Developing Resilience as a Key to Self-Esteem


Self-esteem is the value we put on ourselves. It has to do with our sense of mastery, identity, and how well we like ourselves. It matters. It is a key to a happy and fulfilled life.

I want to suggest that there are two parts to building self-esteem—mastery (doing) and resilience (thinking).

By mastery I mean learning, beginning at a young age, various life skills (from math to soccer) and accomplishing meaningful goals (getting an A on a test, making the baseball team). I feel good about myself as I learn skills and take on new challenges and realize that I can succeed in life. This is the foundation of self-esteem. (By the way, I believe we are far too quick, in today’s world, to make sure that our children always “feel good,” which is not the same as helping them develop self-esteem. We do so by always rescuing them from disappointments and frustrations and continually telling them how wonderful they are so they fail to see the relationship between their actions/efforts and how they feel about themselves. (A big topic for another day.)

By resilience I mean developing the positive mindset and mental strategies to sustain ourselves through the ups and downs of life, particularly when the going gets tough. Things get tough for all of us, and even though we have developed competencies and accomplished meaningful goals, we can get down on ourselves and think that we are less adequate than we really are.

A prominent psychologist and speaker by the name of Irv Yalom used to ask the people in his audiences to write down, anonymously, something their co-workers did not know about them. He would collect and analyze these responses and share them with other groups. The number one comment was that people did not feel good about themselves. They felt like imposters in their careers and lives or that others would not like them if they really knew them. It is significant that he was generally speaking to educated, successful, professionals. For me, a take away from this informal research is that people can accomplish a lot and yet not feel good about themselves because they haven’t learned the second part of self-esteem—resilience.

The good news is that we can improve our self-esteem. It is not something magically allotted to us at birth but something we develop and can intentionally influence even as adults. So how do we do it? We develop new skills as well as set and accomplish meaningful goals. And, perhaps more importantly for many of us, we develop resilience by consciously learning positive mental strategies to support ourselves when life gets tough.

So let me offer some tips, little things we can do, mental strategies that will make a huge difference to our self-esteem. All won’t resonate equally with you. Choose a few that do.

  • Become aware of your self-talk. There is almost always a monologue going on in our heads. Pause and notice it. What is the tone? Does it result in good or bad feelings about yourself and your life? Inevitably, negative self-talk distorts the whole truth about what is going on and if we carefully examine it we begin to see those distortions (oversimplifying, mind-reading, catastrophizing, fortune-telling, filtering, etc.). Challenge the distortions. Deliberately talk in a more objective, even positive way and then notice how you feel.
  • Praise yourself. We need praise. It feels good and affirming. Yet we often wait for it to come from others (and then discount it when it does). So make an affirming statement about yourself right now. Think or even say it aloud. Say it again. Even if no one else knows or recognizes something you did (are), you can praise yourself. It counts. Doing so is deeply nourishing.
  • Encourage yourself. Life is filled with difficulties. Encouragement gives you the inner strength to face those challenges. One way to do this is to think about what you might say to a friend facing a similar challenge. Think about how you would support this person with kindness and encouragement. Then offer this encouragement to yourself.
  • Comfort yourself when something did not go as you had hoped. Life has plenty of valleys in which we’re tempted to feel bad or retreat into self-pity. We have to let our wounds heal before we’re ready to face certain aspects of life again. So retreat. Feel your hurt and pain and wounds but this time give yourself comfort. Say soothing words to yourself. Do something nice for yourself. Treat yourself as you might a hurt or sad child. Take some time to nurture and comfort yourself before getting back into the race.
  • Stop comparing. Nothing leads to low self-esteem like comparing yourself/life to others. You will always find people that are better at most everything you do. Appreciate yourself for who you are and your life for what it is rather than against a standard that is not real. As soon as you become aware of comparing, convert it to gratitude. Gratitude is seeing through a different lens. It is seeing what is, not what isn’t; what you have, not what you lack. What are you grateful for in this situation?
  • Savor something that went well. You can do this by reflecting over your life, searching for the big things and there is a lot of value in doing this when you have some time. But for now, just think about today or the past few days. What has gone well? Reflect upon this. Relish it rather than brushing over it. Take time to think about and enjoy it. Then go over it again in your head. Repeating what goes well not only lifts your mood in the moment but may help you recognize patterns that you can repeat in the future.
  • Don’t beat up on yourself when you make a mistake. You make plenty. We are only human. Ruminating on mistakes makes us more depressed and, therefore, makes it difficult to feel our power. Sometimes we need to accept ourselves and imperfections and move on without dwelling on them. At other times, we need to turn our remorse into action by saying “sorry,” correcting a mistake, or finding a way to change our behavior. Taking action helps us feel good about ourselves. Ruminating does not.
  • Do things you enjoy. Doing things we enjoy brightens our mood and helps us feel better about life. We need lots of doses of enjoyment. Schedule little things you enjoy into your daily life and make sure you do some fun or relaxing things every week.
  • Be with other people. One of the worst things we do when we feel bad is to isolate from others. We do it because we genuinely don’t want to be with others. There are payoffs we get out of being alone and licking our wounds. But this is not healthy. Seek out a friend to talk to or a group to associate with. The shift of energy we experience is amazing as we associate with others.
  • Get moving. Activity and exercise are also great ways to shift our mood and build resilience. Exercise (even moderate walking) literally raises the endorphins in our brains resulting in a better mood and different perspective of ourselves and life. In fact, a number of studies in psychology show that people get as much or more benefit from exercise as medication.
  • Change your posture or facial expressions. Stand or sit upright. Move in a deliberate way. Put your shoulders back. Stretch. Take in a deep breath and make yourself big. Maybe even do a superman or wonder woman impression. (Kind of like my squid.) Make the expression on your face send a message that you could conquer the world. Our physical and emotional worlds are very interrelated. By changing your physiology you will alter your emotional state.

Most of these are simple things, so simple that you may overlook or discount them. But I want you to know they are powerful. First, they put you in charge of your self-esteem as opposed to waiting for it to come from the outside. Second, they break old, automatic and self-defeating patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that inevitably lead to chronic low self-esteem. And third, they replace those negative patterns with positive habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving that lead to resilience and enable you to view yourself and life from a more empowered perspective.

My challenge to you is that you try them for a day. Then commit to do them for a full week and see how you feel at the end of that week.

Remember this. People who feel high self-esteem are not better than you. They have simply internalized better strategies for responding to some of life’s difficulties. With commitment and discipline you can learn these strategies as well.

Note: I want to thank Cristina Kramp (our Ecuadorian daughter) for the picture with this post. Did you notice the cape? I love squids who feel good about themselves.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

4 responses to “Developing Resilience as a Key to Self-Esteem”

  1. Uriah says:

    This is great advice and very timely for many people.

  2. Jan Mayer says:

    Meaningful article and terrific artwork! Thanks for the insights and Yay! for Chris!

  3. Jun says:

    Very meaningful article and the squid!

  4. Debbie says:

    This article could not have been more perfectly timed. It’s exactly the message I’ve been looking for to share with a loved one who struggles to recognize her strengths. Thank you! And, I absolutely love the squid!

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