5 Surprising Strategies for Dealing with Low Self-Confidence

Advanced strategies for dealing with blips in your confidence.

Posted Sep 08, 2018

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I've been writing quite a lot lately about strategies for coping with low self-confidence (e.g., here, here, and here).  It occurred to me that there are some strategies I personally use that I haven't mentioned, because they're a bit more nuanced than some typical strategies.  They might not make sense at first glance, but they can be very helpful and effective.

Let's unpack some of the more surprising strategies you can use for times you're experiencing blips in your confidence.

1. Irreverence. 

The strategy of using irreverence to shake people out of unhelpful thinking is part of various evidence-based psychological therapies.  You can use this strategy to recognize absurdity in your thinking.  For example, if I've got writer's block, I might say to myself:  "I've completely forgotten how to write, despite having written hundreds of articles."  If I'm doubting my worth/value, I might say to myself:  "Despite having studied psychology for over 20 years,  I don't know anything important.  I don't know what I'm doing."  Clearly these thoughts don't make logical sense.  In recognizing this nonsense, I'm being tough on myself, but gently. 

Whatever your self-doubt thoughts are, try extending them to the point they're clearly ridiculous, just like I've done.  Other (hypothetical) examples:

- "Everyone who has ever hired me for a job (or chosen me for an award/opportunity) is an idiot.  I'm clearly incompetent and untalented."  (How likely is it that you've duped everyone who has ever hired you into thinking you're competent if you're not?).

- "Everyone who acts as if they like and respect me is faking it to be nice."

- "To be worth anything at all, I need to be better than everyone else at everything."

Tip - The key to this strategy is the tone of your self talk.  You're gently but firmly calling yourself out on your nonsense thoughts, just as a trusted mentor might do.

Note - this is a tip that's mostly aimed at people who have fluctuating self-confidence and who can see the absurdity of their low confidence thoughts when a light is shined on them.  If you have chronically low confidence and can't see when your thoughts are distorted, this strategy probably isn't for you right now.

2.  Doing nothing.

Sometimes the best way to deal with an episode of low self-confidence (or any unpleasant psychological state) is simply to let the moment pass.  You might experience some setbacks or things that go wrong one day and these knock your confidence.  However, by the next day,  a few things go right for you and your confidence bounces back, by itself.  Sometimes we just need to give ourselves a day or two to process an emotional blow we've experienced.

Simply being patient and waiting for difficult feelings to pass is a skill that everyone needs in their psychological toolkit.  However, this skill tends to be underrated.  It requires trust that your emotions will ebb and flow in reaction to whatever you encounter in your day, and acceptance that sometimes things go surprisingly smoothly and sometimes everything is an uphill battle.

3. Taking on new, more difficult challenges.

This is a strategy you'll want to use somewhat sparingly.   When we take on challenges that are completely new and very challenging, it can make other aspects of life that we usually find challenging feel more manageable in comparison.  

Here's an example: My spouse is a family doctor who does temporary jobs (locums) for different practices.  Her work is always challenging but certain workplaces are more demanding than others.  She usually sticks to working at the places that she finds easier.   If she only sticks to working these places, it still feels relatively demanding.  However, when she steps outside her comfort zone and works at practices she finds really challenging, it can help her appreciate the places where she is relatively confident and comfortable working.

When you're too self-protective and just stick with what's familiar, the normal up and downs of life can still feel quite challenging and stressful.  When you step out of your comfort zone it can make you realize when you've become relatively comfortable with other challenges.  It's not that the old challenges don't have their ups and downs, but you've gotten accustomed to them.  When you're taking on something new and difficult,  activities you'd normally find quite challenging can feel like a safe place to retreat back to.

When you overdo this strategy, you can get into a cycle of always trying to prop up your self-worth through higher and higher achievements.  However, in moderation, this can be a useful approach.  

Try:  Fill in the blanks...   X feels hard to me but it doesn't feel as hard as Y.   

4. Radically admit patterns of mistakes to yourself.

I'm sure you've heard the fairly standard advice to employ understanding self-talk to justify or soften mistakes.  For example -

  • "I made the best decisions I could with the information I had."
  • "I made a few mistakes but it was a learning experience."

This can be a useful strategy but so can a tougher approach.  If you have longstanding patterns of mistakes, try admitting these to yourself without justifying, excusing or minimizing them.  For example, "I've got a pattern of .... and it's hurting my success and/or relationships."  When you admit an area of genuine, significant weakness, you can combine it with acknowledging that having some impactful shortcomings doesn't make you a worthless person.

Give this a try to see if matter-of-factly acknowledging patterns of mistakes actually makes you feel better.

This strategy is similar to the last one in that it employs the idea of being less self-protective (and less avoidant).

5.  Improve your skills in domains you don't value much.

A recipe for disaster is deriving your self-worth from only one or two life domains (like work, your body, or your parenting).  A strategy from my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, is to consider devoting some effort to life domains you don't value much.  For example, if you're someone who is very focused on career, try improving your skills at cooking or home organization.  Why?  Doing this may show you that you have skills and talents in areas where you didn't realize it.  Also, since behavior drives thinking, devoting effort to these domains will cause you to value them more, and help make your self-esteem more well-rounded and resilient.

Wrapping Up

As I said at the outset of this article, these strategies are a little more nuanced than some typically recommended techniques. To use them effectively you'll need to understand the principles behind them.  In comparison to other strategies, they're less like a recipe where you can just follow the instructions without understanding the overall aim and rationale.  To benefit, you'll need to experiment with which of these techniques are helpful to you (and which aren't) and in which types of situations.  As always, if something isn't helpful, tweak it or move onto other strategies.  There are plenty you can try, so choose what appeals to you most and go from there.