4 Steps From DBT That Can Boost Your Self Esteem

Linnea Butler is the founder of Bay Area Mental Health
Low self esteem seems to be almost an epidemic in our society, yet we play the part of feeling strong and acting confident by what I call “putting on the face”. This is also referred to as “Imposter Syndrome”. With Imposter Syndrome you present yourself as the perfect employee, spouse, parent, friend, etc but inside you feel like a fraud, weak and falling apart at the seams. It takes tremendous energy to keep up appearances when you are in emotional pain, so the growing weariness burdens you even more and you end up in a repeating cycle: perform – berate yourself collapse – suck it up – perform. Building self esteem takes time and it occurs in little steps, little wins. Every time you follow one of the steps below (pay attention to number 3!) your self esteem grows a little bit more, and every time you do the opposite your self esteem takes a step backward.

Building self esteem is all about living in congruence with your values and treating yourself and others fairly.  You might be asking yourself what that means? We have opportunities to build self esteem each and every day. It takes awareness of our actions, followed by making conscious and intentional choices.

You can use the acronym “FAST” (from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Therapy approach) to help you remember steps you can take when making daily choices to build self esteem and get past Imposter Syndrome.

1. Be Fair: Be fair in your interactions with others. Don’t blame them and don’t take on all the responsibility. Be fair with yourself too! Remember to validate yourself by giving yourself cheerleading messages such as “I’m doing the right thing”, “it’s OK to take care of myself”, or “my needs are important too”. Come up with a few of your own cheerleading statements. They should speak to you and feel right but also be a bit challenging.

2. No excessive apologies: Don’t over apologize. Don’t apologize for making a request or saying “no”. Don’t apologize for something that you didn’t do, or something that you don’t feel badly about. It can be tempting to try to “soften” the blow by apologizing to someone, but it doesn’t really help them and it just makes you feel worse. For example if a neighbor is always asking for favors and never gives consideration in return, consider replying to their 50th request to watch their dog, for example, in the following 2 ways: Option 1 – “I’m so sorry but I can’t watch your dog next weekend, maybe next time” versus Option 2 – “I’m not available to watch your dog next weekend”. Are you really sorry? Which statement feels more empowering to you?

3. Stick to your values: Every time you make a choice that is in congruence (matching) your values your self esteem goes up a little bit. Every time you ignore your values your self esteem goes down a little bit. Over time, by making choices and doing things that match your values, you build your self esteem. Your values are important, don’t sell yourself short. But first, you have to sit down and really think about what your core values are.

Here is a list of possible values you may hold close to your heart. Please add your own if you don’t see it included – the possibilities are endless. Pick out your top 5 values and write them down somewhere you will see them and be reminded of them everyday. Your bathroom mirror or the fridge are good places. It’s usually hard to select only 5. You might need to select more than 5 and then keep paring down the list by considering what you can live without. Now, every time you make a choice consider your 5 top values and ask yourself:

  • Does this reflect my values?
  • Does this get me closer to my goal?
  • Will I feel better or worse after I do this?
  • What does my gut tell me to do?
Acceptance          Achievement          Activity                Adaptability             Adventurousness
Affectionateness   Altruism                  Ambition             Assertiveness          Attentiveness
Availability             Awareness             Belongingness    Bravery                    Calm
Capability              Caring                   Challenge            Charity                     Cleanliness
Closeness             Comfort                Committment       Compassion            Confidence
Connection           Consistency          Contentment        Contribution            Cooperation
Courage               Courteousness      Creativity              Credibility                Decisiveness
Dependability       Determination         Devotion              Dignity                    Discipline
Discretion             Diversity                 Drive                   Duty                         Education
Effectiveness        Empathy                Encouragement   Endurance               Energy
Enjoyment            Excellence              Exploration          Expressiveness        Fairness
Faith                     Family                    Fidelity                 Firmness                 Financial Independence
Fitness                 Freedom                 Friendship            Fun                        Generosity
Giving                  Grace                     Gratitude              Happiness              Harmony
Health                  Honesty                  Honor                 Hopefulness            Humility
Humor                  Hygiene                 Independence      Integrity                  Intelligence
Intensity               Intimacy                 Joy                       Kindness                Knowledge
Leadership           Learning                 Love                    Loyalty                   Mindfulness
Modesty              Motivation               Neatness             Openess                Optimism
Order                   Passion                  Peace                  Persistence             Playfulness
Pleasantness       Pleasure                 Popularity            Practicality              Pragmatism
Privacy                Professionalism      Prosperity            Relaxation               Reliability
Religion               Resilience               Resoluteness       Respect                  Restraint
Sacrifice              Security                 Self Compassion   Self Control             Self Reliance
Sensitivity            Service                   Sharing                 Simplicity               Sincerity
Spirituality            Spontaneity           Stability                 Strength                 Structure
Success              Support                  Teamwork            Thankfulness          Thoughtfulness
Trust                    Truth                      Usefulness            Warmth                  Willingness

4. Tell the truth: Be truthful in all your interactions, both with yourself and with the other person. It may be tempting to tell a white lie or make up excuses to get out of saying something uncomfortable but it has a negative impact on your sense of self. It is so much more empowering just to say your truth. You can be kind and still be honest. When my mother reflects on difficult times in her life she always says that what got her through was the word TRUTH and staying true to herself.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills such as the ones outlined here can help you build your overall happiness and daily satisfaction with life. We aren’t born knowing these skills and there are no classes on them in school (yet) but it’s never too late to learn.