If you’re struggling to feel more confident, it’s natural to think about it like this:
I don’t feel very confident. So what should I start doing to feel more confident?
This is understandable, but often misguided. Because more often than not…
Confidence is about what you remove, not what you add.
See, most of the time people don’t lack confidence in an absolute sense. Instead, their natural, good-enough level of confidence is being blocked or interfered with by inner obstacles like chronic worry and anxiety, negative self-talk, and compulsive avoidance.
Here’s a specific example:
- Do you actually have a deficit of confidence speaking in public?
- Or do you start worrying like crazy before speaking in public, which then makes you feel like you lack confidence?
- I would argue that the second version is a much more productive way of looking at it because worry is a habit you can do something about (and increased confidence will be a side-effect of managing your worry better).
- But you can’t just add confidence to your life.
In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through 10 of the most common habits that interfere with confidence. These are based on what I saw over many years working as a psychologist with all sorts of people who struggled with confidence.
If you can learn to identify and eliminate these habits, you will start to feel more confident.
1. Stop trying to cope with anxiety
Most people who struggle with confidence also experience a lot of anxiety…
- They’re anxious about what other people think of them.
- They’re anxious about not performing well.
- They’re even anxious about having low confidence!
Unfortunately, the natural response most people have to anxiety is to try and cope with it… As soon as they start to feel anxious, they reach into their “toolbox” of coping skills and quickly do something to try and make that anxiety go away—deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques, mindfulness meditation, etc.
But here’s the problem:
When you immediately try and get rid of your anxiety by applying coping skills to make it go away, you teach your brain to view anxiety as dangerous.
This means the next time you start to feel anxious or inadequate, you’re going to feel ashamed or anxious about feeling anxious. And as you might imagine, this isn’t great for your overall confidence!
So stop coping with your anxiety and learn to accept it.
Anxiety may feel bad but it’s not dangerous. When you start validating difficult emotions instead of avoiding them your emotional confidence will rise.
2. Avoid reassurance-seeking
Nobody likes feeling inadequate or incompetent…
- The embarrassment of making a mistake in front of your whole team
- Incessant worry about being an imposter or not good enough
- Constant comparison with other people who always seem to be doing things better
All these things lead to an understandably awful mixture of anxiety, shame, disappointment, and hopelessness.
And when we feel that bad, it’s natural to look to something—or someone—to help us feel better:
- Compulsively asking your coworkers how your presentation went
- Rehashing bits of anxiety from work with your spouse every evening
- Calling your best friend any time you’re apprehensive about something
In all these cases, people in your life want to be nice and will tell you things that make you feel better:
- Oh it was great!
- I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think…
- Don’t worry, everything will be fine
Of course, in the moment it’s reassuring and relieving to hear these things and be comforted by other people. But here’s the bigger problem…
If you always outsource your emotional struggles to others, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to be confident.
Example: If you always do your kid’s math homework for them, how confident are they going to be doing math themselves?
A big part of emotional maturity—and the confidence that results from—comes from taking responsibility for your own feelings.
Yes, your feelings of inadequacy or insecurity are difficult. But they’re your feelings. And ultimately, managing them is your responsibility.
Once you accept responsibility for managing your own feelings, your confidence will emerge.
3. Put the breaks on catastrophizing
It’s hard to feel confident when you’re constantly telling yourself the world is about to end.
Now, that may sound dramatic. But if you’ve gotten into the habit of catastrophizing—immediately obsessing over worst-case scenarios every time something negative happens—that’s essentially the inner world you’ve created for yourself.
Because here’s the thing:
Even if you know intellectually that the worst case isn’t likely to happen, if you constantly tell yourself it is, that’s how you’ll feel.
- You get a vague email from your boss asking you to Please give me a call sometime tomorrow when you get a chance.
- Immediately, you start imagining all the terrible things this could be about: Oh my God, I’m getting fired, I’ll never be able to get another good job again, I won’t be able to pay my mortgage, etc.
- After just a few short minutes of this, you find yourself feeling incredibly anxious, insecure, inadequate, hopeless, and—surprise—not very confident in your work!
