Confidence and self-esteem are not only personality plus points that influence our wellbeing and the way we interact with others but are two of the main ingredients for personal success.
I was once hearing a speech given by his holiness the Dalai Lama in an audio book entitled “A Path to Happiness”, where he confessed how he was dumbfounded to learn, in his first encounters with the west, that there are people who disapprove of themselves or are unhappy with themselves even to the point of self-hatred. He mentioned how up to that point in time self-hatred was something he had never heard of. There is no conceptual equivalence of self-hatred in Tibetan culture and language. So for him it was not only a foreign and alien concept but completely absent in his stock of experiences.
I remember that this had struck me as a very peculiar notion. It begged the question of how is it that we come to a point of not liking ourselves or become uncomfortable with ourselves. Surely this is not a natural thing to happen. There is no evolutionary purpose for it.
So why do we sometimes feel this way about ourselves? Ok, perhaps self-hatred is an extreme example and as far as I know, or rather I hope, it’s not that common. However it comes in a myriad of forms as it goes down in scale. Lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem are examples which in this case happen to be considerably common among us.
Lack of Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem:
We all had those moments when we feel sheepish and insecure about our own image, actions or speech or by having that constant self-critic reminding us how we might not be looking the part.
“This dress doesn’t fit my overweight body…tonight’s party is going to be an utter disaster!”, “who knows what they will be thinking about me?”, “I might be making a fool of myself if I say this or that”, “My boss is looking unimpressed…am I saying the right words?”, “Will I ever make it to my graduation?” and so on and on. The mind keeps on lurking on unassertive and self-defeating thoughts that shake our own confidence up to a point of renouncing or cutting back from fully and actively engaging in life or in the things we want to endeavor.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama’s remark has a lot of truth in it. I am also of the idea that in the west, lack of confidence and self-esteem is more pronounced than other non-western cultures. Probably this has to do with the fact that we base a lot of our own self-image on what the media and pop culture feeds us. In other words we benchmark ourselves with the icons and role-models the media and our peer network ‘impose’ on us and hence we bitterly feel that we are very often not living up to those expectations. This continues to place on us a falsely perceived state of under-achievement, failure and dissatisfaction with our projected image. Lack of self-confidence and self-esteem are an effect of this.
Seeking Attention & Approval from Others:
Another problem which I think runs deeper than the above is the fact that as humans we constantly seek attention and approval from others. The need for attention and approval is a very strong motivational force deeply rooted in our behavioral makeup.
Since we are infants (especially when we are infants) we constantly look for our parents or care taker’s attention, loving-care and warmth. Also, their approval or disapproval helps us build boundaries and guidelines on what is and what is not accepted or tolerated in the social environment we live in.
We subconsciously learn this skill from a very tender age and use it throughout our development and adulthood. At school, pupils are extremely influenced by whether or not they are given attention by their tutors and peers. Teenagers are the quintessential example of attention-grabbers as they constantly try to make a statement through rebellious and deviant behavior, nonconformist looks, outbursts of home-made drama and on the other extreme by being totally compliant and trying to please their teachers and people in the authoritative rung above them.
Most of us adults are not free from the shackles of attention-seeking behavior either. There is a Sufi scholar, whose name escapes me at the moment, who pointed out that most, if not all, of our social interactions are heavily driven by attention-seeking and approval-seeking behavior even those which may not seem like it such as business meetings or negotiating.
In a few words, attention-seeking and approval-seeking seem to dictate a lot of what we say and do in all areas of our lives and throughout its different stages. More than that it also influences how we perceive ourselves, our self-image, which is what some refer to as our blueprint for outward action.
The Identity Profile of a False Self-Image
It seems then that the common denominator for the lack of self-confidence or low self-esteem episodes lies in the building or measuring our self-image on outward cues (role model behavior through social media or approval from others) rather than inward perceptions. Some features to note about this type of false self-image are that it’s:
- Inauthentic: Since it’s not naturally born from within us but ‘suggested’ to us externally through social media and our peers.
- Decentralized: It’s not coming from one source but from different signs we pick up around us (from other people’s remarks about you; from your friend’s behavior, from your colleagues’ way of relating to you; etc)
- Impermanent: It changes constantly, it’s never fixed. As the world changes around us, so does our self-image
- Contradictory: It is often contradictory since sometimes the same thing (the image we have of ourselves) appears to change under a different light.
