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Health Matters: Knowing (and Loving) Yourself

Tips on Bolstering Your Self-Esteem

July 2000

Self-image Is a Powerful Force in Our Lives

Who you think you are determines what you do and how you feel about yourself. Negative self-image plays a major role in virtually all the failures of humanity, while positive self-image plays a large role in whether you succeed in life.

A positive self-image is your armor against negative messages and a powerful force to help you gain self-confidence in everything you do. One type of success that depends greatly on self-image is the ability to continue to believe in your self-worth following the onset of a disease such as HIV.

Messages received in childhood from parents, relatives, teachers and friends are powerful influences on self-image. These messages become "tapes" that are played in our minds unless we consciously take action to change them. The philosophy "Your past is not your destiny" provides important and hopeful insight into human behavior and motivation.

We do not have to make the same mistakes nor follow the same life path and lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. We can make choices. This article is a series of practical suggestions to help you develop a positive self-image.

You Control Your Self-Image

You can choose the messages you give yourself by using one of the most effective mental tools known: positive self-talk.

Mental health professionals call it "cognitive restructuring": the changing of one's thoughts. The premise behind this tool is that thought creates feeling. You change the way you feel about yourself by changing your thoughts. For example, those who stay "young at heart" seem to actually age more slowly than those who think of themselves as being handicapped by advancing age.

Choose to Reject Negative Messages

Negative messages are all around us. You must choose to reject them and likewise choose which messages you will believe and make part of your self-image. You can be your own coach, rejecting negative messages by "talking sense to yourself" and stating positive messages that describe the healthy you.

Give Yourself Positive Messages

Positive images not only help to overcome a negative self-image, they are also needed to promote and maintain a positive self-image.

"Daily affirmations" are one ongoing technique many have found helpful. An affirmation is a positive statement. Make a point of making a positive statement about yourself at least once a day.

For example, "I am lovable and loving" is a message that touches the heart of the human condition: our need to be accepted and loved and to have the ability to love others. This message also promotes a healthy, positive self-image.

Affirm Y-O-U

Positive behavior creates positive feelings.

Write your name vertically on a piece of paper. Next to each letter, write words that describe you or that you would like to have describe you.
Able, abundant, accurate
Balanced, beautiful, best
Capable, caring, compassion
Daring, debonair, decent
Eager, earnest, effective
Fair, faithful, festive, fine
Gentle, genuine, giving, glad
Healthy, happy, honest
Illuminating, important
Jovial, joyful, judicious, just
Kind, kindhearted
Law-abiding, leader, level
Mannerly, mature, merry
Natural, navigator, needed
Obedient, open, optimal
Pacesetter, patient, peaceful
Quaint, qualified, quintessential
Radiant, ready, reasonable
Self-reliant, silly, solid, soft
Tactful, tenacious, tender
Ultimate, unique, upbeat
Valuable, versatile, vigorous
Warm, well, wholesome, wise
Young, youthful, yourself
Zany, zesty, zingy, zippy

Now that you have a whole list of positive words describing you, take the next step of following through with appropriate behavior.

Look at the words you've selected to correspond with the letters of your name, and ask yourself what behaviors would match those words. For instance, if you chose "caring" for the letter C, define the specific activities in which a caring person would engage.

A caring person might volunteer some time at the local AIDS-service organization, visit a friend who needs a boost, or help a family member with a special project. The good feeling you get from the behavior you chose will help you to see yourself as a truly caring person.

Take Charge Through Assertive Behavior

When people behave non-assertively, they often view themselves as doormats, or someone whom everyone else is free to walk on.

Assertive behavior is an important part of positive self-image. Being able to express your views and feelings affirms your right to self-determination and says that you regard yourself as an important person. Assertive communication is needed in order to ask your friends, family, and medical team for the support you need from them.

The following is an example of assertive behavior and its positive impact on self-image:

Marian's doctor told her about a new HIV drug. From the way the doctor explained it, Marian felt that it sounded like an experimental drug which had not yet been thoroughly tested.

Marian asserted herself by saying, "That sounds to me like it is too new to have been thoroughly tested. What are my other options?"

The impact on Marian's self-image is quite evident in the self-talk she practiced on the way home. "I'm so glad I questioned that drug. I really felt uncomfortable about trying it. The doctor appreciated my honesty and the appointment went well. Not only did he advise me of a well-tested drug that he believes will help me, but I also had the distinct impression that our mutual honesty and clear communication enhanced our relationship."

Keep an Affirmations File

Everyone can keep a personal file that contains affirming, uplifting, and otherwise positive notes. Stock your file in a special keepsake box with all those things that lift your spirits, such as cards and notes from people.

Some people seem to find it easier to remember the thorns instead of the rose petals. Keep a collection of special thoughts to help you remember the life-affirming messages.

Remember, You Are Special

This is not an egotistical statement; it is a fact. Accept compliments when you receive them, because you deserve them. Avoid putting yourself down. Never say, "I am only. . . ."

Give Yourself a Pep Talk

Like the exercise that encourages you to use words for each letter of your name, this exercise avoids boastful, bragging language in favor of simple, positive values that you hold. By writing and reciting this pep talk, you affirm these values and you'll feel increasingly better about yourself. You may wish to select some of the words from the name exercise to use in your pep talk. This is a brief example:

(Your name), you are an adaptable person. That is an excellent quality. No matter what challenge or disappointment confronts you, you are able to adapt and regain balance. In the face of adversity you have demonstrated that you can be brave and even cheerful. You are compassionate and caring. You are a good friend to others as well as to yourself. You are doing well.

Thank People

It will enhance your self-image to see how grateful people are to receive your gratitude. Fill someone else's personal file of affirmations. Behavior produces feeling. Be generous in your praise and thanks to others. It will do wonders for how you feel about yourself.

Take Charge!

The process of developing your self-image is ongoing. Seek professional help if you know you are stuck in a negative self-image. Above all, take responsibility for your life and for your self-image. As a wise person so succinctly put it: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Nancy Wongvipat, M.P.H., is a health education specialist in AIDS Project Los Angeles' Education Division. She can be reached by calling (323) 993-1511 or by e-mail at

Adapted from Catherine Feste's The Physician Within: Step-by-Step Guide to Living Well with Chronic Illness.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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