Challenging Negative Thoughts to Improve Self-Esteem

We all have negative thoughts from time to time, but if you have low self-esteem, chances are you encounter a number of negative thoughts in a day. Something we often forget is that not all thoughts are true, in fact, many of the thoughts we have are far from the truth. With that in mind, combatting negative thoughts means challenging them.

The first step to challenging negative thoughts is to recognize when you have one. This sounds easier than it is. Most negative thoughts are automatic thoughts, meaning we think them so often they just become a part of our belief system. Start by paying closer attention to what you are telling yourself when you are feeling less confident or insecure. Notice when you have a negative thought and stop to examine it. Ask yourself, "what evidence do I have to believe that this is true?" You will find that in most cases there is no evidence to support what you believe.  

In cognitive behavioral therapy, there are a number of terms used in describing our faulty thinking patterns. For example, someone lacking confidence in himself may automatically think he knows what others are thinking about him, just by a look he perceives as negative. This is called mind reading. It is not likely that he knows exactly what that person is thinking. In fact, they may not even be making any judgments about him at all.

Knowing that you are not a "mind reader," gives you the opportunity to consider alternatives. Chances are in many situations you will see that you don't really have any evidence to prove your thought to be true.  Once you take away the power of that thought, you can begin to consider alternatives that are positive or at least neutral. "Maybe she looked that way because she is dealing with her own problems that have nothing to do with me." Maybe he didn't say hi because he didn't hear me." 

Even if after careful evaluation, you still consider your negative thought to be true, ask yourself, "if in fact what I think is true, what is the worst case scenario?" For example, you are extremely nervous about giving a presentation in front of a large number of people. You are certain that you are going to mess up somehow and be ridiculed and judged by your audience. This is another common type of faulty thinking, called Fortune Telling.  

First of all, you do not have any evidence to believe that to be true because you cannot predict the future. But let's just say your worst fear comes true and your prediction was accurate. Yes, you may be extremely embarrassed and want to crawl under a rock, but is it the end of the world? No. Will anyone remember a year from now? No. Will anyone care to talk about it months from now or even weeks from now. Probably not.  

In this type of situation, say kind, positive things to yourself and remind yourself that you are human and you do not have to be perfect. It may also be helpful to think about what you might say to a loved one if they were in the same situation. Chances are you would be compassionate and supportive of them, so why not treat yourself the same way?     

It is entirely too easy to get caught up with these faulty types of thinking, especially when your confidence is low and these negative thoughts are constantly running through your mind. Noticing and challenging the lies we tell ourselves is extremely important because our thoughts determine our emotional state. Challenging these thoughts takes practice. Unfortunately, you are so accustomed to believing these thoughts that you don't even notice how unrealistic many of them are. When you stop to think about it, you will see that many of these faulty thinking patterns hold no truth and are just a reflection of how you feel about yourself.  Replacing these negative thoughts or beliefs with positive statements or at least neutral ones will have a lasting effect on your self-esteem.


  • Ask yourself what evidence do you have to believe your thought is true

  • Replace the negative thought with a positive or neutral statement 

  • Think about what the worst case scenario is and how you would cope 

  • Encourage and show compassion for yourself, the way you would with others

Michele Burstein, LMSW