Self-esteem quite simply is the opinion we have of ourselves. It stands to reason that it should be a realistic summation of our lives journey, our achievements and reflect what others think of us. But it is more complex than that. 

Even without knowing clearly what it is we know that healthy self-esteem is desirable  — it makes us feel positive about life & allows us to deal with life’s challenges better. Lower self-esteem, we see ourselves in a more critical light and less confident of taking on the challenges life throws at us. Now let’s figure what is it and how to get it.

How do we get it in the first place?

In the Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™, we have a 9 step program that focuses on the fact that your mind (including willpower, motivation) and your body (strength, endurance) are all pliable and can be made unbelievably strong in just a few simple steps. But by far the most difficult aspect of a change in self-esteem. That is because the process of building self-esteem is an early life experience that starts in very early childhood and for the most part goes on until young adulthood. Our parents, teachers, friends & media are telling us about ourselves. Unfortunately, the messages that you aren’t good enough to stay with you more. Later life events such as loss of a loved one or professional setbacks, or a big life win will also have an effect on self-esteem but for the most part, the self-image is already well-formed. 

I was successful by any reckoning  — worked in the best companies, was a fast riser, was respected for my drive and intellect, carried the symbols of success and then built a successful company. I realised first I had a self-image issue as TWB and then VOSD started growing and I started giving interviews. It was my total resistance to compliments. It was a funny feeling  — I wanted to be appreciated but when someone actually did I pretended otherwise. Thinking harder led me to look at my growing up years and where that lack of self-esteem came from. 

That lack of self-belief, at the time, has had telling professional consequences for me. Professionally I was always inclusive in decision making with my teams. Interestingly when I was working for others it was a great habit but at TWB where implications were huge, as ultimately only I was responsible in the end for the fate of my company, and my people. At many crucial junctures of decision making, I gave a much higher weight to people to people around me, who were simply not as equipped as I was. I had heard them over myself  — a few times with disastrous consequences. I still take inputs and feedback do not make that mistake again. 

But this experience shows something about self-esteem:

  1. It does not always show up as a lack of confidence: In the short term, avoiding challenging situations makes you feel a lot safer. In the longer term, it reinforces your underlying doubts. Living with low self-esteem expresses itself in depression, anxiety and smoking and drinking as a way of coping. We are also experts in masking low self-esteem — we develop a variety of defence mechanisms to not show to others what we know ourselves to me. Narcissism, unwillingness to give up control and being thin-skinned are some of them. Such people feel great about themselves but they also tend to be extremely vulnerable to criticism and respond to it in ways that stunts self-growth.
  2. Self-esteem is contextual: Our self-esteem is not just a global stable state that is our overall feeling about ourselves – it depends on the context of time and can change daily as different circumstances present themselves. It also changes in the context of how we feel about ourselves in the specific domains of our lives — for instance as a parent, as a professional, as an artist etc. What I have discovered is that the more meaningful a specific domain of self-esteem is in our lives, the greater the impact it has on our global self-esteem. If being a parent is important for you, and if your child thinks you are a great parent, you are more likely to take your professional ups in downs in your stride.

Developing self-esteem is surprisingly tough, but doable

I have found that most of the self-help advice is worthless for one simple reason. Most of it focuses on positive reaffirmation such as “I am going to be a great success”. But positive messaging actually makes people with low self-worth feel worse about themselves — because we know such declarations are simply too contrary to our existing belief. Ironically, positive affirmations do work for one subset of people — those whose self-esteem is already high. Watching this in myself, and others, I have become so good at it that seeing the social pages of a person full of self-reinforcing messages gives me a pretty good idea of where they are!

Here are my 5 simple steps to improving self-esteem:

Change the positive reaffirmation

Change “I’m going to be a great success!” to “I’m going to finish today’s assignment”. Remember what gets rewarded gets repeated. If you feel good about the small victories of the day you are likely to repeat and build on the success. Task-based reinforcement that rewards small successes in quick succession – is a drug. You should be on it! 

Identify real talent & develop it

Demonstrating real ability and achievement in areas that matter in our lives is the best way to build self-esteem. Have you seriously thought (a) what matters to you, and (b) what is is a real talent you have? If you find one core competency and can find opportunities that accentuate it will elevate your overall picture of yourself as well. 

Be compassionate – to yourself 

When our self-esteem is low we are even more self-critical. It’s a vicious loop. What you should be is self-compassionate. When I was going through the toughest time in my life I learnt a great skill — I started forgiving myself on what I was not and focus on what I was. I did not have to be a likeable person for instance and stopped caring — I realised that drive meant that everyone will not walk the same path or the same pace — and I could change mine. So I focussed on the drive and forgave myself not as likeable as others expected. 

Focus on what you’re good at

With success as with failure – we keep moving from one event to another. What we remember from these are the feelings we felt – elation or disappointment etc but there is seldom any real analysis of what set actions that caused these. If a woman rejected me I didn’t just feel low and berate myself, I asked – why? For example, it was important for her for a stable future that I am emotionally unavailable. I stopped trying to work on what I was bad at – and focussed on what I was good at. I was witty and well-read and had confidence and I was a good fit for someone who is an emotionally secure person. In my professional life as I confronted the energy-sapping office politics, I figured I had an inability to please people but I had a terrific work ethic. I started focusing not on being anyone’s good books but just stand out!

Start saying ‘no’

Low self-esteem often makes us feel we have to yes to other people because we might offend them otherwise and we want to be liked. Keeping others’ priorities is a task that can only make you resentful & angry. You must realise that saying no doesn’t upset relationships, on the other hand, it sets a clear expectation. And if there are people who will leave because you refused a lunch invite — well then you should lose them!

Improving self-esteem is hard because it involves developing and maintaining healthier emotional habits. That said, it is certainly possible to improve self-esteem if we go about it the right way. As with moving from the inertia of procrastination, or building yourself to be The Toughest Person You Know™ – the trick is to start small and focus on the next step and not the overall intimidating result.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA™ is a framework for developing unparalleled Mental & Physical toughness developed over Rakesh’s life. It has driven 2 comebacks.

Rakesh Shukla has slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — TWB which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel and others. At 43, over one year he lost everything. Alone & friendless he spent the next 5 years repaying over INR 20 crores of debt & taxes, building back his company and reputation. While creating & funding VOSD the world’s largest dog sanctuary & rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was 7 yrs old, had had 2 heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this 5 year period, Rakesh was 88kg in weight and very unfit. Today at 48 yrs he can lift well over 100kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2000 push-ups or 250 pulls ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer or taken any supplements.