In short: It’s difficult to feel confident if you’re constantly worrying and anxious. And catastrophizing is like turbo-charged worry, which means it’s even harder for your confidence to shine through.
If you struggle to feel confident and also have a habit of catastrophizing, it’s critical that you learn to identify this habit and then start to break it.
Difficult as it can feel in the moment, it is possible to control your attention and not let your mind spiral into catastrophizing and worry. Setting and enforcing good mental boundaries is a great place to start.
4. Quit hiding from what you really want
Have you ever found yourself…
- Wanting to watch one thing on TV but then not saying anything because you’re afraid the other person you’re watching TV with won’t like it?
- Feeling strongly that a comment your coworker made was rude and belittling to another coworker and wanting to speak up about it. But then deciding not to because you were afraid to “rock the boat” even more?
- Or maybe it’s something much bigger… Maybe you know deep down that you’re working in a career you hate. But you’re afraid to try something different (or even consider the possibility) because it all seems too overwhelming and frightening?
From a young age, most of us are taught that it’s important to learn how to deny what you want—whether that’s a candy bar before dinner or dropping out of college because you think it’s boring.
And for good reason: Sometimes getting what we really want in the future requires making a tradeoff in terms of what we want in the present…
- Candy bar now or beach body this summer?
- Avoiding boring Econ 101 lectures now or a stable job and finances as an adult?
- Getting the last word in now or maintaining your marriage for a lifetime?
Self-denial is a good thing. At least to some degree.
But like anything, when taken to an extreme, it can become problematic—toxic even…
- If you become so good at denying your own wants and needs in order to accommodate other people, eventually you’re going to start believing that you and your wants are just not as important as other people and theirs. And that’s going to seriously interfere with your confidence.
- If you become so good at hiding what you believe, eventually you’re not going to have any idea what you believe. And that’s going to interfere with your confidence.
- If you become such an expert at running away from what you don’t want, you’re gonna start to have trouble running toward what you do want. And that’s going to interfere with your confidence.
It’s hard to feel confident in yourself when you’re constantly denying yourself.
Again, some self-denial is perfectly healthy. But if you’ve gotten into the habit of always denying your own wants and needs, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you don’t feel very confident asking for what you want, going after what you want, or even knowing what you want in the first place.
So, a great way to re-discover your confidence is to tone down the self-denial and deference to others, and start expressing yourself and your genuine wants and needs more assertively.
5. Let go of things you can’t control
A good way to never feel confident is to always be failing. And a good way to always be failing is to always be trying to control the uncontrollable.
Of course, it’s often hard to distinguish what we can control from what we can’t—especially if we really want to be able to control it…
Take a spouse’s bad mood, for example:
- You might really hate it when your spouse is feeling grumpy. And you might really want to do something to “help” them be less grumpy. But, realistically, how much control do you have over their mood?
- You could give them some advice to help them get out of their bad mood: Why don’t you go for a walk and see if you feel better? But as anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows well, giving people advice about how to change their mood tends to backfire fast!
- Not only can you not make them feel better, but often they end up feeling worse because it feels like you’re trying to fix them. And nobody likes feeling like a problem that needs to be fixed.
- The end result is that everybody’s upset… You feel increasingly inadequate in the face of your spouse’s bad moods. And this leads to a broader lack of confidence when it comes to your relationship.
Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t try to help or support people—including in their bad moods…
- You could try validating their struggles rather than trying to fix or solve them
- You could try giving them space rather than peppering them with questions
- You might even reflect on what emotions are stirred up in you as a result of them struggling and work to manage your emotions instead of theirs.
In any case, the critical difference is that in none of these is there an expectation of you being able to control the outcome. And as a result, your self-worth and confidence aren’t tied to something you can’t control (and are probably bound to fail at)…
- You can succeed in being validating regardless of whether their mood improves or not.
- You can succeed in managing your own reaction to their mood regardless of whether they choose to manage their own.
By resisting the impulse to control things you can’t actually control you avoid setting yourself up for failure at impossible tasks. And this is something your self-confidence will thank you for.
