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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Howlett

How to Improve Lawyer Self-Esteem

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp

Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.―Louise L. Hay

If you are ever plagued with self-doubt, you are certainly not alone. Worldwide, it is estimated that approximately 85 percent of the population suffers from low self-esteem. Most members of the legal profession would agree that attorneys are presented with boundless opportunities to feel bad about themselves. That is why we are shining this month’s spotlight on the interrelationship between self-esteem and well-being.

What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem speaks to how much value we place on ourselves, including what we think and feel about ourselves. It includes our emotional needs, such as the need to feel loved, listened to, and appreciated. Our self-image forms early in life and is influenced by our upbringing, life experiences, relationships, cultural backgroundthe list goes on.

Although often used interchangeably, self-esteem is distinct from confidence. While confidence relates to belief in your abilities, self-esteem speaks to you as a person. You can fake confidence, but you can’t fake authentic self-worth. Further, confidence can be developed (and destroyed!) quickly, whereas it takes longer to grow or erode a healthy sense of self.

For those open to self-assessments, check out The Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale, a popular tool for measuring individual self-esteem.

Self-Esteem and Well-Being

Possessing a high degree of self-worth can improve our overall health and quality of life. According to the American Psychological Association, high self-esteem helps us develop coping skills to manage stress and strengthen our emotional resilience. Robust self-esteem offers protection from mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety, and also leads to better social relations, higher job satisfaction, and improved well-being.

Low self-esteem can be hazardous to your health. Indeed, studies link low self-esteem with emotional problems, substance use, and eating disorders. Low self-worth also makes us more prone to emotional reactivity, which can harm our relationships and reputation. By no fault of their own, those who have experienced abuse or trauma (especially during childhood) are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem throughout their lives.

Tips to Boost Self-Esteem

Fortunately, those who are willing to put in persistent effort and take charge of their lives can improve their internal sense of self-worth. It’s a journey of self-discovery that leads to shifting mindsets. Consistently taking positive action will lead to an enhanced sense of self. We are grateful to our readers who shared their secrets of maintaining high self-esteem. Their comments are interspersed below.

Focus on the Positive

Our thought patterns and what we choose to focus on also inform our overall self-worth. For example, when we consciously focus on optimism and self-compassion, this breeds further positivity and ultimately supports our ability to strengthen and improve our self-regard. Conversely, negative thoughts or a poor self-image will feed further harmful thought patterns and could weaken our self-esteem.

Given more than 80 percent of our daily thoughts are negative and 90 percent are repetitive, it’s critical to take an active role in positive self-talk. Many attorneys battle persistent, negative beliefs about themselves (e.g., I am lazy, worthless, or stupid) when this is the opposite of reality! When left unchecked, negative self-talk can exacerbate mental health concerns and contribute to imposter syndrome.

Become Aware of and Combat Negative Self-Talk

I am usually my own worst critic, so when I’m having huge self-doubt, I ask myself, “who really thinks X about me?” The answer is usually “no one.”’ And then I remember that usually “everyone whose opinion I actually value” thinks the opposite. I also remind myself, “if X was true, then what?” I wouldn’t now have a law firm, I wouldn’t have any clients, I wouldn’t have been able to make a living at this for nearly 20 years.

Apply Visualization Techniques

Creative visualization is used by many to build both self-esteem and confidence. Visualization practices involve creating a mental picture that helps you move forward toward desired results and away from negative thinking. When Indiana lawyer Patty McKinnon is afflicted with discouraging thoughts, she takes the following approach:

I picture a giant stop sign in my head when the negative thoughts start to take over. I say out loud, “STOP!” Some days, I have to do this repeatedly before it works. If I don’t feed the memories or thoughts by opening and exploring them, the connection isn’t as strong in my brain. Also, I started noticing patterns as to when the self-doubt talk sets in. It’s usually late at night just before I go to bed. This helps me shut off the feelings when the doubts creep in. I treat myself like a cranky toddler who just needs to sleep it off so I feel better in the morning.

Form Healthy Habits and Set Aside Time for Self-Care

Self-care is a critical component of maintaining healthy self-regard. As the old adage goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. This self-care reminder from the New Jersey State Nurses Association holds true for attorneys, too: “When we fly, we are reminded to put our oxygen masks on first before putting them on the person for whom we’re responsible. It holds true in life—we must take care of ourselves so we can better care for someone else.”

The ongoing pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of maintaining healthful habits to manage stress and support our overall well-being. South Jersey attorney Jill Hammerstedt Tribulas counsels us to give top priority to our daily self-care: “Limit social media. Turn off the news. Eat right. Work out. Hug the ones you love.”

We urge you to become the master of your life and time. If you aren’t sure where to start, check out the suggestions outlined in our GPSolo eReport article published in August 2021:

Build Solid and Open Relationships

Close relationships are important to the development and maintenance of your self-esteem. Be sure to surround yourself with friends who are supportive and bring out your best self (as opposed to those who barrage you with negativity). Intellectual property attorney Vic Indiano has lived by that precept for years. We can always count on him to contribute a heartfelt and comedic response to our survey questions. He graciously shared the following:

Something that helps my self-esteem is having a meal with a friend of long-standing years. Having lunch with someone who enjoys your company, even though they have put up with your s*** since high school, goes a long way to validating the fact that I am not the person my ex-wife accuses me of being.

Consider Psychotherapy

The co-authors of this article heartily recommend psychotherapy to anyone seeking to improve mental health and well-being. An evidence-based modality that we highly recommend is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “CBT can help someone replace thoughts that lead to low self-esteem (‘I can’t do anything right’) with positive expectations (‘I can do this most of the time, based on my prior experiences’).”

Help is more accessible now than ever for those willing to take the first step. As a starting point, take advantage of free counseling sessions made available through your organization’s employee assistance program. Further, explore your state’s lawyers assistance program, which can provide confidential support, including referrals to mental health providers.

Ultimately, working with a counselor that you respect and trust is key, and it may take more than one attempt to find “the one.” Sometimes, finding the right therapist can feel like online dating—they looked good on paper, but when you meet in person, there just isn’t any chemistry. Don’t lose faith! Even if your first or second visit isn’t the perfect fit, these practitioners can help triage mental health emergencies and may be able to refer you to another provider who is a better fit.

Live in Gratitude

Gratitude is a simple yet powerful tool to boost self-esteem and improve your overall well-being. Studies show that expressing gratitude can have significant, positive mental health benefits for both healthy individuals and those struggling with mental health concerns. Indeed, coupling gratitude with counseling can increase these positive effects. Indiana attorney Heather George Myers shared how she practices gratitude and contemplative reflection in order to maintain a strong sense of self:

I say, “another person’s opinion of me is none of my business.” My value doesn’t come from others, it comes from me and God. A lot of this comes from being content. Not chasing that next great thing. I reflect on my blessings and all I have in my life. Too many people focus on that next “something”—a vacation, new car, new job, new house, raise, promotion, etc. And when they get there, they still aren’t happy. So realize that self-esteem comes from within and not through consumption and always striving for the next great thing.

Moving Forward

Overall, a healthy sense of self-esteem will help us maintain a positive outlook while navigating the inevitably rising and falling tides of life. What small step will you commit to today to bolster your self-regard and safeguard your well-being?

Join us next month as we discuss how spending too much time on social media and email can adversely impact mental health and reduce productivity.

Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (, a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.

Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Jan. 2022 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 7) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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