What is self-confidence?

One of the main issues I see in the therapy office is people struggling with low self-esteem and low self-confidence. It affects people of all ages, races and genders. It can boil over into problems in relationships, health and at work. Usually the person reporting it feels as if something in them is inextricably and unexplainably broken.  They feel that everyone else has something they don’t; That no matter what they have tried that they have been unable to gain or improve their self-confidence. Usually after a little exploration, a misconception is discovered about what self-confidence is.  After talking to many clients, the common denominator is that most people believe self-confidence is a feeling of having it all together or knowing what you are doing at all times. 

The truth is self-confidence is action oriented.  It is the ability to follow through even when you are not sure of the outcome. It is trusting yourself to able to navigate the obstacles that will come with trying something new.  

Self-confidence is being afraid and doing it any way.

How do we develop confidence?

Confidence is a combination of many things including temperament, environment and parenting.  The biggest contributor to low self-esteem and low self-confidence is environment. I once read somewhere that if you want to have good self-esteem, choose your parents wisely.  Some environments foster risk taking and exploration, some do not. Some parents, family members and other adults encouraged you to be the best you could  while others said  that “ You were smelling yourself “ or “ You think you are all that.”  With every cut from the tongue, with every diminishment of accomplishment and with every comparison to someone else, self-confidence diminished.  So, what happens if you did not come from an environment that built you up? Are you stuck with low self-confidence forever? Absolutely not. There are some very straightforward steps you can take towards improvement. 

Now that we have a working understanding of self-confidence let’s get to work!

Who are you talking to?

One of the first things we do in therapy is to discuss how the person speaks to themself. The answer I often get is, “I don’t know, I never really paid attention to that.” We all speak to ourselves. We have a running dialogue in our heads.  It is up to us to be more conscious of that dialogue and to change the narrative, if necessary.  Actively and intentionally start to pay attention throughout the day of the things you say to yourself. Pay attention to the words you use  when you feel you have made a mistake,  or are feeling like you are not where you should be in life and  even when you feel that you have made positive progress. Write them down. Read them back and ask, “Would I allow anyone else to speak to me like this? Would I speak to anyone else in this manner?”  We are much more critical and harsher with ourselves than with anyone else.   For self-confidence to improve, this must be actively addressed.

“But I’ve been using those positive affirmations.” Positive affirmations are a good start, but if the overarching theme of your self-talk is negative and abusive then only speaking to yourself kindly for two minutes in the morning is not going to result in a drastic change. There is a necessity to challenge your core beliefs about yourself, examining where they originated and if they are factual (hint: they aren’t!)

Know Yourself

 It is importance that we know what our values are. They give us a sense of self. Usually we are given a set of values and core beliefs in how we are raised, what we experienced or what we have seen displayed in media. It is rare that we sit down and determine what is important to us or what actually makes us who we are.  We need to invest times in getting to know ourselves so that we are assessing our accomplishments, needs and wants by what is important to us and not by someone else’s yardstick.

Stop Comparison 

“Comparison is the thief of happiness.”   You do not know if the images portrayed are accurate or how long others have been working on the process you are just starting. When comparing ourselves to others we are doing so with limited information and usually come to inaccurate conclusions.  It is simply unhelpful and no good can come from it. 

Goal Digging 

Since self-confidence is action oriented, goal setting is next. What is it that you want to accomplish?  Identify, clarify and plan. Having a clear goal maximizes the potential for success and ensures that we are working towards things we genuinely want. Setting and meeting these goals improves confidence by leaps and bounds. We feel accomplished when we are meeting our own goals.


What would you like to be different?  All too often the answer is “everything.” This is unfortunate. While some things do need to change other parts of us should be accepted.  There are too many great things about you to throw it all away.  Unhealthy/unhelpful behaviors should be changed, the whole of an individual should not.  

Teach people how to treat you

Once you have identified who you are and what you want you now must let it be known what you will and will not tolerate. This comes through setting boundaries with the expectation that they will be respected. When they are not there is an action that follows. That action is up to you, just make sure it moves you closer to being treated with respect that you deserve. 

What if others don’t like my changes?

Many times, people confuse self-confidence for conceit or selfishness. They are not the same thing. We think that if we began to feel better about ourselves and require others to treat us according to our new standards that they will somehow see us as believing that we are better than them. We fear that we will lose the relationship because it no longer serves the other person’s purpose.  What really happens is when we feel better about ourselves, we are more present in our relationships, on our jobs and fully engaged in life. The less we are in our heads beating ourselves up the more fully present we can be. Anything that cannot survive the improvement of how you feel about yourself has no place in your life anyway.