When the word ‘confidence’ is mentioned, what comes to mind for you? Some associate it with vanity, egocentrism, or displaying self-assurance in a variety of different situations, whereas, others think of confidence as more of a personal, inner experience. There are many ways of referring to confidence such as self-esteem, self-worth, self-love, self-efficacy as well as many different perceptions about how to improve it. Modern culture has increasingly influenced these perceptions which has led to a lot of confusion around the subject.
According to recent research studies, the escalating pursuit of self-esteem and positive self-views although somewhat beneficial, has rapidly evolved into the development of narcissistic features, such as excessive selfishness, vanity, conceit, grandiosity and exploitativeness. This trend is described by the scientific literature as the ‘inflation of egos over time,’ the ‘me generation’ and also referred to as the ‘narcissism epidemic.’ Our society’s endorsement of self-promotion and self-interest seeking behaviours, especially through the improper use of social media, advocates for people to become self-focused and the idea that if you seek to acquire external things such as material possessions, titles and positions, achievements, popularity, beauty etc then you will feel better about yourself, resulting in happiness and success. With a culture that places high value on these externally based rewards in the hopes of fulfilling internal voids, we can easily be deceived by starting to look to these things to define us and validate our sense of worth.
So what does true, healthy confidence actually mean? And what is the most helpful way of looking at it? Regardless of how you view it, we all need a bit of positive self–belief to help us take the many small risks in life such as making a new friend, turning up to the first day of school or work, asking someone out for a date, applying for jobs and the list goes on as we grow up. It’s a natural thing for humans to place a value on ourselves however this can get out of balance because it can so often be compromised by our own unique beliefs, past experiences and capacity to achieve certain standards and environmental expectations.
From a psychological perspective, healthy confidence or self-esteem is more accurately depicted as the extent to which we learn to accept ourselves over time for who we are regardless of our faults and imperfections, and in doing so, recognizing our own worth and value. Self-acceptance accompanied by compassion towards our shortcomings is the key to developing a healthy sense of self that allows us to show up, engage in life and interact with the world in the most secure and resilient way. When we base our self esteem on internal rather than external sources, we no longer need to strive towards gaining ‘things’ and meeting (and maintaining) standards of appearance, performance, reputation, career success etc in order to feel confident. It cultivates an inner peace because we don’t have to look to things and people to qualify and validate us, and frees us to pursue the things that matter in life.
But what compromises our sense of worthiness and prevents us from accepting ourselves in the first place? What leads to us to look to exterior things and standards to feel a sense of confidence? Somewhere along the developmental path, many of us encounter negative experiences that cause us to question our self-worth, contributing to low self-esteem that will continue to affect us until we deal with it. We may feel fine and not be aware of it until we face emotional and social challenges where it begins to manifest in our daily lives through anxiety and depression symptoms, and behaviours like social withdrawal, avoidance, people pleasing, seeking external validation, overthinking or overanalysing, neglecting our own needs etc. When these symptoms and behaviours start to impair our functioning in various settings such as work, home, relationships etc then it can become a clinical issue and benefit from psychological intervention.
From the time we were infants, events in our environment would either build up our sense of worth and competency or challenge it. Low self-confidence often stems from childhood experiences such as poor academic performance and sporting ability, bullying, social exclusion, family dysfunction, mistreatment or abuse, difficulty meeting high standards of parents and teachers, an absence of positive attention and praise etc. These factors and many more influence the way we view ourselves and determine the conclusions we draw and ultimately the core beliefs we develop about our identity and value as a person. For example, a person who experienced difficulties fitting in with peers in early years may feel insecure and anxious in adult relationships and engage in approval seeking behaviours in order to avoid rejection.
Deeply ingrained negative and unbalanced core beliefs such as “I am unlikeable, I am worthless, I am dumb” etc can be very painful when triggered so our mind then generates rules and expectations to live by in order to protect ourselves and avoid emotional discomfort. These mental rules usually take the form of “musts and should’s” such as “I must be perfect, I must always please/gain the approval of others, I should always work hard” etc. Keeping up with these unhelpful rules can be exhausting and lead to a lot of stress. Additionally, these negative self-evaluations cause us to be sensitive to paying more attention to the things in our environment that reinforce our unhelpful beliefs and they continue to play out through every area of our lives until we address and correct them.
So how can we practically improve our self-esteem in a healthy way and learn to accept ourselves? It’s all about adopting a more balanced approach to the way we see ourselves and our worth. Firstly, we need to identify and adjust the negative beliefs we hold towards ourselves, and then secondly, we must learn to acknowledge our positive qualities and build up the more balanced, helpful beliefs such as “I am worthy, valuable, loveable” etc. However, this cannot be done without applying self-compassion. This concept encourages us to extend the same care, concern and kindness to our own failures and flaws that we would to a friend or someone hurting. For example, we wouldn’t advise a friend to avoid going out in public because they weren’t attractive enough. When we think and act in compassionate ways towards ourselves, its easier to accept our weaknesses and normalises when we make mistakes as well as taking the pressure off living up to unrealistic standards.
There are many specific strategies that help to promote self-acceptance and self-compassion but here are just a few ways you can start to improve your sense of worth:
Keep a journal of your positive attributes including qualities, strengths, characteristics even if they seem minor. For example, you may notice times where you have been kind to others, shown thoughtfulness to a co-worker, displayed courage in a challenging situation etc.
Imagine yourself as a small child who makes mistakes and needs care and guidance to help him/her grow in confidence.
Objectively look at the evidence throughout your life to help to challenge your unhelpful negative core beliefs and build your positive core beliefs.
Think of something that makes you feel a strong sense of compassion towards like an inhumane injustice in the world and then imagine this compassionate side to you advising or speaking back to the critical part of you.
Engage in behaviours that are consistent with someone who believes in their own worth such as respecting your own boundaries, doing things that bring joy and fulfillment, taking care of yourself, being assertive when someone puts you down etc.
It seems we can spend our adulthood unlearning the negative beliefs we learned in earlier years as we start to look past our shortcomings and become more comfortable with the way we look, how we interact socially, our performance and abilities etc. Instead of looking outside ourselves to things, friends, partners, our roles etc to make us feel a sense of confidence, remember the qualities and characteristics about you that are virtuous and that worthiness is your birthright. Start to practice acceptance of the things you dislike about yourself and be more forgiving of yourself when you slip up. I've found that every year older I get, the more comfortable I feel in my own skin and the less I care what others think and the less value I place on external based standards. Building healthy self worth is a process and we need to be prepared when situations trigger our negative beliefs but remember that its ok and we can learn to respond in an accepting and compassionate way.