itself as a general non-specific feeling that we are “basically good”, “open and honest”, “mostly upbeat”, and “a fun loving person” for example, on the more positive side, or “prone to not follow through”, “forgetful”, “takes life too seriously” or “a bit of a loser” on the more negative side. We may not hear these messages explicitly but we “derive” that this is what “the world” mostly thinks about us.  Individuals with higher levels of self-esteem tend to demonstrate behavior which is more flexible, more open in expressing wants and needs and more able to learn from feedback from others (and so develop a more palatable self-image). Individuals with lower levels of self-esteem tend to demonstrate behavior which is more rigid, more closed or quiet about expressing wants and needs and less able to learn from feedback from others (or even to listen to it at all). They therefore assume a much less personally attractive self-image and often feel trapped by it.

Can individuals improve their levels of self-esteem?

Just as our levels of self-esteem can fall, they can also rise. However, many people feel that a change in any direction comes from beyond them and they therefore have little or no control over the matter. However, whatever the external influencers may be on the conscious or unconscious mind, it is the individual’s reaction that is always primary and we have far more control over this than we think. Put another way, almost all individuals have a choice about all the messages that are received-they can be a “victim” of the feedback or the “owner” of it. And the consequences of this are that we all choose to have high or low self-esteem. This is clearly no problem for those who have chosen to have high self-esteem but not the case if it’s only “medium” or “low”. So why don’t people always choose to have high self-esteem?

In broad terms, when an individual is not feeling very good about him or herself, he or she may start to ignore or dismiss constructive and/or positive feedback or compliments because he or she feels that the person making the comments are blind to his or her real faults. In effect, any compliment is not a real reflection of reality and it is only a matter of time before a criticism will be leveled (and it is probably justified as it has been leveled many times before). In such circumstances, the individual may be blasé about the positive feedback or even resist it, saying it’s not true, thereby encouraging the feedback giver to doubt their comments and feel less inclined to offer similar compliments in the future. Over time, the positive feedback from others diminishes or even disappears altogether and the low-self esteem feeling that “no-one ever offers me compliments on my work” becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

How can individuals increase their levels of self-esteem?

Given everything we have discussed to this point, it seems to be well within our power to change our overall levels of self-esteem, but how can we do this in real and practical terms?

Although there are some dangers in generalizing, and there are differences in approach for people who have more extraverted or more introverted preferences, as one issue we should think about carefully, at a broad behavioral level, the following are likely to increase levels of self esteem for most people:

  • Conveying the plain truth or let others know (within reason of course) what you are feeling about any given situation where it matters to you.
  • Accepting responsibility for everything that occurs in your life without seeking to blame others.
  • Reading more widely, discussing deeper issues with people around you, and finding more regular time to ponder or reflect.
  • Seeking to postpone judgment, listen and understand before defending or attacking or determining that what you see or hear is “wrong” or to assign fault in any way.
  • Regularly checking (through reflection) whether you might be deceiving yourself or even telling yourself lies about what is happening around you.
  • Questioning any limiting beliefs that you may hold and challenging your personal paradigms
  • Treating everyone with respect and patience, rather than irritation and judgment, and maintaining the larger perspective as much as possible.
  • Being as humble as possible in all dealings with other people.

This last behavior is probably the most critical and it is therefore worthy of special attention.

Developing a sense of “humility” is the key

A humble person:

  1. Actively practices being calm, centered and exhibiting as much patience as possible in all circumstances.
  2. Has a positive sense of him or herself, but without being overly prideful.
  3. Is realistic and open about personal strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Gives credit where it is due and does not “steal” others glory
  5. May be ambitious for a cause, for the organization or for the team, but not him or herself. Titles, status, or position relative to others are therefore of little or no concern.
  6. Is learning centered and does not “feign” knowledge.
  7. Respects the views of others, asking questions to ensure understanding.
  8. Is altruistic or other-centered treating people as worthy peers.
  9. Avoids being curt, demanding or brusque with people and treats everyone with appreciation, warmth and dignity?
  10. Is open to feedback and avoids being defensive, being quick to admit mistakes and even quickly apologize when justified.
  11. Is conscious of the contributions others have made to his life, his projects, and his career and is quick to give credit to others when it is due. Accepts compliments and gratitude in open and sincere ways.
  12. Does not consider certain tasks, jobs or projects to be unworthy and contributes as a team member whenever helpful to do so.


We choose our personal sense of self-esteem, or how much self-respect we have, much more than most of us believe. We can therefore elect to change it for the better with a little focus and sustained effort. Rather than to be defensive and protective of whatever small amount of self-esteem we think we have left, if we give more of ourselves and show a greater amount of respect and humility to everyone around us, our own levels of self-esteem will rise (slowly perhaps but surely).

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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