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What Mindfulness and Acceptance Can Do for Your Self-Esteem

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By Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, author of "The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder" and "Don't Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Teens"

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), created in the early 1990s by psychologist Marsha Linehan, is one of the newer psychotherapies being used to treat a variety of emotional problems. Similar to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which has been used successfully for many years to treat emotional problems including self-esteem issues, DBT adds to this the concepts of mindfulness and acceptance.

Mindfulness is a way of living your life so that you are in the present moment more often, with awareness, and with acceptance. Acceptance in this context doesn't mean that you approve of your experience, but that you simply acknowledge your present experience without judging it.

So what does this have to do with self-esteem? Everything! Just stop for a moment and think about this: How often do you really think about what you're thinking about? Have you ever had someone ask you what you were thinking about, and you had no idea? We're often completely oblivious to what we're thinking and feeling; and when we are aware of these things, we're often judging these internal experiences. Self-talk has a big impact on how you feel, and when you judge yourself or beat yourself up, it triggers painful emotions like anger, anxiety, disappointment and sadness; and it lowers your self-esteem.

Consider these questions to help you think about how you talk to yourself:

  • When you make a mistake, do you tend to judge yourself for it (e.g. "That was stupid," "I'm such an idiot")?
  • Do you think you are "your own worst critic," as the saying goes?
  • Does it sometimes feel like you have a tape-recorder running in your head, playing the same messages over and over again? For example: "I'm worthless," "I'm stupid," "How could anyone ever love me?"
  • When considering a new challenge, do you find yourself filled with self-doubt? For example: "I'll never be able to do this," "I'm not good enough," "Who am I kidding?"

Many people experience these kinds of thoughts so automatically that it's difficult for them to be aware of when these thoughts are present. In fact, in CBT these thoughts are actually referred to as "automatic thoughts." In spite of this lack of awareness of your thoughts, though, they still trigger painful emotions for you, making you feel bad about yourself and reducing your self-esteem.

This is where the DBT skills of mindfulness and acceptance come in: first, through mindfulness, you increase your awareness of these judgmental thoughts and the resulting emotions. Then you work on bringing acceptance to your experience -- accepting the thoughts as just thoughts; accepting the emotions they trigger; and gradually, accepting yourself as you are.

There are other DBT skills that help build self-esteem as well, such as:

  • Self-soothing skills help you improve your ability to take care of yourself through activities that help you to relax and feel calmer,
  • Building mastery helps you increase things you do that help you to feel productive and good about yourself for what you've accomplished, and
  • Interpersonal effectiveness skills help you learn to be more effective in relationships, including how to communicate more assertively, which helps you to feel better about yourself.

Of course, learning these skills and practicing them on your own isn't easy. Some people are able to do this with self-help books, but others need to work with a psychotherapist. Either way, the DBT skills are flexible and can be used to help with self-esteem issues, other emotional problems and simply to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Sheri Van Dijk, MSW is a mental health therapist in private practice and at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. She is author of "The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder: Using DBT to Regain Control of Your Emotions and Your Life," "Don't Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Teens: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills for Helping You Manage Mood Swings, Control Angry Outbursts, and Get Along with Others" and co-author of "The Bipolar Workbook for Teens: DBT Skills to Help You Control Mood Swings."

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