There are two main ways to improve your self-esteem, depending on why you lack self-esteem in the first place. One reason you might have low self-esteem is because you lack integrity, or you don't have a good work ethic (slack on the job), or you try to get away with things, or you are not fair with others (don't return favors, etc.), or you're not very nice to other people. In all these ways, your actions can make you feel bad about yourself.
In this case, your bad feelings are appropriate. You are feeling the natural consequences of your actions. What needs to be changed is not your feelings, but your actions. Clean up your integrity, treat people better, work harder and more conscientiously on your job, have more reciprocity with others, and so on. And if you do this, your self-esteem will improve. You'll feel better about yourself. And in this case, your new good feelings will be appropriate. They'll be a reflection of your value and integrity.
Now what if you're already a good person, treat others well, are honest and ethical, but you still lack self-esteem? Then what?
If you are a good person but you think poorly of yourself, then it is not your actions that need to be changed, but your thoughts. You are thinking poorly. Your thoughts are inaccurate and inappropriate.
And the best way to change your thoughts is not to repeat positive statements to yourself. The best way is to catch yourself thinking negative things about yourself and then question those thoughts. This is an entirely different process with entirely different results.
Question your thoughts for accuracy.
In other words, you're not trying to be positive here. You're trying to be true. When you say something like, "I'm such a screw-up," look at that thought. Is it true? What would be a more accurate statement? What would be more specific? What would be more TRUE?
A truer, more accurate statement would be something like, "I made a mistake. I've made this mistake a few times before."
Do you see how this more accurate statement has a lot less sting? Do you see how it could reasonably make you feel better about yourself (or at least less bad)?
Can you also see that you could repeat, "I'm not a screw-up, I am a good person" a hundred times a day and it would make no difference?
Let me clue you in to a little-known but obvious fact about you: If you don't believe it, any thought you're thinking will have no influence on your feelings. The bad news is that this means saying positive statements to yourself won't do you much good.
But it also means that once you look at your negative thoughts about yourself and discover one that has been making you feel bad and after looking at it, realize it's not true, that thought stops influencing your feelings. Immediately. Once you no longer believe that negative thought about yourself, your feelings change.
Write down the negative things you say to yourself about yourself and check those thoughts for inaccuracies. Are you overgeneralizing? Are you selectively ignoring a positive trait you possess? Are you assuming you know what someone else is thinking? Here is a list of possible mistakes you can make in your thinking.
Check your negative thoughts against this list and see if you are committing thought-mistakes.
As soon as you realize one of your negative thoughts is a mistake, your feelings will start to change. You'll feel better about yourself. Your self-esteem will rise to where it should be — an appropriate amount of self-esteem for a person who treats others fairly and keeps your integrity.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.