How to believe in yourself—the lost art.
There’s something I’ve learned from working with highly educated people. The smartest, most accomplished people I meet struggle with self-esteem.
It’s a serious struggle, one that seems to afflict people for years and takes a genuine toll on not only their well-being, but on their career.
Someone with low self-esteem, after all, has trouble walking into a job interview and convincing an employer that they’re the perfect person for the job. They have trouble convincing themselves that they are totally worthy of an amazing career that they love.
They have trouble looking in the mirror and seeing someone they respect and like.
And it takes a toll. Inability to believe in ourselves holds us back. It hurts our careers.
What follows is an exploration of what I’ve found helps when it comes to remembering how to believe in yourself, even when nobody else does.
This post is not a substitute for mental health support. If you are struggling with mental illness, please find a professional to help.
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1. Look how far you’ve come
We often forget how far we’ve come. If you look to your past, we all have things we NEVER thought we would accomplish that we did. Maybe it was getting out of your parents’ house, graduating from school, or getting into another. Maybe it was getting a certain job or devoting all your energy to land a romantic partner you now take for granted.
We rarely take stock of how far we’ve come.
Try this. Sit with a journal or piece of paper and write down all the amazing things you’ve done. Things you’re proud of, big or small. I don’t care if you quit smoking or if you got into Harvard, if it’s meaningful to you, write it down.
Remember that you did all that. Put it up on a mirror or write it somewhere. See it all the time. And remember that you have done great things.
2. Recognize that you’re worthy… now
As a high achiever, I always picked some future moment when I would be likeable, when I’d have accomplished enough to have self-worth. A lot of high-achievers believe that self-worth is earned, which makes it extra difficult to give self-worth to ourselves.
But worthiness isn’t something you earn. You don’t chase it and finally achieve it. That’s messed up.
You are worthy now. Like yourself now.
3. See if it’s your environment
When I started working with grads, especially those with advanced degrees, I realized that a lot of people came into their degrees on top of the world. Education destroyed their self-esteem.
You have to be good enough to get in. After being the top of your class in undergrad and getting the top marks, you get to go hang out with everyone else who was the top of their class. You compete with these people for money, time, attention, publications, and finally, for a small handful of academic jobs.
One grad student told me that, after she presented her research in front of an audience, a senior male scholar stood up and told her it was a joke and he’d be embarrassed if it were his.
I mean, holy shit. For most people that’s a recurring nightmare come to life.
Toxic cultures destroy you and your self-worth. They convince you that it’s normal, and that you’re the one who’s not good enough. And then it will gaslight you when you try to question, and maybe fire you when you try to change it.
If you want to fight the fight, go ahead. But some things are not worth your mental health.
In many cases, people are existing in broken systems and wondering why their self-esteem is low. It’s hard to crawl out from under a broken system. It’s hard to be bullied and gaslit by a cruel parent, boss, or teacher, and turn around and believe in yourself the next moment. Not to mention institutional sexism, racism, and other discrimination that can be found in most systems.
Think carefully about whether it’s the environment that’s making believing in yourself so hard.
4. Check your standard
Imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon is when otherwise successful people doubt their accomplishments and feel like a fraud. And imposter syndrome and perfectionism are closely linked, as people who struggle with the former often are chasing the latter.
What are your standards? If believing in yourself comes from achieving perfectionism, you’ll never get there.
So let’s try this. Recognize that self-worth is not objective. It’s subjective. Your ability to believe in yourself comes from a standard you give yourself about what good enough looks like for you. About what you would be like, if you were worthy of being believed in.
Somewhere along the way, you’ve decided what it looks like to be worthy of self-belief. And if you don’t believe in yourself, you are probably not in line with that standard you set.
5. Get help
Maybe this should have been number 1, but make it a priority to get some professional help. Especially if you struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety. Find a mental health professional in your area, or use a site like Better Help to find an online counselor.
6. Deal with the past
People aren’t born believing in themselves. I’m reading a book right now, What Happened to You?, by Oprah and Dr. Bruce D. Perry. It explains the millions of cues a child gets everyday about their own self worth and value, and the long term cognitive damage that childhood trauma can have on us.
Believing in yourself isn’t just about positive thinking your way to success, it’s about acknowledging that a lot of who we are was formed before we ever had a say in it or even the cognitive awareness to know it was happening.
As a result, believing in yourself might take some hard work, probably with a good therapist (see number 5), to start to get free from the past.
7. Tell yourself a better story
We humans are desperate to make meaning of the world and out place in it. So most of the time, we tell ourselves stories to do this.
And our stories are terrible–which makes believing in ourselves tricky.
Nobody likes me.
I’m not as good as them.
Everyone thinks I’m a joke.
Or, worst of all, I would believe in myself if I were X.
First of all, about what people think about us are usually false. People aren’t thinking about you; they’re thinking about themselves.
Secondly, tell yourself a better story.
Like I said above, belief is subjective.
Your ability to believe in yourself comes from a story you tell yourself about what a good person is. About what you would be like, if you were worthy of being believed in.
Somewhere along the way, you’ve decided what it looks like to be worthy of self-belief. And if you don’t believe in yourself, you are probably not in line with that story you made up.
Tell yourself a better story
8. Focus on the impact you want to have
Finally, one of the greatest secrets to believing in yourself is to get your mind off of your inadequacies and focus on the impact you want to have. Fixate on it. Get obsessed with it.
I MUST make enough to feed my family.
I MUST get this degree for the work I want to do.
I MUST start this business so that people have access to good, organic vegetables.
When we focus on impact, and when we know nobody’s going to bring our vision to life but us, it helps us to believe in ourselves.