A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
— John A. Shedd
In addition to feeling awful, low self-confidence has negative effects in many areas of life:
- If your confidence is low, it’s harder to be honest and ask for what you really want in a relationship.
- Low self-confidence also makes it harder to get started on and stick with creative projects and business endeavors.
- It’s even a liability in your relationship with yourself… For example, when your self-confidence is low it’s harder to respond to mistakes with compassion rather than criticism, or to sit with and process your anger rather than acting on it impulsively.
The trouble is most people go about dealing with low self-confidence all wrong:
- They smile at themselves in the mirror every morning and repeat positive mantras.
- Or watch inspiring YouTube videos hoping other people’s confidence will somehow rub off.
- Or they constantly seek out mentors and advisors, hoping other people will put them on the right track.
But here’s the thing…
To build healthy self-confidence, you must address the root cause of your low self-confidence.
And to be clear, root cause doesn’t mean the oldest cause…
Let’s say your low self-confidence began because your father was overly critical and demeaning to you as a child. That may very well have been the initial cause of your low self-confidence. But your father’s criticism is unlikely to be the thing maintaining your low self-confidence now.
The root causes of low self-confidence aren’t events from your past but habits in your present.
In the rest of this article, we’ll look at three of the most common root causes of low self-confidence and how you can address them and restore your natural level of self-confidence.
1. Worrying about things you can’t control
Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.
— Leo Buscaglia
Obviously, chronic worry is going to lead to a lot of excess anxiety and stress—both of which make it harder to feel confident in yourself.
But here’s the thing about chronic worry that most people don’t realize…
Worry is a defense mechanism against helplessness and lack of control.
It’s not an accident that we tend to worry about things we can’t control. In fact, that’s the whole point: Most of the scary things we worry about in the future we don’t have much control over…
- Will my kid get bullied in school today? You can’t control the behavior of all 30 5th graders in your kid’s class.
- Will my boss hate the proposal I just submitted? You can’t control what your boss ultimately thinks about your work.
- Will my sister-in-law get angry if I set this boundary with her? You can’t control how other people feel.
But when you worry, it makes you feel like you’re doing something productive because worry is very similar to problem solving. And that feeling of doing something helpful temporarily alleviates your feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. This makes it addicting.
So even though the long-term consequences of worry are terrible—anxiety, chronic stress, and low self-confidence—you get addicted to it because the short term payoff feels so good: relief from feeling helpless and uncertain.
When you’re addicted to worry, you’re constantly anxious and stressed—both of which inhibit your natural levels of self-confidence.
But in order to stop worrying so much, you have to be willing to give it up as a defense mechanism—you have to be willing to feel helpless and out of control and accept those feelings.
Once you’ve learned to tolerate the discomfort of helplessness, you effectively put worry out of a job. And it’s a lot easier to feel confident when chronic worry isn’t taking up all your brain space.
Learn More: Face the Real Fear →
2. Dwelling on past mistakes
Sometimes the only way to get closure is by accepting that you’ll never get it.
— John Mark Green
When you make a mistake, it’s usually good to spend some time reflecting on that mistake—what happened, why it happened, and what you can do to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. This is healthy reflection.
But most people with low self-confidence go way past the point of healthy reflection and develop a habit of dwelling or ruminating on their mistakes…
- They replay memories of mistakes from 20 years ago over and over in their mind.
- They constantly question why they made such a dumb decision, despite years of not learning anything new.
- They criticize and berate themselves in the naive assumption that this will motivate them to avoid the mistake in the future
Here’s the problem:
When you constantly dwell on past mistakes, you constantly feel like a failure, which seriously interferes with your ability to build self-confidence.
So why does this happen? Why do we dwell on mistakes and criticize ourselves months, years, even decades after the event?
Like worrying about the future, dwelling on the past is a defense against feeling helpless and out of control.
When you remember a mistake in the past, you understandably feel some shame, regret, or disappointment. And along with those difficult feelings, you also feel helpless because—as we all know intellectually—you can’t change the past.
This feeling of helplessness is very uncomfortable and some people learn that they can temporarily get rid of those feelings by thinking more about the mistake in the past—by ruminating over and over and over.
Again, like worry about the future, dwelling on the past is a lot like problem solving, which gives the illusion of utility and helpfulness. But as we all know, in the long run it just leads to more and more guilt, self-directed anger, and shame—not to mention keeping your self-confidence far lower than it should be.
Grief, guilt, disappointment, and regret are all very real and very normal. We all experience them. But if you’re so intolerant of those difficult emotions that you need an unhelpful cognitive strategy like rumination to alleviate the feelings, then you should expect some casualties, including to your self-confidence.
If you want to stop rumination from interfering with your self-confidence, learn to build a healthier relationship with difficult emotions like regret and disappointment.
3. Ignoring your wants and needs
You become the noun by doing the verb.
— Ellen Burstyn
We all have things we want—and not just basic wants and needs like food and shelter—but deep, profound desires:
- We want to feel loved and respected, especially by the people closest to us.
- We want to be creative and put beautiful, useful things into the world.
- We want to learn and understand how things work, whether that’s neurochemistry, French patisserie, or an old car engine.
These big, “thick desires” are an essential part of what it means to be human. And it turns out, much of our happiness and well-being depends on being attuned to these very real wants and needs and then going after them.
Unfortunately, many of us learn somewhere along the journey of life that it’s not okay to even express much less really go after what you really want…
- Maybe it was an overly critical teacher who stifled your curiosity about science as a child
- Maybe it was an abusive partner who threatened to leave you anytime you stood up for yourself and asked for something
- Maybe it was a manager who bullied you in your first job out of college
Whatever the cause, too many people get in the habit of dismissing their own legitimate wants and needs.
Here’s why that’s a problem…
When you get in the habit of not going after what you really want, you teach your brain to devalue your own wants and needs.
If this goes on long enough, it leads to chronically low self-confidence. After all, how could you feel confident in yourself if your actions are constantly signaling that what you want isn’t valuable or worth it?
Which means if you want to improve your self-confidence you must retrain yourself to view your own wants and needs as valuable and worthwhile.
So how do you do that?
Well, it’s actually pretty simple, though not necessarily easy: You have to start expressing yourself and going after what you want even if it feels uncomfortable…
- Saying that you’d prefer not to go on vacation to your in-laws house again, and instead, go someplace new—despite the fact that you’re terrified of how upset your spouse will get in response.
- Speaking up during a meeting and sharing your new product idea even though you’re terrified that everyone will think it’s dumb.
- Signing up for that creative dance class even though you’re self-conscious about your lack of coordination.
Having strong self-confidence makes it easier to do challenging things, but it’s not a requirement. However difficult, you can ask for and go after what you want even though you don’t feel confident. And in fact, it’s precisely by doing this—by proving to your brain that you can do hard things despite not “feeling it” that your confidence grows.
The trick, in my experience, is to start very small and slowly work your way up…
- If your goal is to take a creative dance class, try dancing alone creatively several times a week to build up some confidence and experience.
- If your goal is to be more assertive during meetings at work, practice sharing small ideas and opinions more often with trusted friends. Then with sympathetic coworkers. Only then moving on to meetings with your manager.
Learn More: How to Be More Assertive →
All You Need to Know
To build lasting self-confidence, you need to address the root cause of low self-confidence. Here are three of the most common:
- Worrying about the future
- Dwelling on past mistakes
- Ignoring your wants and needs