A Psychological Guide to Building More Self-Confidence
Society offers us plenty of advice on how to be confident. “Just be yourself.” “Fake it til you make it.” “Dress for success.” Tips fly at us from every direction, from mothers to magazine covers. Some of this advice can be useful, but it can ultimately feel ineffective or empty when we don’t really believe in ourselves. We all battle core feelings about ourselves that can be negative and demoralizing. In response, we may find ourselves either sinking into self-shame or trying to build up our ego just to get through the day.
To truly construct a solid foundation of self-confidence, we have to dig a little deeper. There are many positive, psychological steps we can take to feel good about ourselves. Most importantly, we have to do two things: 1. Challenge the inner critic we all possess and 2. Practice self-compassion. With these goals in mind, we can start to take practical actions to feel more comfortable in our skin. Here are some powerful tools that can help us all feel more self-possessed.
How to be Confident: Practice Self-Compassion
It’s valuable to move through life with what mindfulness expert and interpersonal neurobiologist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls a COAL attitude, in which we are Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving toward ourselves no matter what we’re going through. That way, even if we feel humiliated and defeated, or our self-confidence has taken a hit, we won’t waste time beating ourselves up. Instead, we learn from our experiences. Enhancing our self-compassion is an adaptive process that allows us to feel more self-acceptance, while simultaneously making real efforts to develop, both which help to establish our confidence.
Groundbreaking research by Dr. Kristin Neff has shown that self-compassion can actually be more valuable and adaptive than self-esteem. For instance, compared to self-esteem, self-compassion was associated with “greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, [and] less narcissism.” When wondering how to be confident, practicing self-compassion is a great place to start. To fully understand why self-compassion is so crucial to our confidence, it’s helpful to break down the three elements of self-compassion as defined by Neff.
- Self-kindness vs Self-judgment – When we get carried away with judging and evaluating ourselves, our confidence tends to plummet. Imagine berating yourself before a date or a job interview. “You’re not dressed right.” “You’re gonna be so awkward.” These thoughts will likely increase our anxiety and even impair our ability to act natural and be ourselves. Now, imagine being kind to yourself instead, as if a friend is sitting beside you, offering encouragement and warmth. This “friend” doesn’t have to build us up or offer false praise. It can simply say, “It’s okay that you’re nervous, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. I’m proud that you showed up and are trying this.” While self-esteem is still often based on evaluation, self-compassion comes from having a kind attitude toward ourselves no matter what we’re going through or taking on.
- Mindfulness vs Over-identification with thoughts – Because our thoughts can go so negative at times, it’s helpful to practice mindfulness as a way to avoid being consumed by this negativity. Mindfulness is a way of focusing our attention and accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgment, while also letting them go. Think about how athletes or performers have to actively focus on clearing their minds before they march onto the field or step out on the stage. It’s hard to feel self-possessed and capable when our hearts are racing and heads are spinning with doubt and self-criticism. Whether through meditation or breathing exercises, mindfulness allows us to stay in our bodies in the moment and allow our thoughts to pass like cars on a train. We can notice and acknowledge them, but we don’t board the train and get swept away. By not over-identifying with our negative or self-critical thoughts, we learn to live more in the moment and feel more self-possessed, both which can be key to feeling confident.
- Common humanity vs Isolation – In her examination, Neff found that it’s much easier to have self-compassion when we accept that we are all part of a shared human experience. In other words, we all make mistakes, and we all suffer. It’s easy to attack ourselves when we view ourselves as different or alone in our struggle. Our confidence can be shattered by both seeing ourselves as outsiders in some negative sense and failing to embrace that we are unique in a very positive sense. When we see ourselves as human, we are less likely to feel like we need to be the best or like we’re already the worst. We are less likely to feel victimized and more likely to look directly at our shortcomings and make real efforts to grow and change.
