Building Self-Esteem by Changing Negative Thoughts

Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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Negative thoughts are automatic, self-critical beliefs or assumptions about yourself that arise in response to specific triggers or situations. These thoughts often reflect a distorted perception of reality and can significantly impair your emotional and mental well-being. Immediate psychological impacts include feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression, and a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with your life. It's a common experience shared by many; these thoughts can subtly infiltrate our daily lives, affecting our decisions, actions, and overall sense of self-esteem.


We all encounter negative self-talk at some point, with phrases like "I can't do anything right" or "I'm not good enough" frequently playing in the back of our minds. Recognizing the universality of these experiences is the first step toward developing a healthier, more compassionate relationship with ourselves. This guide aims to illuminate the path from self-criticism to self-acceptance, offering strategies to transform negative thought patterns into affirmations of self-worth and resilience.

Identifying Negative Thoughts

You may be giving yourself negative messages about yourself. Many people do. Sometimes, these are messages that you learned when you were young. You learned from many different sources, including other children, your teachers, family members, caregivers, and the media, as well as prejudice and stigma in our society.

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Once you have learned them, you may have repeated these negative messages over and over to yourself, especially when you were not feeling well or when you were having a hard time. You may have come to believe them. You may have even worsened the problem by making up some negative messages or thoughts of your own. These negative thoughts or messages make you feel bad about yourself and lower your self-esteem.

Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says, "It can be particularly hard to break habits around negative self-talk if those messages were adopted during a time of growth or struggle. Maybe you were bullied as a teen and hadn't formed a clear sense of self when you took these messages on. Perhaps you'd just experienced failure or loss at a time when you felt helpless and now tell yourself you're useless and aren't even sure why. This isn't uncommon but can be corrected."

Some examples of common negative messages that people repeat over and over to themselves include: "I am a jerk," "I am a loser," "I never do anything right," "No one would ever like me," and "I am a klutz." Most people believe these messages, no matter how untrue or unreal they are. They come up immediately in the right circumstance—for instance, if you get a wrong answer, you think, "I am so stupid." They may include words like should, ought, or must. The messages tend to be the worst in everything, especially you, and they are hard to turn off or unlearn.

You may think these thoughts or give yourself these negative messages so often that you are hardly aware of them. Pay attention to them. Carry a small pad with you as you go about your daily routine for several days, and jot down negative thoughts about yourself whenever you notice them. Some people say they notice more negative thinking when they are tired, sick, or dealing with a lot of stress. As you become aware of your negative thoughts, you may notice more of them.

It helps to take a closer look at your negative thought patterns to check whether or not they are true. You may want a close friend or counselor to help you with this. When you are in a good mood and when you have a positive attitude about yourself, ask yourself the following questions about each negative thought you have noticed:

  • Is this message really true?
  • Would a person say this to another person? If not, why am I saying it to myself?
  • What do I get out of thinking this thought? If it makes me feel bad about myself, why not stop thinking about it?

You could also ask someone else, someone who likes you and who you trust, if you should believe this thought about yourself. Often, just looking at a thought or situation in a new light helps. Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says it can also be helpful to try to look at yourself from someone who knows you well and who you trust's point of view: "I like to ask my clients if their best friend or partner would agree and say that about them too. It's also helpful for people to think about how they would feel if their partner or friend were talking about themselves in that way and whether they would agree. By shifting the focus externally instead of inward, it can be easy to understand how negative self-talk is usually too harsh and even untrue."

Countering Negative Thoughts With Positive Thoughts

The next step in this process is to develop positive statements you can say to yourself to replace these negative thoughts whenever you notice yourself thinking them. You can't think two thoughts at the same time. When you are thinking a positive thought about yourself, you can't be thinking a negative one. In developing these thoughts, use positive words like happy, peaceful, loving, enthusiastic, and warm.

Avoid using negative words such as worried, frightened, upset, tired, bored, not, never, or can't. Don't make a statement like, "I am not going to worry anymore." Instead, say, "I focus on the positive," or whatever feels right to you. Substitute "it would be nice if" for "should." Always use the present tense, e.g., "I am healthy, I am well, I am happy, and I have a good job," as if the condition already exists. Use I, me, or your own name.

You can do this by folding a piece of paper in half the long way to make two columns. In one column, write your negative thought, and in the other column, write a positive thought that contradicts the negative thought.

You can work on changing your negative thoughts to positive ones by:

  • Replacing the negative thought with the positive one every time you realize you are thinking the negative thought
  • Repeating your positive thoughts over and over to yourself out loud whenever you get a chance and even sharing them with another person if possible
  • Writing them over and over
  • Making signs that say the positive thought, hanging them in places where you would see them often—like on your refrigerator door or the mirror in your bathroom—and repeating the thought to yourself several times when you see it.

Negative Thought Positive Thought
I am not worth anything. I am a valuable person.
I have never accomplished anything. I have accomplished many things.
I always make mistakes. I do many things well.
I am a jerk. I am a great person.
I don't deserve a good life. I deserve to be happy and healthy.
I am stupid. I am smart.

It helps to reinforce the positive thought if you repeat it over and over to yourself when you are deeply relaxed, such as when you are doing a deep breathing or relaxation exercise or when you are just falling asleep or waking up.

Changing the negative thoughts you have about yourself to positive ones takes time and persistence. If you use the following techniques consistently for four to six weeks, you will notice that you don't think these negative thoughts about yourself as much. If they recur at some other time, you can repeat these activities. Don't give up. You deserve to think good thoughts about yourself.

When to Seek Professional Help

Identifying the point at which negative thoughts warrant professional intervention is key to maintaining mental and overall well-being. Negative thoughts become concerning when they persist and deeply infiltrate your life, leading to emotional, mental, and even physical distress. Here are signs that it's time to consider therapy or counseling.

  • Persistent and invasive negative thoughts: Thoughts that are constant and seem to dominate your daily life, leaving little room for positive or neutral reflections
  • Significant impact on daily functioning: Difficulty performing at work, engaging in social relationships, or maintaining regular self-care routines
  • Emotional distress: Experiencing overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, emotional numbness, or anxiety that doesn't improve over time
  • Physical symptoms: Noticing changes in sleep patterns or appetite or experiencing unexplained physical aches and pains
  • Engagement in self-destructive behaviors: Turning to substance use, self-harm, or harboring thoughts of suicide
  • Withdrawal from social activities: Avoiding friends, family, and activities you once enjoyed
  • Irritability, anger, or increased anxiety: Feeling out of control with your emotions, leading to strained relationships or isolation
  • Feeling trapped: Believing there are no solutions or ways to improve your situation

Accessible Resources for Finding Professional Help

  • Mental health hotlines and websites: Look for national or local hotlines and websites offering support and information on accessing mental health services.
  • Consult your primary healthcare provider: A trusted doctor can provide referrals to mental health specialists suited to your needs.
  • Insurance coverage: Contact your insurance provider for a list of covered mental health professionals and services.
  • Local mental health clinics: Many communities offer clinics with services priced on a sliding scale, making mental health care more accessible.
  • Online therapy services: Utilize websites and apps to connect with licensed therapists from home, offering privacy and flexibility in your care.

If you recognize these signs in yourself or someone close to you, reaching out for professional support is a courageous and important step toward recovery. Professional help can provide the strategies and support needed to navigate through these challenges, leading to improved mental health and quality of life.

In Conclusion

These suggestions are just the beginning of the journey. As you work on building your self-esteem, you will notice that you feel better more and more often, that you are enjoying your life more than you did before, and that you are doing more of the things you have always wanted to do.

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