Beyond Blue

Five years ago I walked into my therapist’s office feeling like a Krispy-Kreme doughnut: I had no center. Everything I attempted both professionally and personally flopped. I had no sense of self, no confidence, and no faith in myself. I found nothing of value in my DNA.

So she assigned me a project that I have since called “The Self-Esteem File.” Here are 10 steps for starting your own.

Step One: Identify Ten Strengths in Yourself

My therapist first told me to try to identify ten of my strengths–ten positive qualities about myself—and to write them down on a piece of paper. This first step, trying to recognize your own assets, and to begin, ever so slightly, to believe in yourself again, is the most important. And the most difficult.

Think hard about what people have told you in the past: things that you do especially well, or about personality traits they admire. Think about your job. Why are you good at it? Or about your hobby. What makes you enjoy it? What is that something special about you?

You might also go through old birthday cards, or report cards, or annual reviews (excerpting ONLY the positive), think back to past conversations with friends, page through photo albums and scrap books—anything to recall those times when people recognized your talents and assets and expressed appreciation for them.

Step Two: Come up With Four People to List Your Strengths

If you were unable to come up with 10 positive traits about yourself, I totally understand that. Because the first time I tried to do it, I couldn’t get there either. I stopped at two: I had a nice-shaped nose and thick fingernails. And those two qualities were exactly making me feel whole again.

So here’s the next step: you need to come up with four people who will write that list for you.

Now I know what you’re thinking: if I had four people in my life who would tell me why I am wonderful, then I wouldn’t have low self-esteem….right? I admit that coming up with four friends is easier for an extrovert like me who publishes all of her insecurities and personality flaws online for everyone to read than it is for a very private, introverted person. But I’m thinking that there are four people in your life who could do this for you. Not necessarily friends … maybe co-workers, or siblings, or teachers, or pastors, or US postal service carriers. Think about people who have complimented you in the past. Go there.

Step Three: Make Four Friends

If you still can’t think of four people in your life who could identify and list 10 of your assets, then you need to make more friends. And I have some ideas! Go read my post “12 Ways to Make Friends,” (, in which I mention a few strategies like: joining a book club, volunteering with a charity or civic association, getting involved with your church, going online and joining a group like “Group Beyond Blue” (,  seeking a support group, taking a night class, getting a dog (pet owners stick together), stealing friends from other friends (my favorite), carpooling to work, attending a conference, connecting with your alumni associations (attending reunions and so forth), and talking to strangers (which is how I met my guardian angel, Ann).

Step Four: Ask Your Four People to Make the List

Now that you have at least four people who can ideally compile a list of positive traits for you, what do you say to them????

I know. This is not easy. Because it is admitting that you are, well, in a bit of a rut. Which is why you can make up something like the following (which isn’t a lie … really!): “For a project I’m doing with an online group, I need to assign four people with the task of listing 10 positive traits about me. I thought of you since you’re such a positive and complimentary person. Would you ever consider doing that for me?”

If you know the friend well, you might say something a tad more revealing: “Hey, you know, I’ve been feeling really down on myself, and someone suggested that I have my friends compile a list of my character strengths, because I can’t really see any. Would you mind doing that for me?”

Step Five: Buy and Label the Folder

Next comes one of the easier steps: simply drive (or walk) to the drug store or to an office supply shop and to buy a folder. Any color. Any style. Write the words “Self-Esteem File” on the front. Make it so obvious that you would be embarrassed if anyone found it.

Why? Because if your home catches on fire, you want to be sure to grab the right file: the one with all the warm fuzzies inside.

Step Six: Start Collecting the Letters

One by one, as you collect your letters of affirmation, place them in the self-esteem file. If two weeks go by, and you haven’t received anything, which makes you feel worse than when you started this project (my apologies), say something like this to your four people: “Um, Dude, I gave you a very important assignment that you’ve blown off so far. Now get your butt off the couch, and start writing!”

Step Seven: Find Four More Friends

Most of the time, one, two, three, or four of the four people don’t follow through on their promise, which is why you need a list of four additional people to serve as alternatives in case your lazy so-called friends bail on this task. So, review step three on the different ways you can meet friends, and say to your additional four people something like this:

“As you may or may not be aware of, I need some affirmations. Lots of them. Because there is a voice inside of me that is constantly telling me that I am a worthless piece of animal waste. I’d like to believe otherwise. That’s where your job comes in. Could you PLEASE list ten positive qualities about me? Why are you my friend? (If you are extremely wealthy or famous, skip that one.) Why do you return my calls? (If they don’t, skip that one.) What would you say at my funeral? (But reassure them that you have no plans of dying right now.) You see, I am starting a self-esteem file, and I’d love for your positive words to be among the first (of the millions of letters that will follow). If you have any. Which I’m sure you must. Right? THANKS SO MUCH.”

Step Eight: Propose an Exchange of Affirmations

If asking friends for a list of 10 positive traits still has you a bit freaked out, because it is ASKING something of someone, and I know (believe I KNOW) how hard ASKING can be, here’s an idea: propose an exchange of affirmations. I rub your back if you rub mine. I tell you 10 positive things about you (if, you know, you can do that for your friend), and you tell me 10 about me. A little collaboration. That’s not so scary, right?

Step Nine: Continue to Collect Affirmations

Become an affirmation hoarder. That’s right. Whenever anyone says anything remotely positive (“You smell interesting today”), record it: on a post-it, legal pad, receipt, or on anything that you can shove into your self-esteem file. Pretend you are a New York Times reporter with the assignment of breaking the case that you are a precious, loveable, wonderful human being that so many people in this world appreciate, love, respect, and admire.

Put into your file all those letters and cards and notes and e-mails that are complimentary in any way. Look also for “proof” in the past that you are worthy and loveable with more than 10 positive attributes: professional feedback, birthday cards, thank-you notes, Mother’s Day presents (if they are made of paper), Valentines.

Step Ten: Read it!

As you watch your self-esteem file widen, and fatten, and thicken, and grow, a curious thing might happen … you might not depend on it so much. You’ll graduate to what David Burns, M.D., author of “10 Days to Self-Esteem” calls “unconditional self-esteem.” Explains Burns: “You realize that self-esteem is a gift that you and all human beings receive at birth. Your worthwhileness is already there and you don’t have to earn it.”

That hasn’t happened to me yet. And it’s been three years. I still read my file fairly often, and continue to stock it full of affirmations whenever I get one. This is true, though: because of my self-esteem file, I no longer feel like a doughnut. I have a center, even if it jiggles too much and is soft.

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