The most important thing to know about low self-confidence is that it is not your fault.
The factors that contribute to low self-confidence combine and interact differently for each person. Your genes, cultural background, childhood experiences, and other life circumstances all play a role. But don’t lose heart — although we can’t change the experiences in our past that shaped us, there is plenty we can do to alter our thoughts and expectations to gain more confidence.
Genes and Temperament
Some of what molds our self-confidence is built into our brains at birth. I mention these factors not to overwhelm you, but to let you know that you shouldn’t blame yourself for your self-image.
Studies have shown our genetic makeup affects the amount of certain confidence-boosting chemicals our brain can access. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness, and oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” can both be inhibited by certain genetic variations. Somewhere between 25 to 50 percent of the personality traits linked to confidence may be inherited.
Some aspects of our behavior also stem from our temperament. If you’re naturally more hesitant and watchful, especially in unfamiliar circumstances, you may have a tendency called “behavioral inhibition.” When you're confronted with a situation, you stop and check to see if everything seems the way you expected it to be. If something appears awry, you're likely to move away from the situation.
Behavioral inhibition is not all bad. We need some people in the world who don't impulsively jump into every situation. If you're a cautious and reserved person, self-confidence may have eluded you. But once you understand yourself and the tools in this book, you'll be able to work with your temperament and not fight it.
A number of individual experiences can lead to feeling completely unsure of yourself or even worthless. Here, I’ll discuss a few.
Trauma. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse can all significantly affect our feelings of self-worth. If you find yourself replaying memories of abuse or otherwise feeling tormented by or ashamed of your experiences, please consider seeking treatment from a licensed clinician.
Parenting style. The way we were treated in our family of origin can affect us long after childhood. For instance, if you had a parent who constantly belittled you, compared you to others, or told you that you would never amount to anything, you likely carry those messages with you today. A parent’s struggles with mental health and substance abuse can also change your relationship with the world.
Bullying, harassment and humiliation. Childhood bullying can leave a mark on your confidence when it comes to looks, intellectual and athletic abilities, and other areas of your life. Humiliating experiences in adulthood, including workplace harassment or a peer group that disrespects or demeans you, can also make you less willing to speak up for yourself or pursue ambitious goals.
Gender, race, and sexual orientation. Scores of studies show women are socialized to worry more about how they’re perceived and, therefore, to take fewer risks. Racial and cultural background and sexual orientation can make a difference, too. If you’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination, you may have internalized some negative, untrue messages about your potential and whether you “belong.”
Lack of self-confidence can come from not knowing the "rules" of the confidence game. For example, if we think we have to feel confident in order to act confidently, we set ourselves up for failure.
Perfectionism is another form of faulty thinking that contributes to low self-confidence. If we believe we have to have something all figured out before we take action, those thoughts can keep us from doing the things we value. Even learning and understanding what confidence is and isn’t is a big step toward boosting it.
The World Around Us
Many media messages are designed to make us feel lacking. Companies that want to sell you products usually start by making you feel bad about yourself, often by introducing a “problem” with your body that you would never have noticed otherwise. (The movie Mean Girls memorably skewered this idea: The main character, new to American high-school culture after years of homeschooling in Africa, is bewildered when her new clique stands around a mirror criticizing themselves. “My hairline is so weird,” says one. “My nail beds suck!” proclaims another.)
Now that social media has become ubiquitous, the messages hit closer to home. It’s easy to believe that everyone around you has the perfect marriage, a dream career, and supermodel looks to boot. But remember: What people post online is heavily curated and edited. Everyone has bad days, self-doubt, and physical imperfections. They just don’t trot them out on Facebook!
“One reason we struggle with insecurity: We’re comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.” —Steven Furtick
It’s common for anxiety and depression to go hand-in-hand with self-confidence issues. If you’ve already been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or depression and are working with a therapist, you could bring in your workbook and perhaps go through it together. It’s brave of you to address your self-assurance stumbling blocks, and building confidence will also help you lessen anxiety and depression.
Questions to Consider:
Which of the contributing factors described in this section resonate the most with you?
What specific experiences in your life do you think had the biggest negative effects on your self-confidence?
2. Learn why self-confidence is so important. Start here.
3. Avoid these self-confidence traps ("13 Things the Most Confident People You Know Never Do").
4. Try these four proven approaches to increase your confidence level.
Adapted from The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem. Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Markway and Celia Ampel.