As someone dedicated to helping people improve their wellbeing and catalyze their growth, a question often on my mind is: how do you encourage someone to change? The short answer is that people only change when they’re ready. But this leads to another question: when are people ready to change?

Within all self-help guidance there’s a potential trap. To make genuine, lasting change, you have to feel worthy of the benefits. But when you have low self-esteem, the only way to build worth is through direct action. This paradox illustrates one of the greatest struggles in development — how do you practice self-love when you have low self-esteem?

Fortunately, there is a way out of this seeming dead-end. In this article, I’ll guide you through a few ways to navigate the journey of self-love. I’ll highlight a few ways you might get stuck, and the best way to improve self-esteem, worthiness, and the most important relationship in your life… the relationship with you.

What is self-esteem?

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is associated with the way you view yourself. Our self-image is molded through life experiences and often heavily shaped during childhood. If we develop healthy self-esteem, we feel content in our own skin, confident in our abilities, and are able to meet life’s challenges in a resourceful way. Too high self-esteem can be damaging, though, leading to overconfidence in our abilities and a lack of willingness to explore our flaws.

Self-esteem is a spectrum. Signs of low self-esteem include a lack of confidence, harsh judgments about your ability, and a poor sense of self-worth. It can be a struggle to accept any compliments or comments on your finer qualities. Although we all feel a little insecure at times, self-esteem becomes an issue when it interferes with day-to-day life.

In Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, esteem is near the top of the pyramid, just below self-actualization. In Maslow’s theory, esteem plays an important role in thriving as a human. He separated esteem into two categories — esteem for oneself and the desire for respect from others.

Because of the link between our self-image and our perception of others, self-esteem is usually a product of comparison. People with low self-esteem are more likely to compare themselves poorly to others, leading to a spiral of low self-worth.

How to improve your self-esteem

There is a catch — self-esteem is linked to our achievements, abilities, and often our life situation. Studies have shown negative life experiences can have a knock-on effect on how someone views themselves, with self-esteem fluctuating throughout the course of a single day. Combine this with the understanding self-esteem can be too high, it appears improving self-esteem might not be the most efficient course of action.

That’s not to say healthy levels of self-esteem aren’t desirable. But the lengths people go to boost their self-esteem is a slippery slope. You might end up on a treadmill of self-improvement, always looking for ways to “improve.” Your subconscious motivation can be the belief that once you become a certain way, then you become lovable. 

Having been involved in self-development for over a decade, I see this is a lot. People push themselves to improve, learning new skills, reading all the books, taking courses. Without realizing it, they’re running away from themselves. The underpinning belief is “I am not worthy.” This is where self-love comes in.

What is self-love?

What is self-love?

A key distinction between self-esteem and self-love also highlights why improving self-esteem isn’t necessarily going to get the best results. Self-esteem is a perception — you witness yourself and perceive yourself to be good or bad, worthy or not worthy, for example. It’s a judgment of value. Self-love, on the other hand, is a relationship. It defines how you relate to yourself. This is a crucial difference.

Naturally, if you are relating to yourself in a loving way, your view of yourself will improve as a byproduct. But there’s another potential trap (these are everywhere!) when you explore how to practice self-love. How do you go from feeling unworthy and potentially unlovable to developing a loving relationship with yourself? Isn’t this impossible?

To a degree, yes. That’s why in my courses I advocate self-acceptance as a starting point. Remember the image of someone learning all the new self-improvement tips under the sun, in order to become lovable? What if this same person were to accept themselves, embrace all of their flaws, weaknesses, and finer qualities? Well, then the magic happens. Self-acceptance is the bridge to self-love.

How to practice self-love

How to practice self-love?

Imagine you are in a room with someone you don’t like. This is a person you’ve had a poor relationship with over a long period of time. If I asked you to love this person, do you think it’d be effective? Compare that to another approach. What if I said to you: “I’d like you to try your best to find compassion for this person — to see them fully, acknowledge they have flaws as we all do as imperfect beings. Over time, I’d like you to try to become more accepting of this person.

“There’s no pressure to love them. But I’d still like you to be kind to this person. I would like you to be more tolerant, more caring. To take little steps to build a bridge between you. To see that they aren’t all bad or all good, and they, like everyone else, deserve forgiveness.”

How does that feel? This summarizes the path of self-love. It begins with acceptance. It’s enacted through compassion and acts of kindness. And over time, self-love slowly builds. All the while, due to this nurturing relationship, your self-esteem reaches a healthy level, without any direct work.

To return to my opening question, perhaps we have an answer. How do you get someone to change? Begin by encouraging them to accept who they are, in this very moment, right here, right now.

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