Start small and focus on the next step, instead of the overall result

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 and allows us to deal with life’s challenges better. Lower the self-esteem, the more we see ourselves in a critical light, and less confident we’ll be of taking on the challenges life throws at us.

Let’s figure out what self-esteem it and how to get it.

How do we get Self-esteem in the First Place?

In the Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™, we have a nine-step programme that focuses on the fact that your mind (including willpower and motivation) and body (strength and endurance) are pliable and can be made unbelievably strong in just a few simple steps.

But by far the most difficult aspect of change is self-esteem. That is because the process of building self-esteem starts in early childhood and for the most part goes on until young adulthood. Our parents, teachers, friends and the media are telling us about ourselves. Unfortunately, the message that ‘you aren’t good enough’ stays with you more.

Later life events such as loss of a loved one, 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. However, I realised that 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 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 weightage to people around me, who were simply not as equipped as I was — it led to disastrous consequences at times. I still take inputs and feedback but do not make that mistake again.

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 defense mechanisms to hide from others what we know is a fact. Narcissism, unwillingness to give up control and being sensitive 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 stunt 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 and downs in your stride.

Developing Self-esteem is Tough but Doable

I have found that most self-help advice is worthless for one simple reason. 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 who they are!

Five Simple Steps to Improve 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 its success. Task-based reinforcement that rewards small successes in quick succession is a drug. You should be on it!

Identify real talent and 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 a real talent you have? If you find one core competency and can find opportunities that accentuate it, 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 for what I was not and focused on what I was. For instance, I did not have to be a likeable person so stopped caring. I realised this drive meant that everyone will not walk on the same path or at the same pace, and I could change mine. So I focused on the drive and forgave myself for not being 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. But there is seldom any real analysis of which actions caused these.

For instance, if a woman rejected me I didn’t just feel low and berate myself — I asked why? If a stable future was important for her but I was emotionally unavailable, I stopped trying to work on what I was bad at and focused on what I was good at. I was witty and well-read and had the confidence that 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 in anyone’s good books but to stand out!

Start saying no

Low self-esteem often makes us feel we have to say 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 and angry. You must realise that saying no doesn’t upset relationships, on the other hand, it sets a clear expectation. 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 intimidating overall result.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla 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. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two 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 five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.