Supporting Self-Esteem: Tools to Identify Strengths

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“I don’t know what to say. I was raised not to talk about myself. I don’t want to sound cocky.” You are engaging your client in an intake session where you’ve created an intentional, positive shift from an otherwise heavy series of questions about symptoms including details as to why they are seeking therapy. Your new client appears caught off guard by your questions about strengths and they struggle to identify anything that is going well, or things they like about themselves. You make a note to identify a possible goal around self-worth and self-esteem, to be explored with the client upon building more rapport.

So how does one engage a client in exploring their strengths while acknowledging the vulnerability to do so? For many, talking about elements they like about themselves or their resiliency may be difficult when entrenched in negative emotions.  For example, a client experiencing a depressive episode may have a hard time identifying any emotions of hope or former pleasure based on their current negative cognitions around hopelessness and feeling stuck.


Look to the Past

For depression and being entrenched in symptoms, it can be easier for a client to recall the events or strengths of the past than experience the present or predict the future. By engaging a client in exploring what would formerly describe their circumstance, you can encourage the initial stages of cognitive reframing and thus rewiring from negative to positive thought. Some examples of questions to support access to the past can be found below.

  • Is there a time you felt confident? Can you tell me more about that?
  • When is a time you felt like everything was going well? What made it so?
  • Wisdom, Sacrifice, Kindness. Can you share a time you demonstrated each of these strengths?
  • What is one thing you are happy or satisfied with in your life?
  • What is one thing you like about yourself?

Engaging a client in reflection on these elements can support new awareness and positive feeling through revisiting pleasant memories. By exploring former experiences, the client may be able to identify ways to rediscover those experiences in the present.


Likeable and Lovable

If a client continues to struggle with identifying their strengths, it can be helpful to engage them on the thoughts and statements of others that know them well.  You may find asking them what their mother, sister, friend, partner, or close colleague would say about them if those relationships are healthy. Here are some ways you could explore self-image through the eyes of others:

  • What would your mom say is one of your strengths?
  • What compliments have you received from others about your efforts at work?
  • How would you be described by your best friend?
  • What do you think your partner appreciates most about you?
  • If you were represented by an actor for a movie, who would that be and why?

By encouraging the client to explore loved one’s statements or compliments as a reflection of their own strengths, it may remove some pressure to identify them on their own while still encouraging positive thought and reflection.


Sort and Seek

A reflection tool that can further encourage exploration of strengths and thus improve self-esteem is a value sort. A value sort instructs clients to review a list of values and narrow down their choices based on order of importance. This can allow clients to explore their values and make connections to how those values are being represented in their life. A favorite tool is the value card sort, currently being used by mental health professionals and some universities. In the value card sort, a stack of values is sorted into levels of importance including minimal, moderate, and most important. Client are instructed to go with their gut and sort quickly, supporting a narrowing of values to the top seven most important to the client. Reflection can then be encouraged by asking the client the following questions:

  • How are these seven values represented in your life currently?
  • How are these values represented in work, home, and relationships?
  • What needs to be changed or improved to maintain these values for you?
  • How would enhancing or improving these values in your life help you?

For many, exploring their values and current representation in their life can support a movement towards measurable goals to improve those values, thus improving sense of control, pursuit of happiness, and higher self-esteem.

Therapeutic Goal Setting: Measurable Motivation


As December comes to a close, your clients could be looking to the new year to create resolution or revisit their treatment goals in the hope of change. It’s a time to explore goals that are measurable and attainable; it’s a time to create small steps to build self-confidence so they remain motivated and hopeful. Perhaps your client comes into your office saying “I want to join a gym to help my depression.” You meet their disclosure with compassion and curiosity and ask them to share more. You learn they want to work out every day to help their mood but aren’t currently working out on a consistent basis, and not ever at a gym. So you find it important to explore with them their motivation as well as the perceived strengths and challenges of reaching their goal. Your client learns that smaller steps can support success and agrees to working on short-term goals to build confidence and to move towards their long-term goal of working out daily.


Monitoring Motivation

Why is it important to explore motivation around a goal? Research tells us goals around fitness and gym attendance peak in January and dramatically decline by February and March every year. Additional research tells us that we must do something consistently for a minimum of 30 days for it to become a habit. What this conveys to us as human beings is that we need to see results or progress to continue to work hard at a goal. You may normalize this for your client. You may also provide psychoeducation on the Stages of Change from Motivational Interviewing as a visual to support your client in identifying strengths and barriers to change. In meeting your client where they are at, consider the questions below to explore motivation with your client:

  • What do you want to change? (Precontemplation to Contemplation)
  • What makes that a problem for you? (Contemplation)
  • Is it a big enough problem to want something different? (Contemplation)
  • How would you achieve the desired change? (Preparation)
  • What do you need to support change? (Preparation)
  • What would help you to begin? (Action)
  • How will you know when you are ready for change? (Action)
  • What would help you keep going? (Maintenance)
  • Who/What would hold you accountable?
  • What would happen if you don’t succeed?

By engaging your client in exploring these questions, they can identify any current strengths or barriers to succeeding and further explore what is needed to progress through the stages of change.


Make it Measurable

It isn’t uncommon for a client to identify a goal but not know how to attain it, thus remaining in the stage of contemplation. It becomes our responsibility as their support to break down a long-term or larger goal into measurable, smaller pieces. Here are some examples of how to make it measurable when a client identifies a larger, more abstract goal in therapy:


Our therapeutic interventions can support short-term goals blending into long-term goals over time. By identifying and writing treatment goals that are measurable and can be reviewed with your client regularly, the effort it takes to achieve these goals can feel validated and attainable for your client.


Supporting Strengths

Validation can be a strong motivator. Helping clients slow down to identify their strengths throughout the process can be motivating in and of itself. It isn’t surprising that clients can find themselves stuck in the past, such as awareness of how they used to be able to achieve goals with no effort and frustration that they cannot find that same success today. Or perhaps they are so future focused they aren’t able to recognize the smaller changes that have taken place. One of the most rewarding elements of therapy can be reviewing goals and progress towards those goals. Your clients may be unable to recognize the small but important shifts in their functioning and therefore it can be impactful to help them remember where they started in this process and how their hard work is supporting healthy change. By identifying their strengths and supporting them throughout the process, clients can experience motivation and recognize goal progression, allowing the ongoing growth and change they seek.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama.