Life / Can Do

Helpful tips to living a better life

Building Self-Confidence

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The picture above is of my daughter Emma as she attempts to lift a pumpkin that weighs about as much as she does. She kept trying until I stepped in and suggested I give it a shot. You should have seen the smile on her face when she exclaimed, “I almost did it by myself!”. The confidence of a child shows that limiting beliefs are instilled upon us as we “grow” up.

To succeed in any area of your life, you first need to believe that you can. Self confidence is not an all or nothing trait. A person can be very confident about being able to accomplish one goal or task, but have little or no confidence about others. Many people are extremely confident television watchers, but just as many have little confidence in staying fit.

Be Confident About the Things That Matter Most

We need self-confidence in those aspects of our lives that matter most to us. I have no confidence that I can knit a sweater, but that doesn’t bother me because I have no desire to do so and this does not affect my self-worth. On the other hand, as an IT professional, if I had no confidence in my ability to design and code software, this would be a cause of stress and emotional pain.

Living Up To Your Standards

We all make commitments. We can commit to being moral, being skilled at our jobs, raising a family, staying fit, spending time with friends, being intelligent, being a good lover, and so on. We can make these types of commitments to others but it matters most when we make those commitments to ourselves. When we feel that we are meeting those commitments we feel good. When we feel that we are not, we feel terrible.

If a person repeatedly experiences the pain of not living up to their standards, they will avoid making commitments in the future. The pain of failure is too great. They don’t pick up exercising again because they believe it will result in more pain. When they don’t believe they will succeed at something they commit to, they won’t make the commitment to try. Even if they believe they have a good chance at success, the risk of failing is too great.

Root Causes of Fear of Failure

A strong fear of failure and low self-confidence are often rooted in childhood. Even events that occurred as a toddler can have ramifications into adulthood. A child that gets punished repeatedly for not performing well at a task, followed by negative statements such as the following:

“You are so stupid!”

“Bad boy/girl!”

“The other kids in your class can do this! Why can’t you?”

Even positive statements can result in fear of failure and a general reluctance to try things outside of one’s comfort zone. If an authority figure punishes failure and rewards success the child may only be willing to attempt tasks that they know they can succeed at. This can result in a person who is a master violinist but can’t tie their shoes or be comfortable in social situations (diva, eccentric, etc).

Reward Effort to Build Self Confidence

People often criticize youth organizations for rewarding effort over winning. Some parents will roll their eyes when a coach congratulates his team for trying hard even though they lost the game. There is this assumption that if you reward failure, that is what you will get. However it is not failure that is rewarded, it is (or should be) the effort. If a child tries his best and still fails, the child should receive the highest praise. On the other hand, if the child doesn’t try, that child must be made aware that is not acceptable even if the team does win the game.

As adults, we must try to overcome the negative programming of our past and try to understand that failing is not something we should judge ourselves too harshly. We need to consider our efforts as evidence of our self-worth. It is our ability to keep going, despite setbacks, that will result in greatness.

Ignoring Negative Self Talk

People with low self-esteem will often say things to and about themselves that would be unforgivable if directed to others.

“I am so stupid!”

“I am fat and disgusting. It’s no wonder nobody loves me.”

“The other guys are more educated/talented/better looking/well-connected than I am. They won’t hire me over them.”

“I’m so lazy.”

We all do this from time to time. For some of us, it is nothing more than playful self ribbing. When I find a mistake in my programming I sometimes mutter to myself, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”, but I’m chuckling when I do it. I actually enjoy finding mistakes because each mistake found is an opportunity to grow. That’s assuming the mistake is relatively harmless and easy to fix. I’m not so forgiving when mistakes I make affect other people, but I don’t let those mistakes define me.  I am not my mistakes.

There is some scientific debate over whether or not attempting to suppress negative self talk is an effective technique. I’ve read some studies that suggest there is no correlation between negative thought suppression and improved self-esteem. The same goes for positive affirmations. I question the validity of these studies due to the fact they may not have a long enough duration. Suppressing negative self talk is not something that one can expect to see results in a day, a week or even a month. Still I wouldn’t put my money on just replacing my negative statements with positive ones. I believe the human psyche is much more complicated than that and this is the opinion of some psychiatric professionals as well.

Debunking the Negative Statements

While suppressing negative self talk may or may not be effective, what we can do, is not let these negative statements stop us from moving forward. If you say, “I am stupid” just try to think of ways to prove that statement wrong. If you have a college degree, despite the quality of school, the statement “I am stupid” is at least watered down to a comparison of others with your level of education. Then see if you can recall times when you knew something others didn’t. It can be something as trivial as the name of a movie star or something as practical as a solution to a problem at work. You are bound to have many examples if you think back far enough.

As an exercise, start maintaining a journal and jot down every instance where you disprove a negative self statement. Keeping doing it until you realize that the statement is not true. Most negative self statement are qualitative so there is always the question of who or what you are comparing yourself to. I am good at math, but compared to Einstein I can’t compare. When compared to the average Joe, I could be considered a math wizard.

It is also helpful if you change the judgmental negative self statements into objective statements. If you say “I am fat” replace that judgmental statement with something more objective and factual like “My percentage of body fat is X%, which is above the recommended percentage to maintain good health.”. From there you have something you can work with. You can then start thinking about what steps you need to take to get your weight back to a healthy level.

Success Builds Success

To walk 50 miles, you need to focus on the road before you and not on the destination. As the land rises and falls, your ability to see the end of your journey is not guaranteed. Once you determine the right direction and the path, you need to trust that you will get to the end of your journey. There may be obstacles on your path, but just go around them. Don’t do as so many have done and give up when you are halfway or more to your goal. The road may get rough, you may get tired – take a break if you need to, but suck it up and keep going. Just keep going and don’t look back except to admire how far you’ve traveled. “Wow! Look how far I’ve come. I’m making progress!”

Enough with the metaphors. The point I was trying to make is that you should not focus on everything you need to do to achieve your goal. If you do, every day you don’t achieve your ultimate goal will feel like failure. It is better to focus on the next step you have to take. Ask yourself: What can I do now to move me closer to my goal? Make your tasks as small as you can comfortably accomplish but not so easy that it doesn’t challenge you. When you complete that step, recognize it as an accomplishment and then move on to the next manageable step. Repeat until you complete your goal.

The important aspect of that process of goal setting is that with each step you accomplish, no matter how small, you will start to establish the habit of success. Each success drives another nail in the coffin of self-doubt and you will start to believe you can accomplish anything. I wouldn’t give this advice if I didn’t experience it myself several times. Each time I accomplished a task or overcame an obstacle I would feel my self-confidence grow higher and higher.

I should come clean and tell you that when I do accomplish a difficult goal, the joy is somewhat mixed with a touch of sadness. Let me explain before you get too worried or confused. As I’ve said, I will break down difficult goals into manageable tasks and with each task completed I get a sense of accomplishment and growth.  I start to look forward to completing each task. Unlike a drug where the more you use it the less effective it is, the more you succeed at accomplishing task the higher you get. So when you complete a goal and there are no more tasks left it is a bit of a letdown.

That is why it is important to take a break after completing a major goal and celebrate while you contemplate your next big goal. If you have successfully increased your level of self-confidence on proven accomplishments, you will need to feed this success-engine with even more goals.

Make a Long Term Commitment

Increasing and maintaining your level of self-confidence is a life time commitment. You aren’t going to wake up some day and realize that you have all the self-confidence you will ever need. There will always be this push and pull between self-confidence and self-doubt. There will be days when your confidence takes a dip and it feels like you are back to square one. That is misleading. A bad day cannot erase the progress you made and you are just experiencing a temporary set back due to stressful events in your life. You are doing everything right but due to circumstances out of your control some things just fall apart.

Setbacks are going to happen whether or not you are moving forward in your life. It is important to remember that if you had not been making progress you would be even further behind and even more miserable. In fact a setback can be a good thing.  If you recover from a setback and manage to get things back on track, the boost to your self-esteem will be even greater than if it was all smooth sailing.

Disclaimer: The advice offered here, should not be considered an alternative to discussing your self-esteem issues with family and friends you trust. I’ve seen people transform their lives after having a heartfelt and honest conversation with a close friend.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 14, 2012 at 12:20 am

2 Responses

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  1. It seems to me Tim, that you are talking about the ability to be ‘objective’ rather than ‘subjective’… simplifying enormously all of your well thought out ideas… Well done; a very good read indeed..


    January 17, 2012 at 1:21 am

    • T’is me again Tim…. I have tried to ‘follow’ you a number of times and, even though the ‘follow’ (at the top of the page) has turned to ‘Unfollow’ (meaning that I ‘am’ following you) I am not receiving your posts, nor do you appear in the ‘Blogs I follow’ list.

      I have not had this problem when I have ‘followed’ using the follow box when at the bottom of a page, or in the sidebar. If you can’t think of a reason for this happening (being an IT guy you may have the answer to my dilemma….) would you include the ‘Follow via Email’ feature? Thanks in advance…. 😉


      January 17, 2012 at 1:46 am

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