The confidence trick: How to build up your self esteem

STANDING OUT: If you're plagued by doubts, take heart. Because everyone from Shakespeare to modern psychologists say it's the most competent people who underestimate themselves.

Elizabeth O’Neill learned the hard way that competence and confidence are
often poles apart. Here she explores some habits and tips to encourage self-assurance and self-esteem

It’s not just hayfever that makes my skin itch at this time of year, it’s also the ghostly residue of exams and exam results. Exams are terrible and while I always had my head buried in a book, I was never good a holding my nerve.

Half way through a final-year philosophy exam, on who knows what, my world suddenly tilted on its axis. Seemingly out of nowhere time slowed and space elongated and I felt the ground was no longer solid. It was a bit like vertigo.

This was a panic attack and the first of many I’d have for the next year or so. I struggled through the rest of the exams, did okay, ended up with a full-time job in a bookshop and at the age of 21 felt any future academic success was over. A male doctor prescribed antidepressants but after a few months I got a second opinion. This time the female doctor recommended counselling.

Almost 20 years on, I don’t remember much about it, just certain details. The counsellor said if I met her on the street she’d understand if I didn’t acknowledge her. Because, almost 20 years ago, there was definitely a stigma.

Ultimately what I learned was that I had very low self-esteem. This was news to me, because I hadn’t thought of it previously. Being shy and introverted, I obviously wasn’t the most confident person. I also had tied my sense of self up in notions of academic success and nothing else. So my homework was to make plans for the future and find ways to build up my self-esteem with concrete achievements.

The saying “all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence and then success is assured” is attributed to Mark Twain. Whether he said it or not, empirical evidence would suggest it’s true. Some of the people I think of as the most confident seem the least questioning of their own beliefs or motivations.

This is backed up by the Dunning-Kruger effect – theorised in 1999 by Cornell Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger – which describes the tendency of some people to overestimate their abilities: The less competent a person is, it seems, the more they overestimate themselves. Conversely, the more skilled a person is, the more they underestimate their competency. They assume if they find something easy then everyone else does also. This makes sense, because the more you know, the deeper the realisation is of how little you actually know. As Touchstone says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

The problem is that in today’s world, self-knowledge is prized far less than confidence. The world is built for the self-assured who seem to steam ahead. So what about the rest of us, how can we build up confidence and self-esteem?

Firstly, we must realise they are not the same thing and it’s possible to be confident but have low self-esteem. Psychologist Owen Fitzpatrick, is the author of The Charismatic Edge. Owen defines self-esteem as the way we feel about ourselves and is a more universal concept, whereas confidence is a kind of certainty, or a sense of assuredness that’s not just to do with ourselves. For example, a person might feel very good about how they’ll play a game of tennis because they have confidence in their ability to play tennis, but could still have very low self-esteem.

“Self-esteem is your overall feeling about yourself,” he says. Owen also points out that these terms are psychological constructs: “You can’t open a person’s body up and let out esteem. Psychological constructs, even those recognised and agreed on, are metaphors.”

The problem is when people take the metaphors too literally and don’t know how to take their confidence higher. They miss the point that it’s about doing things differently and changing your fundamental beliefs about yourself, getting into different habits about the way you think, which in turn helps you to feel better about who you are. This then corresponds to the metaphor of boosting your self esteem.

“I ask why some people seem to have an inherent confidence and where it comes from,” Owen says, “it’s both nature and nurture, genetics and environment. Sometimes, a person will develop a way of thinking, like a healthy approach to rejection: others internalise the rejection and see the rejection is about them not about the specific situation.”

He says that over time this will become pervasive and habit-forming. A person with a strong sense of self-esteem or confidence has learned different habits.

“If they get rejected they think ‘okay well that person just doesn’t get it’, or if they fail they think ‘what can I learn from this? It’s not about me, it’s just about the situation’.”

Time and again I’ve heard the term ‘fake it ’til you make it’, I ask Owen if this actually works. His terms for it is ‘acting as if’ and he says it helps to a certain degree as it gets you physiologically into the right state.

Research has shown that physically displaying confidence activates chemicals in your brain that make you feel confident. While this can work Owen warns: “The problem is when you delude yourself and you’re doing it not to improve, but to hide your lack of confidence.

“If you feel like a fraud you’re more likely to keep reinforcing that you are one. If you’re doing it to improve your confidence it’s more likely to have positive benefits. What’s crucial about ‘faking it til you make it’ is doing it until you make it rather than doing it to pull the wool over people’s eyes.”

The good news is that there are many ways to build confidence and self- esteem. Aside from the ‘acting as if’, Owen also suggests being aware of how you walk, talk and move when you do feel confident and bring these to the fore. Also, remembering situations where you have felt confident works and another strategy is mental rehearsal, being able to see yourself doing things and getting results. However, an essential element to this is imaging yourself overcoming obstacles and challenges.

Owen says: “People go wrong with this one – they try to imagine everything going right. What I suggest to people is to imagine things going wrong... you see yourself getting a blank and you see yourself handling the situation and then you see yourself getting more confident.”

It’s also important to be aware of your interior monologue and the questions you ask yourself about a situation, such as an interview, an exam, a proposal. According to Owen the questions you ask determine where your brain goes.

“If you ask a different question you change the focus. ‘What would happen if I was very confident?’ ‘What would happen if I got the result?’ ‘What would happen if she said yes?’. Instead of trying to say ‘I’m going to do great’ (with another part of your brain saying, ‘no you’re not’) – by asking the question, you’re actually directing your brain to go after the answer.”

To raise self-esteem, he says, it’s important to develop a better relationship with yourself and to like yourself more.

“Start to remind yourself of all of your achievements and strengths and all the things you’re good at. Beware of your weaknesses and be aware of what you’re trying to do to improve them.”

He also advises you see yourself as your loved ones see you.

Almost 20 years on from exam-gate, I’m never going to be the most confident person in the room, but I have a rock-solid self-assurance built on hard-won achievements.


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