I moved from Vietnam to London at 17 with nothing but a suitcase.
Looking at my old self now, I have so much love for her and think the world of her, but I know at that time, I had very low self-esteem and it was something I struggled with throughout my early twenties.
If I hadn’t improved my self-esteem, I would never be where I am now.
Self-esteem is your overall subjective evaluation of your own worth or value. It means thinking to yourself: I’m not good enough. I’m a failure. It’s all my fault. I don’t deserve more. It means people pleasing, over-apologising, comparing yourself to others, denying your own needs, self-cricising, or tolerating poor treatment.
Why did it get so bad? And why did it become worse when I moved to London?
Imagine this is me coming to life having neutral or positive thoughts of myself.
What changes this?
Experiences, personal achievements or failures, feedback from others, societal standards, patriachal beliefs
Voices from parents, relatives, teachers, peers
Exposure to the media
Then when I came to London, there was more.
Discrimination, harmful stereotypes, language and cultural barriers, loneliness, visa restrictions, and racism.
Everything seems wrong with me and it’s not just in my head.
I realised this world is not designed for someone like me to feel good about myself.
Low self-esteem affected all areas of my life.
The most damaging way it showed up was my lack of boundaries or struggle to set boundaries.
Boundaries with myself and with others.
I engaged in self-abusing behaviours.
I picked people who made me hate myself.
I stuck around with bad jobs and relationships.
I couldn’t let go.
I doubted myself.
I was self-destructive till I hit rock bottom, and it hit me that if this world is not designed for me to feel good about myself, and not only do I agree to it but I also double down on it, that’s it. There’ll be no end to this nightmare.
But I can disagree. I can fight back. I can change the way I see myself.
Here are 5 ways I successfully improved my self-esteem:
1. Set up your value system in a way that serves you
Our self-esteem is deeply influenced by our value system, which acts as the lens through which we perceive ourselves and the world. Often, societal norms and media impose certain value systems on us, leading many to judge themselves based on external factors like appearance or wealth. However, basing self-worth on such externalities can be detrimental to our mental well-being. Instead, your value system would be best based on:
- Fundamental human qualities — For example, honesty, kindness, patience, etc.
- Something you’re sure you have a lot of — This depends on each individual but an example could be emotional intelligence.
The first category refers to things that anyone can acquire by themselves at any time without having to rely on any external factors.
For example, say, your value system is based on kindness. Does someone think you’re not beautiful? You’re not rich? It doesn’t matter. According to this value system, you’re a worthy human simply because you’re kind. Other people become high value to you when you find them kind. The key here is that kindness is always accessible and you can exercise it anytime. So if you base your value system on it, your self-esteem is under no threat.
The second category refers to things that have been proven to you over time to be your biggest strengths. Some examples besides emotional intelligence could be work ethics, determination, resilience, or nurturing abilities. You’re aware many people will do better than you in many areas but on this one, you’re confidently good, and if you see the world through it, you’ll always find a firm place for yourself. It’s what you value in others and first and foremost yourself.
Especially, when you judge yourself less, you also judge others less, hence reducing overall negativity and allowing for mental well-being.
2. Use positive affirmations
Positive affirmations are statements designed to challenge negative self-beliefs and foster positivity. They leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity, allowing for the formation of new, positive neural connections. Our brain becomes more attuned to positive experiences when focused on affirmations, leading to increased awareness of positive opportunities. These affirmations can reduce stress by activating the brain’s reward centers, counteract our natural negativity bias, and enhance our self-concept.
This might seem cringe but while I was on my healing journey, I literally wrote down and read these affirmations to myself every day so my brain would get used to it:
I AM wealthy, successful, magnetic, loved, feminine, and fulfilled!
I AM a woman of value and substance who is worthy of respect, love, care and commitment. I respect myself and my personal boundaries and I communicate them consistently through my actions.
I don’t care what happened in the past. This is me now and this is what I believe in. This is how I act.
I am the woman a high-quality man falls in love with and chooses to commit to because I’m a high-quality self-respecting woman of value and substance before my beauty, my intelligence, my humour, my sexuality, my kindness.
This is true.
I love my life. My life is great. My life is full of positive things.
I embody love, respect, and excellent quality, and I constantly attract goodness into my life.
I’m healthy. I’m completely capable of directing my own actions and making myself happy. I’m absolutely independent of anyone or anything, none of which will increase or decrease my value if I live without it. I’m not defined by my past. I’m smart and conscious enough to rise above it. I’m emotionally strong.
I’m full and abundant. What I want is all around me and is always navigating towards me.
My values are first respect, then kindness, love, quality time, loyalty, bonding, reliability, authentic self-expression, communication, creativity, health, learning/growth, family, connection, and justice.
My experiences do not define me or reflect the whole of me or by any means indicate what I deserve for my entire life. My experiences are my experiences — simple as that. As long as I enjoy them in the moment they happen, it’s all that matters. I do not internalise them and confuse them with other issues in my past.
