On a freezing January evening, Ashley Austrew sat in her car in an Omaha, Nebraska, parking lot, working up the courage to go into a comedy improv class. For 20 minutes, the 33-year-old journalist and mom of two sat with swirling thoughts of self-doubt: “OMG, I can’t do this. I’ll be the worst one.” Then she turned off the engine, took a few deep breaths, and went inside.
For Austria, trying improv was the first small step to improve her self-esteem. “All my life, I’ve lacked confidence,” she says. “I didn’t have the courage to try anything new.” So she made a list of all the things she was afraid to attempt and then asked herself, What if I didn’t let my excuses win? Improv was her biggest target.
Her fear dissolved as soon as she walked into the class. Her classmates were also beginners, and she discovered that she was perfectly capable of earning a few laughs and making new friends. Over the next two years, Austrew went on to tackle other what-ifs, including writing a book. “Self-esteem is like a muscle—you have to work it constantly,” she says.
Some people are blessed with a seemingly unshakeable positivity, but most of us need to learn how to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Psychologists say we tend to experience our lowest self-esteem in adolescence and spend much of our adult lives slowly building it back up. Staying positive has been tough in the past year. Since the pandemic began, three times as many American adults have reported symptoms of depression or anxiety (the malevolent cousins to low self-worth) compared with 2019. Thankfully, like Austrew, we can learn to feel better about ourselves and strengthen our feelings of hope. (Of course, anyone experiencing severe or persistent symptoms should seek professional help.) Here are eight science-backed strategies to improve your relationship with the person in the mirror.
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