Self-confidence is a squirrelly bedfellow. We all want it, we’re desperate for it. In America, we tend to worship self-confidence. In fact, I’ll go one step further - most of us in the Western world believe that high self-confidence is an actual birthright. Dare to admit your low self-confidence issues and watch as people have a shaming field day with you, no doubt plummeting your self-confidence even further.
There are several terms used to describe how we feel about ourselves, often interchangeably: self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, self-awareness, and self-efficacy. But each of these concepts have different meanings. Self-confidence is most commonly defined as having a “can do” attitude. Self-respect involves a feeling of personal worth. Self-esteem is the combination of self-confidence and self-respect. Self-efficacy is the belief we are competent. Self-awareness refers to our insight and knowledge about ourselves.
Scour the online dating profiles and you’ll note that most people describe themselves as having high self-confidence, and just about everyone is looking for partners who have equally high self-confidence. As I said earlier, Americans tend to worship self-confidence in much the same way that we worship extroversion, and because of that, many people profess to have very high self-confidence even when they really don’t – in fact, they may not really even know what self-confidence is. Contrary to what many believe, self-confidence is not a static state – not an all-or-nothing, zero-sum state of affairs where we either have it, or we don’t. Our self-confidence fluctuates, sometimes dramatically. One minute we can be on top of the world, and the very next we’re at the bottom of a pit. We can have an “on” day where we’re funny, charming and our hair looks great, but a few days later, it feels like the planets align against us, and we’re completely down in the dumps.
Self-confidence also fluctuates depending upon what our confidence is placed in. In other words, I might have high self-confidence when it comes to being a friend, a mother, an employee, but my self-confidence may be low in my ability to manage money, or in the case of many divorced or recently broken-hearted, in my ability to have a successful romantic relationship. In other words self-confidence must be attached to something - some form of achievement. This is why simply saying good things about ourselves, or to others, doesn't result in higher confidence. We need to earn self-confidence in order to consistently feel better about ourselves in the areas where we struggle.
While many of us have fluctuating levels of self-confidence, we may still have high self-esteem because we have generally good self worth. But some people struggle in virtually all areas of their lives, and they do not believe they are worthy - worthy of a good career, worthy of good friends, worthy of a loving partner, and a loving and stable relationship. People with low self-esteem and low self-confidence often make bad choices in their lives – acting out (rages, substance abuse, abusive behavior), or acting in (depression, eating disorders, self-abuse).
Both fluctuating self-confidence and low self-esteem can create problems in relationships. For instance, while my self-esteem is generally high, and I have high self-confidence in many areas in my life, I’ve historically had low self-confidence when it comes to romantic relationships. I have had a “can’t do” attitude for years, and in fact, I have been so convinced that I “can’t” have a successful and loving relationship that I have historically psyched myself out early on, imagining all of the ways a new relationship could mysteriously fail, justifying my backing out before the relationship even really began.
That’s the other thing about having low self-confidence - it can leave us feeling rather powerless. Imagine any difficulty you’ve faced in your life; if you believe you have some control over the situation - some power to achieve success, despite the challenges involved, then you have high self-efficacy which will help you have a “can do” attitude, and likely, you will see whatever difficulties you face as challenges that can be overcome. But if you feel powerless over certain situations or areas in your life, if you have low self-efficacy, then your self-confidence will likely plummet, and if you believe you are powerless because you aren’t worthy, then your self-esteem will follow, and you will quite likely act accordingly. For most people, having low self-confidence in relationships may lead to some unhealthy choices, behaviors, and decisions, which may then lead to dysfunctional relationships, and ultimately a relationship failure (which will then lead to lower self-esteem and confidence!).