I love myself wholly, fully, always.
3. Self-compassion and acceptance
Low self-esteem is not an overnight occurrence. Often, it’s the culmination of years, sometimes decades, of accumulated negative experiences, traumas, and perhaps even abuse. Addressing and healing from these deep-seated issues is a journey that requires patience, understanding, and consistent effort.
The journey to rebuild self-esteem begins with self-awareness. Recognizing and acknowledging that there’s an issue is the first step. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that you have a challenge to address without blaming or judging yourself.
Professional therapy offers a safe space to explore and address the root causes of low self-esteem. Therapists provide expert guidance, tools, and strategies to help individuals unpack their traumas, understand their triggers, and build coping mechanisms. They facilitate the process of healing by helping individuals confront and reframe negative beliefs about themselves.
While therapy is invaluable, it’s also a reality that not everyone can afford it. However, this doesn’t mean that one is without options. There are numerous alternative methods to address self-esteem issues.
Journaling can be a therapeutic exercise. By documenting negative thoughts and emotions, individuals can gain insights into their triggers. Over time, patterns might emerge, revealing specific situations, environments, or interactions that consistently lead to negative self-perceptions. Understanding these patterns is the first step to addressing and changing them.
Challenging Negative Thoughts: Once you’ve identified recurring negative thoughts, challenge them. Ask yourself: “Is this thought based on fact or assumption?” “Have I felt this way in similar situations before?” “What evidence do I have that supports or contradicts this belief?” By questioning these thoughts, you can begin to see them for what they often are: irrational and unfounded.
Self-Compassion: At the heart of improving self-esteem is self-compassion. It’s about treating oneself with the same kindness, concern, and understanding as one would offer a dear friend. When negative thoughts arise, instead of succumbing to them, one can respond with self-compassion, reminding oneself that everyone has moments of doubt and that these moments don’t define one’s worth.
Consistency is Key: Improving self-esteem is not a one-time task but a continuous process. It requires consistent effort, self-reflection, and the willingness to challenge and change deep-seated beliefs. Over time, with dedication and compassion, it’s entirely possible to rebuild and maintain a healthy sense of self-worth.
4. Collect evidence
While positive affirmations play a crucial role in reshaping our mindset and promoting positive self-beliefs, they are just one piece of the puzzle. For lasting change and genuine self-belief, our brain often requires tangible evidence that supports these affirmations.
Think of evidence as the foundation upon which your positive affirmations stand. When you have concrete examples of times when you demonstrated qualities you’re affirming, it reinforces the truth of the affirmation. For instance, if your affirmation is “I am capable,” recalling a challenging project you successfully completed serves as evidence of your capability.
Every time you gather evidence that supports your positive affirmations, you’re creating a positive feedback loop. The more evidence you accumulate, the stronger your belief becomes, and the stronger your belief, the more motivated you are to seek further evidence. Over time, this cycle can significantly boost your self-esteem.
Practical Ways to Gather Evidence:
- Reflect on Past Achievements: Regularly take time to think about your accomplishments, no matter how big or small. These serve as proof of your abilities, talents, and strengths.
- Document Positive Feedback: Whenever someone compliments you or provides positive feedback, make a note of it. Over time, you’ll have a collection of positive remarks that validate your worth.
- Set Small Challenges: Push yourself to take on small challenges that align with your affirmations. Successfully completing them provides tangible evidence that supports your positive beliefs.
- Maintain a Success Journal: Dedicate a journal to document your successes, achievements, and positive feedback. Whenever you doubt yourself, revisit this journal to remind yourself of your capabilities.
- Evidence Beyond Achievements: While achievements are a great way to gather evidence, it’s also essential to recognise intrinsic qualities that don’t necessarily result in tangible outcomes. For instance, being a good listener, showing empathy, or being there for a friend in need are all evidence of positive qualities that might not have tangible rewards but are invaluable nonetheless.
- Challenging Cognitive Distortions: Sometimes, our brain might downplay or dismiss the evidence we present. This is a cognitive distortion, and it’s essential to challenge these distortions. For example, if you think, “I only succeeded because it was easy,” challenge this belief by listing the skills and efforts you put into achieving that success.
5. Keep nurturing your relationship with myself
Maintaining an ongoing nurturing relationship with oneself is pivotal for well-being. It’s rooted in recognizing one’s intrinsic worth, independent of external validations.
This bond is strengthened by practicing self-compassion, especially during setbacks, and by regularly indulging in self-care rituals that rejuvenate the mind and body. Setting personal boundaries, celebrating even minor achievements, and embracing continuous learning are essential facets of this relationship.
Being present through mindfulness, forgiving oneself for past mistakes, and seeking external support when needed further solidify this crucial connection, laying the foundation for a fulfilling life.