6. Second-guessing yourself
Imagine you’re interviewing someone for a new job. You begin by asking them about their expertise as a writer which they mentioned in their resume. And this is how they respond:
Yes, I’m an experienced writer. Well, sort of… I mean, I do write a lot but sometimes I feel like I’m not very good. Then again, my friends and coworkers always tell me they really appreciate how clear and concise my writing is. On the other hand, my copywriting is pretty bad, at least compared to what I see other people doing. And come to think of it, I struggle a lot with technical writing. And sometimes I can be a little too blunt, I think. I don’t know, maybe I’m not as good a writer as I think? I mean, I’ve held a steady job as a writer for years, but the more I think about it the less confident I am in my writing skills…
Now, what would you think to yourself if you heard this? Yeah, they must have some serious confidence issues!
So, we know instinctively that second-guessing and problems with confidence go hand in hand when we see it in other people. And we assume that it’s low confidence that’s causing the second-guessing. People with low self-confidence second guess themselves a lot—makes sense, right?
Sort of, but that’s actually only part of the story…
Low confidence leads to second-guessing, but second-guessing also leads to low confidence.
When you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, you’re effectively communicating to your own mind that you’re not reliable or trustworthy—that your decisions and instincts should not be relied on.
Well, if you’ve been in the habit of doing this for a while, it’s not that surprising that you lack self-confidence, right?
But I don’t want to be over-confident… Isn’t it good to question myself so I don’t become arrogant and make big mistakes?
Look, if you’re the kind of person who seriously struggles with low confidence and chronic second-guessing, you are SO far away from overconfidence being an issue that it’s a little silly to be concerned with at this point.
Of course, genuine self-reflection and constructive self-criticism are good things. But they are very different than the habit of reflexive second-guessing.
Here’s a simple way to make sure you’re being adequately reflective and also avoiding problematic, confidence-lowering second-guessing:
Stop second-guessing yourself in the moment and schedule time to do it deliberately.
For example, let’s say your boss offers you a new job with more responsibility and you find yourself immediately second-guessing your qualifications and ability to handle it, then pause, and schedule 20 minutes to reflect on it later this evening—ideally by journaling about it or talking it through constructively with a good friend or confidant.
Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive.
If you want to feel more confident and stay humble, make time to reflect and think critically but don’t let yourself fall into mindless and reflexive second-guessing.
7. Compromising on your boundaries
Boundaries are an expression of self-respect.
When you set and enforce healthy boundaries, you’re communicating to the world (and yourself) that you matter—that your values, wants, needs, and opinions are important and worth honoring and protecting. And this deep self-respect is the foundation for healthy confidence.
When you respect yourself enough to maintain good boundaries, confidence is the natural result.
- Suppose your good friend calls you up and invites you to a dinner party. Normally, you’d be excited to go. But it’s been a stressful week and what you really want and need tonight is to stay home, relax, get some good sleep, and recharge.
- So you politely decline their invitation.
- But then they call you up and guilt trip you about how you haven’t hung out much lately, how much fun you’re going to miss out on, and how getting out and socializing is actually just what you need to shake off a stressful week of work.
- Now you start to worry about what they’ll think of you if you don’t go… Maybe they’ll stop inviting you to future parties? Maybe your friendship will start to deteriorate? And as a result of this worrying you start to feel guilty (well, not really… You’re actually feeling anxious about disappointing your friend and the hypothetical consequences of that. You label it guilt, but really it’s anxiety—a fear of someone else feeling some other difficult emotion about you in the hypothetical future. I call this phenomenon fake guilt).
- At this point, you’re feeling pretty anxious and really starting to worry a lot about disappointing your friend. So you give in and decide to go. Importantly, notice that, despite your last-minute rationalizations to yourself, the real motivation for your decisions was based on what you want to avoid (continuing to feel anxious/bad) rather than what you really wanted.
- Now, you do get the relief of not feeling anxious anymore about what your friend will think of you. But the long-term cost is worth noticing… By not enforcing your boundary, you’ve sacrificed what you want and need (rest) for what someone else wants. And when you get in the habit of sacrificing your own legitimate wants and needs for other people’s, your self-respect and confidence deteriorate.
On the other hand, suppose you had decided to stick to your boundary…
- Despite your friend’s guilt-tripping, you stand firm and start home to relax and recharge.
