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Two Steps to Build Lasting Self-Confidence

If you've battled low self-confidence, try this two-step approach.

To develop lasting self-confidence you need to practice acceptance—of your strengths, your weaknesses, and yourself.

Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash

At first, acceptance is a difficult concept to grasp. Hearing that you should practice acceptance might make you think you’re being told to settle for the way things are and not bother to try to improve them. But once you understand what acceptance really means, it will make a huge difference in how you proceed — not only in your quest for more confidence, but for your life in general.

The best way to understand acceptance is to think about an equation often cited in the psychology world: Suffering = Pain x Resistance.

Imagine you’re stuck in a traffic jam and you’re going to be late for an important meeting. The pain is real: You hate being late, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The resistance part kicks in when your self-talk starts: “I shouldn’t be caught in traffic. This is horrible. What is going on? Is there an accident up ahead?” Your resistance, piled on top of the pain, is what creates the suffering.

Once you’re at the meeting, you’re about to give a brief project update and your stomach starts to churn. Your mind starts up: “I can’t believe this is happening again. Why can’t I be like normal people and just be able to participate in a simple meeting without getting so anxious?” Again, the pain is the experience of your stomach hurting. Resisting it is what makes you panicked, unfocused, and more likely to make mistakes during the presentation.

We often can’t control the pain part of the equation. Life happens. What we can usually control is our reaction to it. By not piling on to the pain with resistance, we’ll have less suffering.

The antidote to resistance is acceptance.

  • Acceptance is a willingness to see reality without judgment.
  • Acceptance does not equal approval.
  • Acceptance does not mean you won’t take appropriate action.
  • Acceptance isn’t putting up with misery.
  • Acceptance is the starting point for change.

Step 1: Accept Your Strengths

Lydia finds herself greeting even her biggest blessings in life with the same troubling thought: “What’s the catch?” When she wins a big contest in her industry, she thinks, “Well, there must not have been many entries this year.” When a man she likes asks her on a date, she works herself into a frenzy—she’s sure he’s made a mistake, and she’ll soon be revealed as the big dork she is. When someone gives her a compliment, she always deflects, giving the credit to somebody else.

If you’ve battled low self-confidence, Lydia might sound a lot like you. Resistance doesn’t just come when we face pain in life. Many of us resist compliments and good fortune, too, because we just don’t think we deserve them. Women, in particular, are often averse to acknowledging their strengths, believing they’ll seem braggadocious or egotistical if they do.

But accepting your strengths isn’t about building yourself up in comparison to others. You don’t need to tell yourself you’re the best salesperson, parent, or point guard in the local recreational basketball league. Instead, you’re trying to reduce the suffering in your life by decreasing resistance.

When you’ve worked hard, give yourself credit. When you do a good job or try something new, let yourself feel some pride. Accepting your strengths helps you keep your weaknesses in perspective, one of the keys to walking through the world with confidence.

Why We Fight Accepting Our Strengths

Many of us are hard-wired to believe accepting our strengths means being prideful. We don’t want to boast or come off to others as holier-than-thou. Maybe you know there’s something you’re good at, but you truly don’t think it’s a big deal: Anyone could do it, if they really tried!

There are other reasons you might bristle at the idea of noticing your own strong points. “If I tell myself I’m already doing well, I’ll think it’s OK to rest on my laurels,” you might think. “I won’t push myself to keep getting better.” Or maybe it’s hard for you to recognize your strengths as valuable because they don’t fit into the norms of the world you’re in. For instance, maybe you work in a dog-eat-dog corporate environment and don’t see your patience and listening skills as useful — after all, you don’t hear many colleagues being praised for their quiet fortitude.

All of this is natural. I’m not asking you to hold a parade for yourself proclaiming that you’re the best, or to tell yourself you’re perfect and could never improve. Remember, confidence isn’t the same as arrogance. It’s the knowledge that you can continue to act in line with your values, no matter what life throws at you. Most of the time, that knowledge is something you can carry with you without telling anyone else, “Hey, here’s what makes me so great.” But sometimes you will have to advocate for yourself to reach valued goals such as earning a promotion, and you can’t do that without accepting your strengths.

Celebrate Your Strengths

It’s easy to feel like you’re never doing enough. When you start comparing yourself to others, you might worry you’re not spending enough time with your kids, staying healthy enough, or climbing the career ladder enough. Enough with “enough”! It’s important to take time to celebrate everything you’re doing right. This could mean unwinding with a significant other and trading stories of the day’s small victories, or it could mean keeping a journal where you give yourself credit for the steps you took toward your goals.

It’s also OK to bask in your accomplishments, even if it’s just for an instant. If you’re someone who struggles to accept others’ kind words, practice saying a simple “thank you” the next time someone pays you a compliment. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll make others feel good, too, by not dismissing them when they make an effort to recognize your strengths.

Step 2: Accept Your Weaknesses and Imperfections

Everyone has weaknesses. They fall into different categories: There are weaknesses that have nothing to do with what matters to you in life, and others that do. There are weaknesses that stem from a lack of information or training, and there are weaknesses that stem from a lack of practice. To an extent, some weaknesses are attributable to your temperament or natural talents. What matters the most in all of these cases is how you play the hand you were dealt.

As you know, resistance increases your suffering. If you avoid public speaking because you’re terrible at it, even though it’s part of a valued goal, your short-term relief is costing you the long-term satisfaction of growth and advancement. Facing the possibility of failure can be petrifying, and you might feel there’s no point in trying to improve. But accepting the weakness can help make it feel less like a shameful flaw and more of an opportunity to learn and stretch yourself.

You can probably think of many weaknesses you have that really don’t matter very much in terms of living your values — but for some reason, you’re still bothered by them. In those situations, letting go of the shame and owning the fact that you’re not perfect can be quite freeing. If you admit your weaknesses, you might be surprised how patient and helpful people can become. For instance, say you’re a passionate and knowledgeable teacher but you sometimes struggle with the technology you need to run your class. If you admit you need help, maybe with some self-deprecating humor, your students will usually step up and get things running in no time.

Allow for Vulnerability

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

One of the hardest things about accepting your weaknesses is being OK with the idea that other people might see them. Sometimes we live in fear that if others really saw us — our struggles, our mistakes, our failures — they would reject us altogether.

But research shows the opposite is true. Vulnerability is how you connect to others. When people see that you’re worried, scared, messy or flawed, they tend to feel great relief and let you know, “Hey, guess what? I am, too.”

Being comfortable with imperfection doesn’t mean you have to reveal every personal challenge to everyone in your life. But if you perceive a flaw in yourself that causes you great shame, consider sharing it with someone you trust. You’ll likely find that the ability to live your life with authenticity takes a huge weight off your shoulders and brings you closer to those around you.

Excerpted from The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem. Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Markway and Celia Ampel.

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