When someone is struggling with being too hard on themself, it can be hard to know what to say to help them improve self-esteem. Naturally, you want them to see themselves as you see them. You want them to feel joyful about the reality of who they are not be weighed down in the falsities they insist are truths.
Maybe you tried showering them with compliments, only leaving yourself to wonder why they never believe a word you said. People who struggle with low self-esteem have strong beliefs about themselves. While your compliment may be factually based (“You absolutely deserved that promotion – you worked so hard.”), their beliefs will have them instantly dismissing it (‘I just got lucky.”)
No matter what you say, and no matter how true it is, they will swat away every compliment you toss at them. There’s a very good reason why they do this. They don’t just have beliefs about themselves, they have emotionally charged beliefs about themselves. Any ideas offered that are contradicting, even well-intentioned and factual compliments, will be met with strong resistance. It’s simply too hard to “argue” with someone with an emotionally -driven belief.
3 Ways to Help Someone Improve Self-Esteem
There are certain techniques therapists typically use when working with someone struggling with low self-esteem. You may find these useful when trying to communicate with your own loved one.
1) Agree – Then Disagree
Find something in their statement you can agree with, then put a more positive spin on the rest.
Loved one: “Why do I act like the biggest loser most of the time?”
You: ‘Well, nobody is perfect (agreement) and I happen to know for a fact you’ve accomplished a lot in your life – more than many people.”
The idea here is to be subtle with positivity so there is no outright contradiction of their belief. You don’t want to turn off your loved one so they never listen to you again, you just want to gently coax them into considering that what you say might possibly, just possibly be true.
2. Use Metaphors
Using metaphors is a great way to present a positive possibility to your loved one without directly contradicting their belief.
Loved one: “At this point in my life. I’m pretty worthless.”
You: “Yeah, it can be really hard knowing your own worth, can’t it? I mean, a beautiful painting can’t possibly know how beautiful it really is, and a ruby doesn’t know how valuable it is.”
Try and change the subject right after offering this counterpoint so it has time to sink in.
3) Reframe Negatives into Positives
This one can be tricky but the idea is to gently reframe negatives into positives. As they say, a knife in the hands of a surgeon is very different from a knife in the hands of a robber.
Try this on for size:
Loved one: “My wife says I’m stubborn.”
You: Hmm, that’s interesting. In what other ways do you show such determination?”
See what you did there?
When interacting with someone with low self-esteem, try to refrain from obvious and straight-forward compliments and instead, try using one or more of the techniques above. You may also consider suggesting they work with a well-trained therapist who can teach them how to manage unhelpful thoughts that contribute to feelings of low self-worth and overall unpleasantness.
James Killian, LPC is the Principal Therapist & Owner of Arcadian Counseling in Greater New Haven, CT where they specialize in helping over-thinkers, high achievers, and perfectionists reduce stress, increase fulfillment and enhance performance so they can move From Surviving To Thriving.