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5 Ways Low Self-Confidence Can Cause Selfishness

How low confidence can hold you back.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

In her upcoming book about self-confidence, my awesome PT colleague Dr. Barb Markway writes about how when people are more confident, they tend to be less self-focused. Her point is a great one. Since it's not immediately obvious why this is the case, I thought I'd write a post explaining how and why this happens.

1. Unconfident people tend to think others won't want their help.

Here's an example. One way authors help each other is by writing blurbs, which are the endorsements that go on the back of the book, or on the Amazon page, etc. Sometimes I want to do this for a colleague I admire, but if I'm feeling unconfident, I'll think, "Oh, they probably don't want my endorsement, they probably want famous people." Thinking this way then leads to not reaching out to ask.

This pattern happens in all sorts of other contexts. For example, a student might want to offer to read a classmate's report or dissertation, but thinks, "My classmate probably doesn't want my comments."

Practical tip: If you lean towards being unconfident, ask yourself, "What help would I offer others if I felt more self-assured?" Behaviors drive thoughts, so try reaching out to offer help and see if this makes you feel more confident. Taking action is also a way you can objectively test whether other people want your help instead of guessing!

2. When you're ruminating and worrying, you're likely to have a short fuse and be particularly self-absorbed.

Can you remember a time when you were stressed out and snapped at a family member about something unrelated? If your low confidence tends to result in lots of worry and rumination, you're probably more self-focused because of this. It's important to understand that this is the way that anxiety is supposed to work. The role of anxiety is as a signal of danger. The emotion, therefore, puts us in self-protective mode, in which we're mostly thinking about ourselves and our (physical or psychological) safety. Anxiety puts us into a mode of thinking about the short term and not about what's best for our interpersonal relationships in the long term.

Practical tip: Learn strategies for noticing when you're ruminating and shutting it down. Simple strategies for this work better than people tend to think they will.

3. Low self-confidence can make everything feel like a threat.

When people are low in self-confidence, they often have a sense of imposter syndrome. People with imposter syndrome commonly feel like everything they've achieved could be taken away any minute. Let's unpack an example where a colleague reaches out and asks, "Would you like to collaborate on a project?" The unconfident person receiving this request might think to themselves, "If I say yes, the person is going to realize I'm not as skilled as they thought. My flaws will be revealed." So, they say no. They don't want to deal with the anxiety the request creates, and the easiest thing to do is decline.

There are all sorts of subtle ways this effect can manifest in both professional and personal realms. For example, you get asked to make a dish for a potluck. You're nervous about your cooking. Therefore even though you'd like to make a homemade dish, you just buy something to take, because you don't want to tolerate the emotional risk of making a dish yourself. This comes across as less caring to your host, but it's simply driven by your lack of confidence. You're so busy emotionally protecting yourself against threats to your fragile self-esteem that you miss opportunities to make a good impression.

Practical tip: Whenever you feel a sense of threat, ask yourself if it's actually an opportunity in disguise.

4. Being prone to personalizing can make you appear distracted or selfish during conversations.

This point is really an extension of #2 and #3, but it's both very common and difficult to recognize in yourself, so it's worth mentioning separately. People who are prone to low confidence and anxiety, often walk around the world with their threat monitor set to high. For example, during a conversation with a colleague, that person mentions something that spikes your anxiety. You're so busy processing how what they're saying relates to you and your fears that you're not really listening. As a result, you miss cues the other person is giving; for instance, you miss that your conversation partner would like some encouragement or support from you.

Practical tip: If you realize you've fallen into this pattern after the fact, go back and offer the support you wish you'd given during the conversation. If doing this in person is challenging, doing it via email or message is far better than not at all.

5. All these behaviors create a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Here's the trap: The more you do the behaviors I've mentioned in this article, the more other people are likely to perceive you as self-focused, and the more self-focused you're likely to actually become. If you keep to yourself and never reach out to offer help to others, people will tend to see you as only self-interested, because that's the way you're acting. When you don't take the risk and offer assistance to others, this maintains your belief that other people don't want your help, because you don't have any evidence to the contrary. Likewise, if your spouse is trying to tell you about something they're worried about, and you're not really listening, because you're caught up in your own worries, then you'll be seen as self-absorbed. All this can lead to someone with low confidence beginning to fear that they're inherently a horrible, selfish person, which makes them even more self-conscious and shame-prone. And the cycle continues.

Take-Home Messages:

  • If you recognize any of these patterns, recognize that they're reversible. Once you know how the patterns work, you can dig yourself out of them, one action at a time. When you do this, it won't take long before your perception of yourself starts to change, and you begin to see that you've got the capacity to be less self-absorbed, when you're feeling more confident.
  • If you live or work with someone whom you think is low in confidence, try asking them for help in ways that are very concrete, specific, and achievable. For example, you might ask a colleague to comment on a specific part of a report you've written, rather than just generally asking them to read it.
  • You can also consider this approach: We all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to being generous. You won't catch me volunteering to help a friend move to a new house or apartment! Identify what your generosity strengths are and try to increase the frequency with which you express those. This can be easier and more enjoyable than attempting to work on areas of weaknesses. Once you've expanded on your strengths, you'll likely feel more confident about working on your weaknesses. Keep in mind that there are some limits to this approach. For example, people will still get annoyed with you if you appear self-absorbed during conversations, so there's no way around needing to work on that.


Markway, B., & Ampel, C. (2018). The Self Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem. Emeryville, CA: Althea Press.