Many people make the mistake of thinking they need self-confidence before attempting some new venture – when in fact, self-confidence comes from attempting, and achieving, new things.
It is very common for people to seek help from a psychologist, to gain and build their own self-confidence, particularly if they are contemplating the pursuit of a new business venture, or a personal project of self-creation. For example, they may want to ask someone out on a date, change career pathways, or explore new business opportunities.
How Self-Confidence Works
However, wanting self-confidence as a prerequisite for undertaking new and unfamiliar challenges or ventures is to put the cart before the horse. This is not how self-confidence works! Rather, self-confidence is a necessary and natural by-product of having first become proficient or competent at something, whether that be managing colleagues at work more assertively, reversing a trailer for the first time, or asking someone out on a date. Self-confidence never comes first – it is always the happy by-product of getting good at something.
If it is not self-confidence to begin with, then what is that critical ingredient that gets us to take on new challenges? In short, it’s the willingness and the courage to take risks. I want to be clear here – I am not suggesting that risk-taking itself is synonymous with success – however moderate risk-taking is positively correlated with life success in general.
But what about the nature of risk-taking? What does it entail and why is it so difficult for some people? It is precisely here, that things gets a bit tricky.
Risk-taking presupposes the willingness to get it wrong, to fumble initially in one’s attempt or venture and then not to take it personally when it goes wrong (or pear-shaped to use the parlance of our times!). And therein lies the problem for many. Let me explain!
Feeling “Not Good Enough”
The truth is that many people go through life with the persistent and intrusive feeling that they are “not good enough”.
I call it the recurring “I’m not good enough story”. Typically, these people try to overcome the “I’m not good enough” story by either trying to prove to themselves or others that they can be successful or perfect in whatever venture or project they undertake. What this essentially means is that their sense of self-worth becomes contingent on succeeding in whatever venture is undertaken the first time – being perfect.
However when one’s self-worth is contingent on the outcomes of one’s life experiments, when feeling good enough and worthy of love and acceptance is contingent on whether one flourishes or fumbles, succeeds or fails, a problematic connection is formed.
If the attainment of perfection and success is a necessary imperative for worthiness, it means that one’s sense of self-worth is rather precarious and fragile – and needs to be protected at all costs.
Becoming risk-averse makes the most sense from this standpoint: risk must be avoided because the stakes of failure are just too high. Not getting it right the first time supports and confirms the “I’m not good enough story”, which means not being worthy of love or acceptance. And because our brains are hard-wired for connection, we can’t afford the risk of exposing ourselves to the dreadful feeling that we are not good enough for belonging and acceptance.
So then, is it possible to unravel self-worth from the success or failure of the things we say and do? There is no easy answer to this question, but suffice to say, worthiness is not a function of evidence. That is, worthiness is not measured by a standard of how many external things have been acquired, accomplished or achieved.
The Gift You Give Yourself: Self-Worth
Rather, worthiness is a function of the belief that worthiness is a gift, by faith alone. This is not faith in the religious sense necessarily. We typically accept and receive gifts not because we have shown, justified or proved our worthiness. In our current cultural milieu, we are required to accept gifts irrespective of whether or not we have proved or justified our worthiness and so it is, with respect to our self-worth.
We may never know with certainty what the true and verifiable reasons are for why another person likes, accepts or loves us. It is sometimes necessary to accept that we are enough, that we are worthy, not because we have justified or proved it but because we are willing to take the risk to believe it.
To reiterate then, our self-worth is not a function of justifying or demonstrating our worthiness. It’s a matter of believing we are worthy of acceptance, by faith alone. I use the principle “of faith” alone to emphasise that worthiness is not something that can be known empirically: worthiness is not gained in the same way as we obtain “knowledge”.
To “know” whether something is true or not, we validate it through observation. Aspiring to meet external standards of validation, when it comes to self-worth, leads to playing a game that we can never win – because “When is enough, enough?”. How many sexual conquests are needed before I’m enough? How much money, or how many degrees do I need to feel worthy? More is never enough!
Once you have shifted into the position of believing that you are worthy, by faith alone, everything changes. Everything becomes playful, but not in a trivial or frivolous sense. Trying new things, not to prove yourself, but because you are adventurous, interested and curious to explore who you are, becomes the new standard for self-acceptance.
It is precisely the attainment of self-acceptance that makes taking risks possible, because the outcomes are no longer evaluated as the measure of whether we are good enough.
If you are interested in finding out more about how self-confidence works, and making it a reality in your life, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with adults, teenagers, children, couples and families, Cobus Kleynhans has extra training in the techniques and practice of Brief Therapy and systemic Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.