Ask the Expert: How Can My Self-Esteem Survive the Real World?Here’s what a clinical psychologist suggests for mind and body confidence that bounces back.
Q: How can I build my self-esteem when I'm surrounded by unrealistic images and unsolicited body comments?
A: We’ve all been there. Just going about our day, actively remembering to be kind to ourselves, maybe even hyping ourselves up and feeling pretty darn good, and then bam!—a scroll through our Instagram feed or an offhand comment IRL leaves us feeling like absolute garbage.
Despite your best efforts to build a rock-solid self-esteem, outside forces (see: social media, “reality” TV, unsolicited comments from strangers, and conversations around the dinner table) can have a very real effect on your confidence. Sometimes it feels like no matter how hard you work on building up your self-esteem, the minute you get out in the real world there’s someone or something that makes you feel like you’re somehow not good enough.
We asked Alexis Conason, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of The Diet-Free Revolution, to give us some advice for strengthening our self-esteem so that our confidence can withstand, you know, real life—without just slapping some toxic positivity all over yourself. Heads up: You’re going to want to bookmark these tips.
Step one: Know self-esteem saboteurs are, unfortunately, a part of life.
The reality is that we can’t erase all those unrealistic images and unsolicited comments from existence. But we can learn to see them for what they are: annoying obstacles that don’t deserve a whole lot of your time or attention.
“The first thing I encourage people to do is recognize where those messages are coming from and how much effort, money, and other outside forces are at play in having us feel bad about ourselves,” Dr. Conason says. “The first step of healing or building self-esteem is starting to recognize that those messages we’re getting are not the truth—they’re not accurate representations of how we should see ourselves.”
Step two: Practice being mindful instead of being positive.
It’s not necessary to turn every single negative thought into a positive one—and for most people it’s not very realistic either. But one thing you can work on is being more mindful of your thoughts so that you can notice trends in the way you talk to yourself (and if that fluctuates based on what you’re doing, who you’re with, etc.).
“A mindfulness practice can be really powerful in terms of building foundational skills for catching and observing the critical thoughts about yourself as they’re happening,” Dr. Conason says. The next time you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts about your body, instead of fighting it, accept that these thoughts exist, and that they’ll most likely pass. “You can do this by just taking a breath, focusing on the present moment and recognizing the sounds you hear around you and the physical sensations you feel, and allowing those thoughts to drift into the background,” she says.
Step three: Give yourself a break.
Toxic positivity has no place in your self-esteem journey, but compassion certainly does. That doesn’t mean forcing you to love your appearance all the time (literally who does?). Instead, it means treating yourself with the same kindness you would extend to other people you care about. “You can love your body even if you don't like your body,” Dr. Conason says. “We can foster a sense of compassion toward ourselves and treat ourselves with a deep love—like a child or beloved pet or friend—even if we don't like what our body looks like.”
Practicing gratitude can be very powerful for this, she adds. “Research shows journaling for even a brief period of time each day and writing down three things you appreciate about your body can lead to improvements in body image.” These can be really simple things, like, “I carried all my groceries home,” or “My arms gave my children a hug,” or even simply, “I woke up and am breathing today,” Dr. Conason says. The key is to not focus on how your body looks.
Step four: Cleanse your social media feed.
If social media is really messing with you, Dr. Conason recommends liberally tapping that unfollow button. “Unfollow influencers, celebrities, or even people in your everyday life who are posting content that makes you feel bad about yourself.” Hot tip: If you don’t want someone to know you unfollowed, mute them instead. You won’t see any of their posts in your feed, but you’ll still be listed as a follower. You’re welcome.
After that little detox, refill your feed with diverse bodies, people who look like you, and people who just seem happy with themselves, Dr. Conason suggests. “Looking at people in different body sizes and differently abled bodies is going to expand our notion that people who look all different kinds of ways are living happy lives,” she says. Almost no one has skin as smooth as a baby’s butt (courtesy of the Paris filter), so your feed should reflect that.
Step five: Become a boundary-setting queen.
It’s not exactly appropriate to scream “unfollow” at your aunt who always insists on commenting on your body within the first five minutes of seeing you. Setting boundaries IRL can get a bit more complicated, Dr. Conason says, but it’s so, so worth it. By boundaries, we mean telling your mom or BFF, “Hey, I’m trying not to talk so much about my body, so can we not focus on that and talk about something else?” when something body-related comes up. Or maybe it’s something a little more stealthy, like sneaking away to the bathroom at a happy hour when a triggering topic comes up, or finding a new lunch crew at work because your old one was just a never-ending chorus of diet talk and negativity. How you handle things will depend on the person, Dr. Conason says.
“With some people, you may want to get into a deeper conversation about why you’re choosing this path and provide resources,” she adds. “But we can’t spend time educating every single person.”
Step six: Remember what really matters to you.
“Once you loosen the grasp diet culture has on you, ask yourself, ‘How can you live a life more in alignment with the things most important to you?’” Dr. Conason says. One way to do this is to think about what you want people to say at your funeral, or what you’d like them to remember you for (kinda morbid, but bear with us here). You’ll probably notice that you’re not thinking about your appearance.
“It’s very rare that people answer, ‘She once lost 30 pounds,’ or ‘She had a thigh gap.’ We want to be remembered as someone who was a good parent or friend, who lived a life of meaning and purpose, and enriched the lives of others,” Dr. Conason says. “Yet when you look at what we spend so much mental energy on, it’s about shrinking ourselves and changing how we look in the world, which is out of alignment with what most people’s values are.” Living in a way that’s in line with your values will help keep your eyes on the prize when the world around you is trying to sabotage all that tough inner work you’ve done.
This is all easier said than done, obvi. Especially once you’re an adult and have already spent half your life (or more) being ashamed of your body. There’s a lot of negative thinking to break, and it takes consistent work—you’re probably not just going to wake up one day and suddenly have a beautiful relationship with your body and never feel a wave of self-consciousness ever again. (Though we can dream!) But by following Dr. Conason’s recommendations and working at it a little bit every day, you just might notice you’re building yourself up more than you’re tearing yourself down. That’s progress right there, friends.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.