- You do have to sit with and tolerate some anxiety and fear for a while.
- But long-term, you’ve sent a powerful message to your own brain: I matter. And this isn’t some vapid altitude you say to yourself in front of the mirror every morning. No… this is a value that you’re willing to stand up for and sacrifice for. It’s real. And the result of that real commitment to yourself, is deep, lasting self-respect and the confidence that comes with it.
To sum up: Confidence rests on the foundation of self-respect. And self-respect comes from setting (and enforcing!) healthy boundaries that protect your wants, needs, and values. But enforcing your boundaries requires that you tolerate difficult emotions like anxiety rather than making decisions designed to avoid them.
So if you want to feel more confident, start setting and protecting healthy boundaries, which means being willing to be with rather than avoid tough emotions.
8. Criticizing yourself after mistakes
Let’s make a critical distinction right off the bat:
You can be critical without criticizing.
For example, consider two different responses after forgetting someone’s name at a party:
- Ugh, I’m such an idiot! How could I have forgotten her name? She probably thinks I’m a jerk. And she’s right: I am a jerk—I can’t even remember someone’s name for 20 minutes.
- Ugh, that was embarrassing. But it happens to everyone sometimes. I should really figure out a trick or habit for remembering people’s names better (puts reminder in phone to research name remembering techniques tomorrow).
Both of these are critical in that they acknowledge a fault or mistake. So far so good.
But the first one is critical in an unhelpful and unhealthy way….
- For one thing, it’s not very realistic: forgetting someone’s name doesn’t mean you are an idiot. This is black and white thinking.
- Assuming you know what someone thinks without evidence is pretty misguided. This is mind-reading.
- And calling yourself a jerk because you forgot a total stranger’s name is, well, just kind of mean!
So, when you criticize yourself in response to a mistake, you create an unrealistic view of yourself that’s almost always too negative. And, unsurprisingly, this isn’t great for your confidence.
On the other hand, consider the second response…
- It acknowledges the mistake was made. So it’s honest and realistic.
- But it also validates the mistake and helps put things in perspective.
- Finally, it’s constructive. In part because you’ve validated the mistake rather than beating yourself up for it, you have the mental and emotional bandwidth to actually think of a productive way forward rather than getting mired in a storm of self-pity and judgmentalness.
Notice that this second option is more realistic, more compassionate, AND more productive. Oh yeah, and way less likely to interfere with your confidence.
So give it a shot… The next time you make a mistake, take a pause and ask yourself this question:
Is there a way to be critical of the mistake I made without criticizing myself?
9. Dwelling on past mistakes
Our last point was about not immediately criticizing yourself for mistakes in the moment. But what about continuing to beat yourself up for mistakes in the past?
Well, as I’m sure you can guess, that also is not great for your confidence.
Here’s one colorful way to think about it…
- Suppose you made a big mistake 15 years ago when you lied about something at work, got caught, and were then fired for it.
- As punishment for your transgression, the psychology gods have cursed you with the following scenario…
- At least once a day—although sometimes several times a day or even multiple times per hour—a nasty little goblin shows up at your side and reminds you of how you lied, got caught, and were fired 15 years ago. He also makes a point to remind you of how shameful and embarrassing it was and how most people you care about still think about it all the time and think less of you for it.
- So, despite the fact that this mistake happened FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, and despite the fact that you’ve moved on with your life, you are being reminded of that mistake and how terrible it felt on a regular basis.
- How’s that going to feel? Specifically, how is that going to color the way you think about yourself and your self-confidence?
- Not good.
Now, you might say, Well, you did make a mistake so it’s good to be reminded of it so you don’t make the mistake again.
- I can see doing some healthy exploration and reflection on the mistake immediately after it happened. All well and good.
- And maybe a handful of times over the next few months or even years you briefly reflect on it. Okay, maybe that’s still somewhat helpful and constructive.
- But thinking about it incessantly—sometimes multiples times a day—for FIFTEEN YEARS?! Yeah, not helpful. The law of diminishing returns kicked in about 14 years ago, I think.
