Building Self-Esteem and Confidence
Confidence is one of the biggest predictors of future success. Those who have an abundance of self-confidence radiate conviction and strength; they carry themselves unapologetically, willingly take on new challenges, and face obstacles with determination and optimism, certain that they will triumph against any and all odds. Indeed, those with high self-esteem seem to have a much easier go of things in general, in work, in relationships, in everything. Unfortunately, some people struggle with this important trait, while others have it in spades. As such, I’d like to discuss why this disparity exists and, more importantly, what anyone can do to build their own self-esteem–and reap the rewards of doing so.
What is self-esteem and where does it come from? A metaphor I like to use is that self-esteem is like a traditional lightbulb, in which a filament completes an electrical circuit between two contacts. As current heats the filament, light is emitted. Of course, this is a simplified account of what’s really going on, but it suffices for the purpose at hand. The better the relationship between these two contacts (the “stronger” the filament), the brighter the light. Now, think of this light as self-esteem. Some people radiate strong confidence (a bright light), while others much less so (a dim light). What distinguishes these two types of people from one another is not so much the quantity of radiance, but the quality of the filament within or–in other words–the relationship between the two, internal points of contact.
Just as in a light bulb, it is the internal relationship (what I call internal friendship) which defines the quality of our light–our self-esteem. It is the relationship that exists between the two primary parts of ourselves: our cognitive (mental & verbal) part and our emotional (physical & non-verbal) part. What I term the “emotional part” is actually the doer, the one who acts in the world, while the “cognitive part” simply observes and comments. The healthier the relationship between these two parts, the brighter our self-confidence. As such, in order to bolster esteem, it is valuable to understand the nature of these two parts and how they interact.
Our mental part is like a perpetual pundit. Similar to a backseat driver, it chimes in with opinions about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. It tends to readily offer judgments about our past (what we did right or wrong), present (what we are doing right or wrong) and future (what we will do right or wrong). It may be quick to rebuff us, criticize us, condemn us, belittle us, disillusion us. Alternatively, just the opposite may be true; it may be quick to support us, praise and appreciate us, uplift us. Either way, the nature of this internal dialogue matters, and matters profoundly. It matters because nothing we say to ourselves falls on deaf ears. A part of us is always listening, taking each scrutinizing comment to heart.
Our emotional selves (the other point of contact for the filament of self-esteem) is, like a child, paying close attention to the commentary of the mental part. The nature of this internal relationship is very much akin to a parent-child relationship. In fact, the way we speak to ourselves subconsciously mirrors the ways in which our primary caregivers (or other important role models, such as family members, teachers, and peers) talked to us throughout childhood and into adolescence. Actually, much of our current self-talk can be considered as the distant echoes of those childhood voices masquerading as our own voice in the present. Why? Because the important figures of our past were those who first taught us, by example, how to to speak to (and think of) ourselves.
Those who have strong self-confidence weren’t born with it, at least not more so than you or anyone else. They were raised in a loving, supportive, and adulatory way by those around them. They likely received plenty of accolades for their accomplishments, forgiveness for their occasional blunders, sympathy for their emotional struggles, and had modeled for them what it meant to view themselves in a more unconditional manner. As such, they learned to treat themselves in the ways in which they themselves were treated. They were shown how to maintain a strong internal friendship, which thus persisted into adulthood.
Those with low self-confidence weren’t as fortunate. They were taught poorly how to treat themselves, with minimal accolades, forgiveness, or sympathy. They were likely often accused of underperforming, disappointing, behaving badly, and failing, such that they developed this persistent expectation of themselves. For such people, their internal friendship is in a state of shambles.
Most people fall somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. Although our internal friendship is inherited from our childhood experiences, it is malleable. Just as you can make a conscious decision to parent your own offspring in a way other than how you were parented, you can make a similar commitment to parent yourself differently. The key is to make a commitment to do so. Here’s how:
Steps to building self-esteem
- Pay attention to your self-talk. I can’t do this. That was dumb of me. I’ll never fall in love.
- Ask yourself how this would sound to a child. You can’t do this. That was dumb of you. You’ll never fall in love.
- Consider if this statement is more likely to help or harm a child (and therefore yourself), and how such a statement would improve or worsen the relationship between parent and child. In most cases, it’s really obvious.
- Understand that this internal dialogue is constantly shaping your self-esteem (your internal friendship) for better or worse.
- Choose an alternative (more friendly) parenting style in your language, opting for language that you’d want to use when speaking to a child or best friend. You can do it! You tried your best and that’s okay. Maybe you will fall in love!
- Finally, own this language in first-person. I can do it! I tried my best and that’s okay. Maybe I will fall in love!
Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. As you start to practice a new parenting style with yourself, you’re introducing a third internal part to the mix. Now, in addition to the parent (mind) and child (emotions/actions), there’s the teacher (your higher mind). This “higher mind” is showing the parent how to parent in a more skillful, intentional, and caring way. The manner in which this instruction occurs is of the utmost importance. To be truly effective, the teacher must primarily lead by example, instructing the parent according the same principles of supportiveness it aims to instill. For instance, if your teacher-part scolds the parent for treating the child-part poorly, then that’s just more of the same, repeating a negative pattern of self-condemnation. I’m so mean to myself! With such chiding, the parent-part doesn’t learn anything new. She will only feel worse about herself, which will inevitably then trickle down to the child. Self-esteem cannot be improved in this way.
The teacher is always the wisest, most loving, most patient and forgiving part of ourselves. It is the part of ourselves that knows how to treat others well, that isn’t effected by our past experiences or conditioning, that intuits and understands the enormous miracle of what it means to be alive and human. It is the part of ourselves that is already enlightened, a part of ourselves that has existed since birth, before the surface chatter of other people’s voices started cluttering our brain waves with dissonance and interference, garbling this inner wisdom within us. When we reach deeply within ourselves, the voice of our inner teacher emerges to guide us.
The wisdom of this teacher enables her to parent the parent in the exact same way she wants the parent to parent the child, with love, compassion, gentleness, and the embrace that comes from giving permission. You don’t have to treat yourself in the ways others have treated you in the past. You are allowed to love and support yourself and be your best friend. And if you don’t know how, that’s okay. I’ll show you and it will get easier over time.
Get it? The teacher extends superior kindness and friendship toward the parent, who then learns how to extend these same qualities toward the child. As the parent learns from the teacher, the teacher and parent merge into a singular voice and the child benefits from what has become a long-standing history of internal friendship. The child learns to love herself, just as she is. When she fails, she stands and dusts herself off, smiling all the while. When she succeeds, her accomplishments are recognized, praised, and appreciated. She’s encouraged to see herself as she truly is, as inherently beautiful and special, inherently capable, inherently whole. With such internal friendship, she shines with self-confidence, the type of confidence that she deserves, the type of confidence that is entirely yours to cultivate in the spirit of true friendship. Doing this will allow you (and everyone around you) to fully shine.
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