I got my HIV diagnosis a few months ago. It's really been a hit to my self-esteem. I know there's less stigma now and that's great — and I’m feeling terrific, physically. But still, I just don’t feel good about myself. What’s going on? How do I get my self esteem back?
Clients say that a lot to me. In fact, I think low self-esteem is one of the major reasons clients come to see therapists.
My clients who are living with HIV often talk about their self-esteem in terms of how they are labeling — if not defining — themselves, as a person with HIV. The day-to-day responsibilities that come along with HIV, and ongoing issues like disclosure, can take a toll on how you look at yourself. And how others look at you, too.
Insight is Important but it's not everything. Insight is just the beginning of the journey to better self-esteem.
Clients often come into therapy with the expectation that they'll stumble into feeling feel better about themselves. As they talk about the causes of their low self-esteem, and how it currently impacts their life, they assume we'll discover the key to improving their self-esteem. And by harnessing this insight, they'll find the connection to the self-esteem they feel others possess.
I'm all about gaining insight. For individuals who are living with HIV, talking about self-esteem often means talking about aspects of their diagnosis and its impact on their lives that are hard to look at, and harder to put into words. Getting things out into the open is an important step toward understanding your perspective on your HIV diagnosis, and how this affects the way you feel about yourself.
But like I said, it’s just the starting place. It may reveal how you may not always be on your own side, and could even be working against yourself. But it’s only the beginning of actually achieving more self-esteem. From here, there’s work involved.
I encourage my clients to empower themselves and to work toward creating better self-esteem for themselves. Here’s how to do that:
Look at better self-esteem as a learning process. I think of self-esteem as learned, based on life experiences that begin in childhood. Life has left some of us better equipped than others. The good news is that what has been learned can be unlearned. You are never too old to learn to have a more positive perspective on yourself. Embrace the journey!
The world is the laboratory. It’s where we cook up new and improved ways of living our lives and looking at the world. Every day presents a new opportunity to think differently, to act differently, to feel differently. Little experiments can lead to big breakthroughs.
Do an inventory. On yourself. Your accomplishments, your skills, the qualities you most value about yourself, the qualities that others value. Make a list and then pull it out when you have those moments when you aren’t feeling all that great about yourself. Self-esteem comes from within, from believing in yourself. So review the evidence often.
Compare and despair. It’s only human nature to compare ourselves to others. But when we do that, we set ourselves up to come up short. There’s always somebody who, at least on the surface, seems to be doing a little better than you are. But appearances can be deceiving. You’re not the only one whose self-esteem feels a little shaky, some of us are just hiding it a little better than others.
Give yourself a push. One of the best ways to increase your self-esteem is to push yourself to step outside of that zone of familiarity you’re living in. Plan an event for family or friends. Try a new activity. Have that conversation you’ve been putting off. Don’t forget that the world is laboratory. So do some experimenting. Open yourself up! Be brave!
Take good care of yourself. One of the absolute best ways to increase your self-esteem is to stay on top of your physical and emotional wellness. When you’re following your self-care plan and staying compliant with your medication, you’ll not only more likely feel more optimistic, and more energetic, but you’ll also feel that much more in control. That’s empowerment!
Your self-esteem. Don’t wait for the magic key. Take stock of all the reasons you have to feel good about yourself. And then get out in the world and create even more reasons. You can do it!
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains the site, JustGotDiagnosed.com.