Now, I make this somewhat dramatic example because it’s important to not let yourself get away with the ridiculousness of holding onto long-gone mistakes.
If you’ve built up a long habit of tormenting yourself for past transgressions, it’s going to feel really hard to resist that habit—really hard to redirect your attention elsewhere when your brain is inviting that it’s super important for you to replay that mistake again.
But like any habit, that’s the task. It’s tough. But just because it’s tough doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
If you’re constantly reliving past mistakes in your head, it’s going to be tough to feel confident about yourself in the present.
Give yourself permission to let it go. And then work like hell to keep letting it go, each time it comes up.
Forgiveness is a commitment, not a decision.
10. Trusting your feelings
Most people start squirming a little when they hear a psychologist telling them to stop trusting their feelings. Something like this often goes through their mind, if not out of their mouth:
But you’re a psychologist, aren’t you supposed to tell me to start trusting my feelings more?
Absolutely not. And here’s why:
Your feelings will lead you in the wrong direction at least as often as the right one.
Here are a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
- You’re in an argument and the other person criticizes you unfairly. You feel hurt and angry, which pushes you to come right back and criticize their character rather than staying focused on the issue. Should you trust those feelings?
- You’re out for a hike in the woods when a mamma mountain lion and her two cubs walk out on the trail in front of you. Your fear center lights up like a Christmas tree and pushes you to run away fast. Should you trust that fear?
- Your spouse passed away 18 months ago. You still get hit by moments of intense sadness. But each time you feel these big waves of sadness, your mind throws out thoughts like Why am I still so upset about this? It’s been over a year… I should have moved on by now. What’s wrong with me? These thoughts lead to a lot of shame, which in turn pushes you to distract yourself from your sadness by getting drunk or losing yourself in social media. Should you trust your shame?
As a psychologist, I can tell you pretty confidently that in the first and third examples, you should definitely not trust those feelings and the behaviors they’re pushing you toward. Not only would they lead to regrettable actions in the moment, but, more than likely, your emotional distress would likely intensify in the long term.
As for the second example, not being an expert in mountain lion psychology, I’m not sure… It’s definitely possible that trusting your fear and running like hell is the best thing to do. But maybe not… Maybe being totally still and calm is the best approach. Or slowly walking away. I have no idea. But either way, it’s not obvious that trusting your fear and running like hell is a good idea.
All that being said, I’m not advocating that you ignore your emotions either… Being aware of your anger and curious about it could be very helpful in the middle of an argument. Similarly, listening to your sadness and being willing to experience it is likely a much better idea than criticizing yourself for it.
In other words…
Listen to your emotions, but don’t trust them blindly.
Here’s another way to think about it: Treat your emotions like a friend. When they give you advice, listen to it. But be prepared to reject it or ignore it if it’s not good advice.
Like a friend, emotions are close to you and worthy of your respect and attention. But that doesn’t mean they’re infallible and that you just follow them blindly.
Now, at this point you’re probably wondering:
Okay, but what does this have to do with me feeling more confident?
Here’s the deal:
- You feel more confident if you make more good decisions. On the other hand, you feel a lot less confident if you make a lot of bad decisions.
- And while decision-making is a complex thing, the degree to which you blindly trust or thoughtfully reflect on your emotions is going to have a big impact on it.
- Specifically, the better you are at listening to your emotions but not trusting them, the more likely you will be to make a good decision in just about every area of life.
- So, when you stop making so many decisions based on reflexively trusting your emotions, your decision-making will improve, and along with it, your confidence.
If you want to feel more confident, go ahead and listen to your emotions, reflect on them, process them, talk about them, meditate on them, journal about them, or talk to them. Just don’t trust them.
All You Need to Know
If you want to feel more confident, start thinking about what habits you have that are interfering with your confidence, then work to remove them…
- Coping with anxiety
- Not asking for what you really want
- Trying to control things you can’t control
- Second-guessing yourself
- Compromising on your boundaries
- Criticizing yourself after mistakes
- Dwelling on past mistakes
- Trusting your feelings
Of course, be strategic here: Don’t try and do all of these at once. Pick one that applies to you and your life especially well and focus on making small improvements there first. Then, once you’ve made good progress, move on to another.