By: Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC


Many people go through life expecting the worst. Alfred Alder, the 19th century Austrian psychotherapist, stated: “Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations.” But you can help your clients change their perceptions of themselves and the world and, as a result, work toward positive and high self-esteem.

In the words of self-help pioneer, Maxwell Maltz: “Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on.

When people have deep spiritual, physical, and emotional wounds, they can carry these burdens with them through life. In so doing, they cloud their perception of their own value or importance. And our perception of ourselves is what dictates our self-esteem.

In carrying the burdens of low self-esteem, people often substitute these feelings with dependency self-gratification methods, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, and pornography. In some ways, these people want control of changing their low self-image, and for too many the answer is to indulge or self-medicate. Dependencies allow them to deal with the status quo and numb away the negative feelings.

What is Low Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem refers to the overall opinion we have of ourselves and the value we place on ourselves as people. Low self-esteem means that the tone of this opinion is negative: for example, “I’m unlovable” or “I’m useless.”

Of course most people have mixed opinions of themselves, but if the overall opinion is that you are an inadequate or inferior person, or if you feel that you have no true worth and are not entitled to the good things in life, this is low self-esteem. And low self-esteem can have a painful and damaging effect on one’s life.

The Ways People Support Their Low Self-Esteem

 Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning in their book Self-Esteem (New Harbinger Publications, 2000) list ways in which one maintains a low view of oneself. Talk to your clients to see if they practice any of these bad habits:

  • Overgeneralization: From an isolated event, you make a general, universal rule. If you failed once, you’ll always fail.
  • Global Labeling: You automatically use negative preconceived labels to describe yourself, rather than accurately describing your qualities.
  •  Filtering: You selectively pay attention to the negative and disregard the positive.
  •  Polarized Thinking: You lump things into absolutes, black and white categories, with no middle ground. You have to be perfect or you’re worthless.
  •  Self-Blame: You consistently blame yourself for things that may not really be your fault.
  •  Personalization: You assume that everything has something to do with you, and you negatively compare yourself to everyone else.
  •  Mind Reading: You assume that others don’t like you, are angry with you, don’t care about you and so on, without any real evidence that your assumptions are correct.
  •  Control Fallacies: You either feel that you have total responsibility for everybody and everything or feel that you have no control; that you are a helpless victim.
  •  Emotional Reasoning: You assume that things are the way you feel about them.

Ways of Increasing Self-Esteem

 We are what we think. What people take in influences their perceptions of themselves, and the filters they use to gather information about themselves is key in how they feel.

The problem with changing anything in life is that people fight it: no matter how bad they feel, humans are creatures of habit.

The following is a list of potential ways of increasing self-esteem that you can recommend to clients in your practice:

  •  Use positive self-talk: Tell yourself you can handle it and support yourself in going after your goals.
  • Engage in regular physical activity: Regular exercise fends off depression, low energy, and disease, while increasing stress management abilities and enhancing your mood.
  • Take care of your needs: Be good to yourself by getting adequate sleep, taking care of your personal hygiene, creating time to be alone, saying no when you need to, eating in nutritious ways, stimulating your mind, and connecting with others.
  • Let the little things go: It is damaging to your health to beat yourself up over every little thing.
  • Own who you are: Give yourself permission to like what you like and not like what you don’t like.
  • Practice self-acceptance: Get to know yourself. Let go of any need to be perfect.
  • Be creative: Creativity helps you achieve a greater sense of well-being and gain better control of your thoughts. Step out of the box.
  • Have a grateful and optimistic attitude about life: Practice daily gratitudes.
  • Have personal integrity and live by your values: Listen to your inner voice.
  • Participate in meaningful activities: Follow your passions.

The bottom line when it comes to self-esteem is we play the most important role in our own self-esteem. One’s personal happiness can greatly increase by taking positive action in changing one’s attitude.

Advise your clients to take time in their days to meditate and take stock in how they are processing the world around them. Teach them to be attuned to setting healthy boundaries with themselves and others, and not be afraid of asking a trusted love one to give a valid and honest assessment of how they are doing. Lastly, tell them to take the brake off, and allow themselves the freedom to enjoy the ride of their lives.

“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.” Karen Ravn


Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC is a counselor at Mental Wellness Counseling in Traverse City, MI. He specializes in helping families dealing with complex family situations, addictions, and transitions. Steve is also helping clients through the Intensive Recover Program, which helps with recovery treatment, alcohol treatment, and other addictions treatment. Contact Steve at 231-714-0282 Ext. 701

Steve Greenman Traverse City Counselor
Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC | Thoughtful Experience