How to Believe in Yourself
If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t trust yourself, here are ideas to nurture faith.
I spent many years being anxious. Very anxious. I’d get anxious before doing anything new—playing out different situations and scenarios, trying on different decisions and actions. I’d get anxious whenever a teacher called my name. I'd get anxious before school presentations, writing down what I was going to say and memorizing it word for word. I’d get anxious when I had to be in charge of anything, shouldering any kind of responsibility.
It was an anxiety that would drone and buzz, and sometimes, it’d peak and become electric. I could feel the surge inside my bones. Today, I understand where it came from.
It stemmed from a lack of faith—a lack of faith in my abilities and skills. A lack of faith in myself.
I memorized speeches verbatim because I feared I’d turn into a mumbling, bumbling idiot if I wasn't over-prepared. I feared that if put on the spot, I wouldn’t know what to say. And I’d humiliate myself. I’d fall apart.
I didn’t want to be in charge because that was too much pressure, and I feared that I couldn’t meet the expectation. I feared new things because I was convinced I’d get lost. Terribly lost. And I’d fail at that, too.
For years, I didn’t believe in myself. It was a deep-seated lack of trust. If self-trust were an area in the brain, I would've had a gaping hole.
According to clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., when people don’t believe in themselves they tend to underestimate their abilities and miss opportunities. For instance, even though it interests you, you don’t apply for a job, because you “know” your skills are subpar. You meet a potential mate, but you become distant because you’re convinced they’ll just reject you. You set super small goals because you don’t think you’ll achieve anything bigger.
This lack of self-faith is actually a protective mechanism, Howes said. Many of us view failing as a trait: We think if we fail, we are a failure. “We protect ourselves from the pain of feeling like a failure by setting the bar low, taking no risks or only safe ones, and avoiding the dreaded failure.”
Where does this stem from?
“All of us have experiences in our past, going deep into childhood, of seeing the person who tries and fails—many times this is us—being ridiculed, chastised, and even taunted by peers and family,” Howes said. These memories may reside deep within our psyche, “reminding us of past pain that we must avoid at all cost.”
What also might reside there are the fears of our closest caregivers. Our parents’ fears and doubts may become our own, Howes said. For instance, he worked with a client who was passionate about politics. She was bright, a great speaker and great leader. She yearned to make a difference. But when it was time to join a political race, she didn’t. It turns out that she’d internalized her mother’s fears. Anxious and sensitive to rejection, her mother discouraged her from running for office because people would criticize and ridicule her—and she’d be crushed. But the client actually had thick skin. She ended up running for office—and won. And she had a positive perspective about all the criticism.
If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t trust yourself, thankfully, you can change that. You can work on it—even if you once memorized your presentations word for word and feared anything new.
How to Start
- Rethink failure. Start looking at failure as a vital and expected step in the growth process, Howes said. He suggested checking out Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and biographies of Lincoln, Oprah, Einstein and J.K. Rowling to see how failure sparks success. Remind yourself that “with each try you learn about yourself, the process, and the goal.” Plus, when you stop yourself from seeking opportunities, you ruminate about what might’ve been—and “without your goal, you still don’t have what you want,” Howes said.
- Reflect on your achievements. According to Howes, “Many people downplay their own success and attribute it to luck or the kindness of others. But if you take a good look you’ll see how many obstacles you’ve overcome, how many hardships you’ve endured, and how much creativity you’ve used to survive along the way.” It also can help to ask a close friend or therapist.
- Accept a part of yourself. Maybe you can’t accept yourself as a whole. But can you accept a specific trait or strength or limitation? “The happiest people I know embrace their strengths, chuckle at their shortcomings, and make the most of every hour of life,” Howes said.