Learning to trust yourself (Self-Confidence, Part 1)

During recent conversations with my clients I frequently thought about how many of their concerns and emotional hardships were rooted in the concepts of self-confidence, self- respect, feeling of self-worth – or rather the lack of it. Whether you are the young man who is tired of being single but has lost almost all hope because he really can’t find anything worth loving in himself. Or the woman in her best years whose children are past the most difficult stages and now nothing stands in the way of her return to professional life – except her conviction that she won’t be up to a work day and its demands. Or the pretty girl in her mid twenties who has postponed a vital operation for much too long because the thought of a scar disfiguring her otherwise perfect body is just too terrible to contemplate. Somehow it’s always the same thing: “I don’t like myself.” “I am not good enough the way I am.” “I am useless unless I am perfect.” “I am incompetent.”
Self-confidence, the feeling of self-worth, self-esteem – in the final essence they are all rooted in self-respect and the appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses making us the person we are. Those who have been fortunate were given a healthy portion of it during childhood: They had parents whose demands were neither too high (and thus asking too much) nor too low (and thus lacking stimulus for an optimal development). They may have received many positive impulses from home and other people, experienced lots of love, affection and interest and therefore developed the feeling of being liked by others regardless of their own achievements. If they were truly children of the sun they were even fortunate with their friends and fellow students – these days described as a peer group. They were accepted, became a part and were made to feel comfortable and appreciated. Usually this represents the “fertile soil” for a pretty solid feeling of self-worth, the sense that one is alright and going to somehow manage dealing with life’s demands - albeit sometimes a little more easily than at others, but satisfactorily, nevertheless. Then one takes minor adversities or negative experiences in stride; they don’t begin diminishing one as a person in one’s own eyes.

Unfortunately, not everybody is that fortunate in their childhood. Even discounting traumatic experiences such as mistreatment, neglect or sexual abuse - because it should be obvious to everybody that a feeling of self-worth his hardly going to flourish in these environments - many other external conditions remain that stand in the way of creating even a minimum of self-respect: the feeling of never or rarely meeting the parent’s demands; teasing, derision or mobbing by members of the same age group; an outsider role based on any number of external (social or personal) circumstances or simply the absence of positive support, praise, recognition and encouragement. The result is frequently an exaggerated self-deprecating mindset causing people to make their own life incredibly difficult. Among our ipersonic personality types, particularly many Idealists and Realists know about this – and probably also one or the other Thinker (only with the difference that he/she won’t admit it to others!). Due to their disposition, Doers are usually less susceptible to these tendencies, which is not meant to say that they are immune against them. In the subject of self-worth the environment and learning experiences simply play a central role and are instrumental in forming the personality a lot more than in many other areas.

However, does this mean that one must now be satisfied with the level of self-value, self-confidence and self-respect carried over from one’s childhood for the rest of one’s life? Absolutely not! (If I thought that, I would have surely landed in the wrong profession.) One can change the odds and convert the bottom line of one’s self-worth account into something positive. This does certainly require some effort and self-discipline (as all major changes usually do). But it is worth it!

In case you feel like it, as a first step you may want to give some thought to where your damaged feeling of self-worth could have its roots. Which important reference persons in your childhood or youth gave you the feeling that you were not ok as you were? Or that you didn’t measure up to certain situations or challenges? For instance, were you often told that there is something you can’t do (or not as well as your brother/your sister)? Or maybe at home everybody lived by the predominant motto “not scolding is sufficient praise”? Were you supported, encouraged, spurred on when something appeared to be difficult? Or were you over-protected, or stopped with exclamations such as “watch out” or, “don’t to that, its too dangerous”? In that case the roots for your lacking self-confidence can well be found here.

It isn’t necessary that you trouble yourself all that much with the question about the “why?” and “from where?”. In case you have come to the decision that a change makes sense and is desirable, the steps toward it are obviously a lot more important than that. And, as so often, the first step is once again self-observation. In order to accomplish that you should consistently record your “inner dialogue” as soon as you become aware that you are again in the process of criticizing yourself. ("No wonder I spoiled it! I shouldn't even have tried! What a loser I am!") This process should be as detailed as possible and last a predetermined period of at least one or two weeks. I admit that it takes a certain effort. But then I have already mentioned that this is going to be hard work to change something as deep seated as the feeling of self-worth permanently. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work without a struggle.
Now, during the period of time you have decided on, make a note of a few cues for the following indicators as soon as despondency, dispiritedness, the feeling of worthlessness or even a fear of a challenge make life tough for you again:
  • Date and time
  • Situation (Where were you, what were you doing, who was with you, what did you experience, what were you thinking?)
  • Feelings and physical sensations (Where you more sad, angry or embarrassed? Where in your body did you first sense that you were not feeling well?)
  • Thoughts (What self-critical statements did you inwardly make to yourself? Which inward images troubled you?)
  • Behavior (How did your self-deprecating thoughts affect your behavior? For instance, was it something you did not do for fear not to be able to do it right? Did you avoid a situation? Is there something you did not allow yourself that you had really been looking forward to?)
If you have stuck with this for a few days and weeks as systematically as possible, you’ll probably get a pretty clear picture which situations, internal or external circumstances generate the creation of self-deprecatory thoughts within you; when these feelings show up frequently or even always and possibly rarely or possibly never. Moreover, you can look over your own shoulder a little and watch how you are treating yourself – I would think probably pretty mercilessly and severely. I this way you’ll get a better sense when and to which extend these self-deprecatory thoughts affect your normal daily behavior: Where they get into your way (because you don’t think you are capable of doing something going in), where they rob you of strength and energy (because you can’t stop mauling yourself when something sometimes doesn’t work) and where they distort your perception of the world (because you erroneously assume that every other person judges you as mercilessly and severely as you judge yourself).

As always, this evaluation is naturally only the beginning. As a part of the next step you’ll learn how you can slowly but carefully change your “inner dialogue” with yourself to the point where it becomes more helpful and constructive!