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Building Self-Esteem by Changing Negative Thoughts

SAMHSA - Mary Ellen Copeland, M.S., M.A. Updated: Apr 20th 2016

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

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.

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," 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 imagine 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 and more of them.

It helps to take a closer look at your negative thought patterns to check out 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 badly about myself, why not stop thinking 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.

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, warm.

Avoid using negative words such as worried, frightened, upset, tired, bored, not, never, can't. Don't make a statement like "I am not going to worry any more." 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, 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 as shown on the next page.

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 thought 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 on 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 if over and over to yourself when you are deeply relaxed, like 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.

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.


Sourced from Building Self-esteem: A Self-Help Guide, SAMHSA booklet SMA-3715


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Your not alone - - Oct 22nd 2014

You are not garbage. I know it seems hard to believe and internalize coming from a stranger. I don't know you or your story, but I can hear the pain and frustration in your post. I agree, thinking power alone cannot change self perception. Its not always a quick fix and some things are a lot more complex and deeply rooted. I would encourage you to seek support from a therapist that will help you work through something that may be getting in your way of self love. Even though I don't know you I love, support, value, and have the utmost respect for you as one human being to another. I hope you find your path to self love and happiness.

It doesn't work!!!!!!! - Tori - Jun 26th 2011

I am 70 years old and I have been trying to find something worthwhile about me for at least 68 years.  Writing lists?  What crap!!!!!!!!  Anyone can write whatever they are told (because they know damn well that if they write something about themselves it will not be true).  Doesn't change a thing!

I am garbage!  I have always been garbage!  I have tried all of my life to change that...and I am still garbage.  I have tried lying to me and telling me that I am not entirely garbage...but although I AM garbage, I am not STUPID garbage!  I even spent over 4 years studying Psychology (yeah, I got a degree) and I am still garbage.  I'm sorry, but sometimes one just has to live with what they are.  If I were a midget or deformed some way other than emotionally I would have to find a way to live with it.  Instead of trying to get someone to believe the impossible, why can't others just help we emotionally deformed ones learn to accept ourselves and do the best we can with what we have?  But, of course, that is ridiculous!  If we could be accepted and love as we are we wouldn't be emotionally deformed least, not as badly.

Does this resonate with anyone...or am I still the most useless garbage?

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