Elizabeth Lombardo Ph.D.

Better Than Perfect

How Can I Be More Confident?

How to discover it in yourself.

Posted Jan 18, 2017

How can I be more confident? is a question I often hear from clients.

I need to be more confident, they insist.

XiXinXing/Shutterstock
Source: XiXinXing/Shutterstock

There is a sense for many that confidence is like a magic pill. When you take that prescription, you will feel better—about yourself, your abilities, your life.

Here’s the deal: The way you view yourself is central to every interaction you have—with other people, with every experience, even within your own head. And yet, it is not so much about quantity—having more confidence—as it is about quality.

What do I mean by that?

When you look at how you view yourself—your self-worth—there are really two ways to do it, conditionally and unconditionally.

Conditional self-worth refers to believing in yourself if, as in, "I will feel good about myself if…:

  • … I lose weight.”
  • … I feel superior to others.”
  • … others agree with me.”
  • … I make a certain amount of money.”
  • … I win and others lose.”

There is a sense that “I am OK if” these external events take place. But without the external praise, agreement, or deference, you do not feel good about yourself.

A dichotomous perspective is present, as in “me versus them,” “Either I am better or you are better,” “If I win, you lose, and if you win, then I lose.” With conditional self-worth comes a lot of comparisons. And egos are rather fragile. Any “feedback” you hear (how you could do better at work, a partner asking you to do things differently, a friend sharing her ideas about your wardrobe) is interpreted as a personal attack.

Research has shown that the more time someone spends on Facebook, the more likely one is to feel down. Why? In my clinical judgment, I would say the answer is conditional self-worth. Facebook users look at others’ posts featuring seemingly perfect families, vacations, pets, homes, and lives, and feel as though they fall short, that they are “less than” others.

Does that sound familiar? How much do you base how you view yourself on other people’s accomplishments, reactions, or what society “says” is good?

And, if you were honest with yourself, how helpful do you find that? If you are like most people, you feel a consistent need to be better, do more, get more accolades—and never feel fully satisfied. It can be exhausting.

Conditional self-worth is at near-epidemic proportions in our culture. The growing frequency of bullying is a great example, whether in person or online. Putting someone else down is an attempt to feel better about yourself. And while it may help temporarily, it does nothing to boost true confidence in a healthy and helpful way.

When you base your self-worth on conditions, you are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, stress, relationship problems, health issues, difficulties at work, and a host of other issues.

In contrast, unconditional self-worth occurs when you believe in yourself independent of others. This does not make you a narcissist. In fact, narcissism is based on conditional self-worth, because narcissists are constantly comparing themselves to others and trying to make sure they are better.

Instead, unconditional self-worth refers to believing in yourself not because of external events, but rather because of who you are on the inside. It is based on focusing on those values, strengths, and core characteristics most important to you.

When you live from a place of unconditional self-worth, you are at greater peace with yourself and others. Rather than comparing yourself to others to see where you rank, you are comfortable in your own skin. You can be truly happy for others’ successes without feeling they are better than you. You can hear and accept feedback without taking it as a personal attack. You have the mindset, “I am good, and I can keep getting better.” You also don’t personalize other people’s reactions.

A great example of the difference between conditional and unconditional self-worth can be seen in incidents of road rage. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 80 percent of U.S. drivers admit to having expressed anger, aggression, or road rage at least once in the previous year.

Why? One reason has to do with conditional self-worth: When someone with conditional self-worth is cut off on the road, there is a personalization, a sense that, “He did that to me because he is being disrespectful to me.” That interpretation causes a jab to the ego, resulting in anger or hurt.

In contrast, someone with unconditional self-worth who has a car cut in front of him will not personalize the other person’s driving. Sure, it might be seen as unsafe, but not as a personal attack. (Here is an interview I did on GMA about road rage.)

How can you cultivate unconditional self-worth? Stay tuned for my next post. Until then, what is one way people in your life show their conditional self-worth? Do you know bullies? People pleasers? Colleagues who get upset when they receive feedback? Friends who have issues with road rage? Share with us on our Facebook community.

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