Can you build confidence and self esteem, or are some people just born with it? If you’ve ever been puzzled about why some people seem to ooze it while others struggle, read on.
First: it’s definitely possible to become a more confident person and to boost your self-esteem, but before I explain how to do that I want to touch on the concept of faking it. One of the most repeated pieces of advice I’ve heard or read in various articles is to fake it until you make it. For the vast majority of people, this is awful advice and in rare cases it coincidentally results in legitimate self-esteem.
It’s a common practice to study what confident people do and mimic it. The big problem with this is that confident people act the way they do because of something they feel innately, not because they’re consciously trying to behave that way. If you try to piece together and reverse engineer confidence you’ll be at it for a long, long time. Not only that, but it won’t ever be real – and nothing can replace REAL confidence.
Start by asking yourself why confident people are confident.
Instead of studying what confident people do, it’s far better to study why. Why are confident people confident in the first place? Were they always that way, or is it something they’ve learned? In other words – is it genetic, or a product of their upbringing and unique life experiences? Also, how does self-esteem fit into all this?
Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s define exactly what it means to be confident and to have self-esteem. I define confidence as the innate belief in one’s self, and the resulting behaviour and attitude that goes along with this belief. Self-esteem is the bedrock that confidence rests on; if you don’t have self-esteem your brain won’t allow you to act confidently (for your own good). It might sound complicated, but it makes a whole lot of sense.
Self-esteem comes from your ability to live up to your own standards.
Self esteem comes from your ability to live up to your own standards. Everyone has an idea of what a competent person is like – how they act, what sort of decisions they make, and how they handle certain situations. If you live up to your standards of competence, your brain recognizes that you’re a competent person and that you’re likely to perform well in potentially risky situations. Likewise, if your brain recognizes that you don’t live up to your own standards of competence, it will try to keep you out of harms way by limiting the neurochemicals that provide you with the sensation of confidence, and thus prevent you from engaging in potentially risky behaviour.
As a big psychology nerd, I find this fascinating. Your subconscious mind will actually change the way you feel about yourself based on complex interpretations of past events and serve up emotions according to it’s estimation of how likely you are to succeed. This is a fantastic evolutionary adaptation, but it’s not as useful as it once was.
If you have low self-esteem, you have a low estimation of your likelihood of successfully accomplishing future goals. If you truly are an incompetent person, your brain is doing you a favour. The problem is that most people with low self-esteem are in fact very competent people, but some skewed interpretations of past events have lead to negative false beliefs. Fortunately, there are well established methods for correcting these false beliefs and rewiring the brain to function properly.
Lie down on the couch, and let’s talk about your past.
Rewiring your brain takes time. You have thousands of experiences that combine to form your current system of beliefs, and you can’t deal with all of them overnight. Start by examining any major reasons you may have to feel a lack of self-esteem. Did your parents give you positive reinforcement growing up? Were you bullied? Was there anyone who treated you badly, or said you weren’t a good person? Anyone who put you down, or any times you suffered failures that really hit you hard? Do you feel you’ve ever let yourself down, maybe even repeatedly?
All of these things combine to form your current level of self-esteem. Aside from genetic predisposition, your current level of self-esteem is largely an equation of positive experience minus negative experience. If you’ve had more experiences you perceive as negative, you will likely have a lower level of self-esteem.
There are two keys to changing your level of self-esteem.
1) Re-examining past experiences objectively, and evaluating whether or not they have a real implication about your value as a person. Are you actually no good because your dad said so, or is it more likely that he was an asshole with issues of his own? As an adult, we have a more balanced perspective which allows us to see things more rationally than we did growing up.
2) Being aware of new experiences going forward. If you aren’t aware of what your standards are, take some time to write them down. What do you value? What type of person do you want to be? Set the bar for yourself, and congratulate yourself when you hit it. This is where the unshakable internal sense of value comes from, silencing the craving for approval from others. The more times you do this, the more evidence you have that you’re a competent, valuable person. You’ll slowly realize you’re a lot more capable than you think.
OK, so I have self-esteem. Now what about confidence?
Self-esteem is the green light for action, and confidence is a sensation dependent on how successful you think you will be. If you want to build confidence, you have to go out there and take some risks. Does this mean if you take a risk and fail, you’ll become a less confident person? What about self-esteem being based on living up to your own standards? Doesn’t that mean if you fail you’ll lose both confidence and self-esteem?
These are all excellent questions, and having good answers to them is a big part of maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem and confidence in the face of failure. Failure is inevitable, and if you are unable to examine it rationally and form an appropriate response, your self-esteem and confidence will suffer. This is exactly what we discussed in the first part of the article: if you don’t stay grounded in reality, you develop skewed perspectives and irrationally negative beliefs about yourself.
It might seem paradoxical, but you can actually gain confidence and self-esteem from failure.
Say you start a business. If your business goes under, the effect it has on your confidence and self-esteem depends entirely on how the failure affects your future. If the failure results in you getting hunted down by mobsters for not being able to return money they gave you to start the business, it would be normal to feel an extreme lack of confidence and self-doubt because your future is jeopardized.
On the other hand, if it means you file some paperwork to close the business and give it another shot, your future is not jeopardized. You have been honest with yourself about your limits and genuinely tried to push them. You took a risk and failed, but you still have the option to continue trying to achieve your goals.
Since self-esteem is based on living up to your expectations, and confidence is based on your perceived likelihood of success, your self-esteem and confidence will be boosted as a result of your failure. You now have more knowledge and a higher likelihood of success in the future, and you’ve lived up to your expectations of genuinely pushing your limits – something most people don’t even come close to attempting.
What are you waiting for?
There’s never a better time to start improving yourself than the present. Here’s a quick recap to help you out:
1) Spend some time reflecting on your past experiences, and ask yourself why you believe the things you do. Do you have any real reason to feel a lack of self-esteem or confidence? If so, what can you do to correct those feelings?
2) If you aren’t sure what your standards are, take some time to define them. If you don’t know what makes a person worthwhile, you won’t have a baseline to use for judging your own worthiness.
3) Be mindful of your standards, and make a mental effort to live by them. The more you live up to your own standards, the more evidence you have for believing you’re a worthwhile, awesome person.
4) Gain confidence by taking risks, and protect your new found self-esteem and confidence by accepting failure and evaluating failure rationally.
Helping people with confidence and self-esteem issues is one of the focal points of my coaching and counselling practice. Contact me or check out my coaching page for more information about working with me.
If you have any questions, feedback, or if you’d like to share any of your own struggles or triumphs with confidence and self esteem, feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!