International Boost Self-Esteem Month Resource Guide (2021)

February is International Boost Self-Esteem Month, an annual event dedicated to improving self-esteem among people across the globe. And it’s especially important this coming year after a series of lockdowns have forced everyone to spend more time alone with themselves than usual.

Self-esteem is how you view yourself in terms of worth and capability. When it’s high, you’re confident and positive. When it’s low, you’re self-critical and down in the dumps. And it goes beyond the mere psychological, too: your actions, your relationships, and even your health can be related to your self-esteem.

It’s also not just about you. People with higher self-esteem are more capable and confident in helping those around them, and the positivity that comes from that is often contagious. To get through and get over what’s been a remarkably rough year, the world could use a collective boost to its self-esteem.

Boosting your self-esteem isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. This is an enormously complicated topic and there’s a science behind the way we view ourselves and our capabilities. To get a detailed look at what self-esteem really is, how science plays a part, and how people can improve it, read on.

What Self-Esteem Means

Self-esteem is a person’s sense of self-worth, but it isn’t necessarily accurate. High self-esteem may be sourced from a balanced appreciation of one’s accomplishments, or it can come from an inflated sense of superiority over others.

In the same manner, low self-esteem can be caused by a well-reasoned assessment of one’s shortcomings, or it can be the result of a distorted sense of inferiority. But one’s perception has a way of becoming reality, and even if high or low self-esteem is initially based on falsehood, it can reinforce itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-esteem is highly nuanced. How do you measure something so entirely subjective?

Some researchers have split self-esteem into global and domain-specific categories. For example, one’s feeling of overall self-worth (global) may not correspond with one’s self-worth when taking a calculus exam (domain-specific). And if someone’s really good at calculus, they might have high-esteem during that exam, but if they don’t believe that being good at calculus is a highly valued and respected skill across the rest of their life, then they probably have low global self-esteem.

Self-esteem is entirely subjective, and that makes it hard to analyze. Do accomplishments come from high-self esteem, and failures come from low self-esteem? Or do accomplishments cause one’s self-esteem to rise, and failures cause it to fall? Researchers have been puzzling with this chicken-or-the-egg question for decades and coming to sometimes conflicting conclusions.

But what most psychologists and counselors can agree on is this: everyone deserves the opportunity to be respected and loved, by both others and themselves.

What Science Says About Self-Esteem

Much of the scientific inquiry around self-esteem has to do with whether it is a cause or an effect of certain factors.

A 2003 meta-analysis in the Association for Psychological Science (APS) found that the most provable benefits of high self-esteem were in interpersonal relationships and social initiative. Those with high self-esteem were found to be much more likely to initiate interpersonal contacts and relationships and more likely to demonstrate authority within groups. They were also more likely to remove themselves from unhappy relationships.

A 1998 study in Psychology Bulletin found self-esteem was one of the strongest predictors of happiness. But where does it come from? Several studies have found high correlations between self-esteem and self-rated attractiveness: basically, people who report high self-esteem also rate themselves as attractive. Is it really all about looks? It might have more to do with what’s in our heads.

A 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology surveyed people on their self-esteem and self-rated attractiveness, and then photographed the participants. The study’s authors then showed those photos to a separate group of judges, who rated the participants’ attractiveness. When comparing the results, physical attractiveness was found to account for less than 2 percent of high self-esteem cases. So high self-esteem does make you more attractive… but maybe only to yourself.

Science also shows us that too much self-esteem can be a bad thing. According to the 2003 APS metastudy, those with high self-esteem also showed stronger in-group favoritism, which could increase prejudice and discrimination. It’s a safe bet that several of history’s worst people had very high valuations of themselves.

But low self-esteem is rarely a good thing. Studies have repeatedly suggested that low self-esteem leads to poorer health outcomes, including depression and even physical illness. A large and longitudinal study in Adolescence found that low self-esteem tripled the chances of teenage girls starting smoking, and further studies have found high self-esteem to possibly prevent instances of bulimia.

How People Can Improve Self-Esteem

Self-esteem can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you feel poorly about yourself, you’re less likely to engage in social behaviors or pursue new challenges, thus causing you to feel even more poorly about yourself.

So how do you break the cycle? The first step might be to look to your friends, and, in the spirit of International Boost Self-Esteem Month, consider taking a page or two from our international allies.

To boost your self-esteem requires a shift of mindset: limiting self-critical talk and celebrating personal strengths. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service recommends recognizing internalized negative thoughts and writing them down on a sheet of paper. It then suggests writing down positive attributes about yourself, too. This may seem like a small step, but that’s precisely why it works. Everyone has a pen and paper, and everyone has positive attributes. No excuses.

The Centre for Critical Interventions, in West Australia, has a comprehensive set of workbooks, information packets, and worksheets available on self-esteem. Included are tips and methods for recognizing biased expectations, adjusting assumptions, developing balanced core beliefs, and building healthy self-esteem.

Much of the advice comes down to being intentional about one’s thoughts. What are your definitions of success? How can you learn from your surroundings? What are the sources of negativity in your life, and from where do you draw positivity and strength?

Individuals looking to boost their self-esteem don’t necessarily have to look inward to do so. Taking the time to learn a new craft, to find a creative outlet, or to help someone else can lead to small and steady increases in one’s own self-esteem. And despite being a mental concept, self-esteem has roots in the physical world, too. Laughter and exercise remain two of the cheapest and most powerful medicines.

Everyone is in control of their own self-esteem, but it’s okay to ask for help. Counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists are all trained to help their clients work through their thoughts and beliefs and achieve a state of healthy self-esteem. Often, low self-esteem is the product of both internal and external forces, such as unhealthy relationships, and counselors provide a mix of compassionate listening and targeted therapy that can help untangle the knots.

The last year has been tough on the world’s self-esteem. Many people have spent many months sitting at home wearing sweatpants and missing the gym. Others, of course, have had it far worse. But as author and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn wrote, nothing is better for self-esteem than survival. As International Boost Self-Esteem Month approaches, we all deserve to raise our internal valuation of ourselves.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California, and he believes a strong society demands a stronger mental health system. Since early 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in counseling, research, and healthcare education. Drawing upon interviews with hospital CEOs, healthcare professionals, professors, and advocacy groups, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best.