Consider the case of Jane Doe. Now Jane has a lot of self-confidence in many areas of her life, including her career, her ability to be a good friend, her knack for decorating. But when it comes to men – to her ability to have a successful romantic relationship, she’s historically had a “cannot do” attitude. In fact, often, by the third or fourth date Jane catastrophizes to such an extent that she doesn’t even need to keep dating the guy, because she already knows how it’s going to end. She has a well rehearsed litany of negative self statements, all beginning with “I’ll bet,” and ending with “I knew it!” When faced with challenges inherent in all new relationships, Jane didn’t see bumps in the road, she saw insurmountable mountains. So she responded as any self-respecting woman with low self-confidence would. She self-sabotaged.
This story doesn’t have to have a bad ending though, and Jane doesn’t have to live her life alone, in a dark apartment, with 10 cats (unless, of course, that’s what she chooses for herself, and her cats). No, Jane can turn things around and increase her self-confidence, which will likely result in different, and maybe even better choices, and hopefully, if the stars align just right, she’ll snag herself a partner (if you’re a man reading this, feel free to change Jane’s name to John, as the scenario works equally well for both genders).
So how does one increase their self-confidence after all? While there’s no single winning formula for raising one’s self-confidence, most experts will likely agree that the process begins within ourselves. If we look for others to fix us, then at best we’ll experience a temporary spike in self-confidence in response to another’s praise, only to plummet again once he or she withdraws their approval. Personally, I believe the first step in increasing our self-confidence is to get to know ourselves - I mean really get to know ourselves. Pay attention to ourselves, ask ourselves questions, explore our feelings, our motivations, and our experiences in much the same way that we would explore a new partner - with positive bias and a healthy dose of impartiality.
My confidence started to increase when I committed to a self-discovery journey. The positive self-bias part comes in when I examined my face-planting mistakes and learned the lesson of self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. After all, it’s not the successes in life that shake our sense of self worth, but our perceived flaws – our fall-on-our-face humiliating weaknesses that bring us to our knees. So I learned to follow a very simple rule: never say anything to myself that I wouldn’t say to my very best friend. So if I wouldn’t tell my dearest friend that she was always at fault, that she was a fool, that she couldn’t be forgiven, or accepted, or loved, then I will most certainly not say these things to myself.
I also believe that we must balance our positive self-bias with a healthy dose of self-truth. None of us are perfect. We make mistakes and that’s okay, as long as we admit them, own them, and learn from them. If we’re always blaming others, and casting ourselves in the victim role (perhaps because we’re so busy running away from those negative self-statements in our heads), then we will never admit, own, or learn, and we will remain stuck in our lives.
Once we know more about ourselves, and we begin to see the natural beauty that shines within our beautifully imperfect selves, I’m convinced things will begin to shift. I believe this because I am certain that we are all born with a unique self — and it is this uniqueness that others are naturally drawn to, and when we have low self-esteem, we hide our uniqueness in a whole lot of people-pleasing (or people-estranging) behaviors, and others never get to see who we really are, deep inside.
Think about your last relationship that involved rejection and heartache - it might have been a marriage, a long-term or short-term relationship, or even a brief affair. Imagine how you behaved in that relationship, particularly toward the end when the writing was on the wall. Now ask yourself, were you really you? Did you speak your truth with quiet confidence? Were you transparent? Were you genuine? Were you your best and truest self? Or when things started going south did you hide? Did you hide behind over-functioning or under-functioning, behind people pleasing or people-estranging? Did you remain quiet when you had something to say? Did you shout, because you were afraid of what you might hear? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you likely hid your unique self, which introduced a false dynamic into your relationship, which may have contributed to its ultimate demise.
It’s challenging to be ourselves in the face of potential rejection, and it’s even harder to be ourselves in a new relationship after the ending of an old one, particularly when those past ones rocked rocked us to our core, and made us to forget who we are. But if we take the time to get to know ourselves – to court ourselves in fact, then our confidence will increase, which will allow us to be ourselves. This means having good boundaries, speaking our mind, being patient (with ourselves and others), relying on ourselves and pursuing our own passions (which will no doubt emerge as we get to know ourselves better). There is no way that low self-confidence can survive in an atmosphere of such positive self-attention and self-love. So I guess the answer to the self-esteem dilemma is this: Love yourself and the world will have no choice but to love you back.