How to Be Confident: Get to Know Your Inner Critic
Dr. Robert Firestone, author of Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice has written extensively about the role of the “critical inner voice” in injuring people’s confidence and limiting their ability to fully be themselves. This “voice” is like a sadistic coach that attacks us from every angle and undermines our goals. It affects us in all areas of our lives. Sometimes, this destructive thought process can seem subtle, even soothing, like a parent whispering in our ear: “No need to try anything new,” it says. “That will only make you anxious. Why not just stay in your comfort zone and feel safe?” Other times, that voice is outright vicious and punishing. “You literally can’t do anything right. Why try? You will fail!” Whether whispering or shouting, the critical inner voice has one goal, which is to reinforce old, critical ways we have of seeing ourselves that hurt us but feel familiar, as if they’re part of our identity. As Dr. Firestone put it in his blog “How to Befriend Yourself:”
The enemy within can be thought of as a negative identity. This negative identity is a byproduct of negative ways you were labeled as a child, the negative attitudes toward yourself that you incorporated from any mistreatment you were exposed to and the defensive strategies that you formed to cope with psychological pain that further bent you out of shape. You mistake the identity that you formed under these circumstances as being the truth and act as though it were. Catching on to this misconception of yourself allows you to challenge and alter this mistaken identity and can help you to become your authentic self.
Firestone has developed a series of steps people can take to help them identify and overcome their critical inner voice as well as a therapy methodology called Voice Therapy. Practicing these steps whenever our critical inner voice starts to crush our confidence is a process that can be incredibly empowering and can help bring us back to ourselves and our real, more compassionate point of view. Initially, when we challenge this inner critic (and the more we accomplish and ignore it), we may notice this voice grow even louder. However, if we’re persistent and continue to cast these thoughts aside or “starve the monster,” eventually, the voice will shrink down and lose power over us.
This effort to conquer our inner critic and adopt a more self-compassionate attitude is part of a lifelong process. Over and over again, we have to become aware of when that critical inner voice is creeping in and attempting to take the wheel. As we do, we can keep returning to a compassionate attitude that will help us through the hard times. In addition to this ongoing goal, there are also some actions we can take each day to boost our confidence. Here are some science-backed tips for doing just that:
* Reflect on a moments when you felt accomplished – One study recently showed that recalling an event in which we felt proud or recognized can help strengthen our confidence. These types of thoughts can also act as natural counters to our critical inner voice. These don’t need to be major events – maybe just a time we were acknowledged for being generous or overcame a fear. We shouldn’t get carried away, feeling like we need to pull up old victories just to believe that we’re okay. Instead, we should just allow the memory itself to make us feel good and serve as a small reminder of who we really are.
* Exercise – There’s no debate that being active makes us feel good. Studies have shown that even light exercise can boost our confidence. This doesn’t mean we have to do an extreme body makeover or obsess over any physical result. It just means getting moving to release some mood-boosting endorphins and enjoying the perk of feeling more confident throughout the day.
* Stand tall – Yup, that annoying reminder from teachers and parents turns out to have some merit; standing up straight can make us more confident. It may sound silly, but according to one study from Harvard and Columbia University researchers, better posture actually makes people feel more confident and powerful.
* Dress in ways that make you feel your best – No matter how minuscule our interest in fashion may be, our personal style is part of who we are. Studies have shown that how we dress can affect our performance, mood, and self-esteem, which has led some researchers to suggest that “we should put on clothes that we associate with happiness, even when feeling low.”
* Practice generosity – Being generous is a natural way to reduce stress, boost one’s immune system and feel a sense of purpose. Anything from volunteering to performing a favor for a friend can enhance our sense of self. “Generosity is a natural confidence builder and a natural repellent of self-hatred. Not only does it make us feel better about ourselves, but it actively combats feelings of isolation and depression,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone, who co-authored Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.
* Find tools to help reduce your anxiety – When we feel anxious, it can be very difficult to connect with feelings of confidence. There are many exercises anyone can learn to help them deal with anxiety and return a sense of inner calm and presence. We can find many techniques for alleviating anxiety here. Practicing these methods can help us feel more calm and comfortable in our skin.