- Counter-intuitive: It goes against what we really, really think and feel about ourselves deep inside. This can lead to inner conflict with our purpose in life.
How to build self-confidence:
So how do we find and cultivate true self-confidence? …and the natural question that comes prior to that is: Can we program ourselves to be self-confident if it feels that we ‘naturally’ aren’t?
The answer to the latter question is a definite and big YES. The answer to the former can be listed in a few anecdotes below:
- Realization: One of the most powerful techniques to boost self-confidence is the realization that we are not products of our past experiences or of other people’s way of seeing us. This means that if in the past I have failed to pursue a certain task, or I was embarrassed about something I did, it doesn’t mean that that thing will happen to me again. I am not determined by past events but I have the power to change my future. Also if some people see me or think of me in a certain way, then that does not mean that it really reflects who I am. We don’t need to take that information in. We can choose not to pick up that information, filter it out or not let it affect us. If someone passes on a depreciating remark on us we can either take it all in and let it haunt our heads for the rest of the day (with negative repercussions on our self-confidence) or we can choose to ignore it as a wrong assessment of ourselves.
- Moderation: You know, just as much as a discussion group or a forum needs a moderator to keep the discussion in balance without any one thread of discussion going to far off in one direction, so do we need to be moderators with our own discussions going on in our heads. We all have that inner-critic which most of the time keeps us in check from not doing something crazy or stupid that we might regret afterwards. That’s fine. However the inner-critic also very often gives us disempowering and self-defeating thoughts that undermine our self-confidence. Like for example “Oh no, you’re not good at this…don’t try it or you’ll make a fool of yourself.” So try to moderate and challenge your inner-critic in a good way. Try to catch that limiting thought as it arises in your head and challenge it by asking: “How true is this thought I am having right now? Is it just an irrational fear trying to scare me off?”
- Equalization: Up to not so long time ago, I had the wrong habit of accentuating worrying thoughts more than I should have and not adequately cherishing the positive good things that come along the way. This lack of equalization is a very natural fault to fall into because we are more influenced by warning signs than by counting blessings. With some effort and shift in perspective, we can start seeing things under a more positive and encouraging light. Now I make it a point to stop and absorb those little good things in life more. It’s simple. I just put my attention to them for a minute or two every time. On the other hand, I try to discount the not so good episodes by investing less time thinking about them and more time in trying to sort them out. This is what I call the principle of equalization.
- Visualization: The more I learn and practice it, the more I realize on the tremendous power of visualization. When you visualize or imagine something happening, it is like running a movie in your head. You know, when we are watching a movie, we all know that what’s on the screen is not for real but it still captures us in a way that we feel part of it or living it at that moment (we bite our nails and tense up in those moments of suspense, laugh or cry in the dramatic ones, etc). So although we know it’s not happening, there is another part of our mind which acts on it as though it is. So if you visualize yourself achieving a desired goal or a desired outcome every day, you are running that movie in your head and your mind is picking up the instruction to act on it. Your mind is then set on it. This is also part of what some people refer to as the law of attraction.
- Authentication: There is a straight line of divide between pursuing your own dreams or benchmarking with those of others. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the main reason for our false self-image arises out of constantly comparing ourselves with the ‘ideal’ looks, bodyweight and shape, achievements, goals, etc that are being fed to us by the media. This skews and distorts our self-image. What we need is to spend some time to validate, or rather authenticate how we think or feel about ourselves. There is no need to over-analyze ourselves. However, it would be extremely insightful to sometimes question ourselves whether the way we feel about ourselves is genuinely based on true & verifiable facts or just on fleeting hints and cues that we pick up from around us or from others.
The building up of self-confidence therefore seems to be tied to re-orienting the way look at ourselves from outward to inward. Going back once more to the Dalai Lama’s remark, this seems to resonate with one fundamental difference in orientation between Western and Eastern cultures. Western cultures are more outwardly oriented, what Carl Jung would have called the collective extrovert type, while Eastern cultures are guided by philosophies that thread more upon the inward path.