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Self-confidence is an attitude which allows individuals to have positive yet realistic views of themselves and their situations. Self-confident people trust their own abilities, have a general sense of control in their lives, and believe that, within reason, they will be able to do what they wish, plan, and expect. Having self-confidence does not mean that individuals will be able to do everything. Self-confident people have expectations that are realistic. Even when some of their expectations are not met, they continue to be positive and to accept themselves.
People who are not self-confident depend excessively on the approval of others in order to feel good about themselves. They tend to avoid taking risks because they fear failure. They generally do not expect to be successful. They often put themselves down and tend to discount or ignore compliments paid to them. By contrast, self-confident people are willing to risk the disapproval of others because they generally trust their own abilities. They tend to accept themselves; they don’t feel they have to conform in order to be accepted.
Self-confidence is not necessarily a general characteristic which pervades all aspects of a person’s life. Typically, individuals will have some areas of their lives where they feel quite confident, e.g., academics, athletics, while at the same time they do not feel at all confident in other areas, e.g., personal appearance, social relationships.
Many factors affect the development of self-confidence. Parents’ attitudes are crucial to children’s feelings about themselves, particularly in children’s early years. When parents provide acceptance, children receive a solid foundation for good feelings about themselves. If one or both parents are excessively critical or demanding, or if they are overprotective and discourage moves toward independence, children may come to believe they are incapable, inadequate, or inferior. However, if parents encourage children’s moves toward self-reliance and accept and love their children when they make mistakes, children will learn to accept themselves and will be on their way to developing self-confidence.
Surprisingly, lack of self-confidence is not necessarily related to lack of ability. Instead it is often the result of focusing too much on the unrealistic expectations or standards of others, especially parents and society. Friends’ influences can be as powerful or more powerful than those of parents and society in shaping feelings about one’s self. Students in their college years re-examine values and develop their own identities and thus are particularly vulnerable to the influence of friends.
In response to external influences, people develop assumptions; some of these are constructive and some are harmful. Several assumptions that can interfere with self-confidence and alternative ways of thinking are:
Assumption: “I must always have love or approval from every significant person in my life.”
Alternative: This is a perfectionistic, unattainable goal. It is more realistic and desirable to develop personal standards and values that are not completely dependent on the approval of others.
Assumption: “I must be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all important areas of my life.”
Alternative: This again is a perfectionistic, unattainable goal and suggests that personal worth is determined by achievement. Achievement can be satisfying but does not make you more worthy. Instead, worth is an inherent quality and all people possess it.
Assumption: “My past remains all important and control my feelings and behaviors in the present.”
Alternative: While it is true that your confidence was especially vulnerable to external influences during your childhood, as you grow older you can gain awareness and perspective on what those influences have been. In doing so, you can choose which influences you will continue to allow to have an effect on your life. You don’t have to be helpless in the face of past events.
Subscribing to these harmful assumptions leaves you vulnerable to the following self-defeating thought patterns:
- All Or Nothing Thinking. "I am a total failure when my performance is not perfect.”
- Seeing Only Dark Clouds. Disaster lurks around every corner and comes to be expected. For example, a single negative detail, piece of criticism, or passing comment darkens all reality. "I got a C on one chem test, now I’ll never get into medical school.”
- Magnification Of Negative/Minimization Of Positive. Good things don’t count nearly as much as bad ones. "I know I won five chess games in a row, but losing this one makes me feel terrible about myself.”
- Uncritical Acceptance Of Emotions As Truth. "I feel ugly so it must be true.”
- Overemphasis On "Should” Statements. "Should” statements are often perfectionistic and reflective of others’ expectations rather than expressive of your own wants and desires. "Everyone should have a career plan when they come to college. I don’t so there must be something wrong with me.”
- Labeling. Labeling is a simplistic process and often conveys a sense of blame. "I am a loser and it’s my fault.”
- Difficulty Accepting Compliments. "You like this outfit? I think it makes me look fat.”
The following strategies may help overcome such self-defeating thought patterns.
- Emphasize Strengths. Give yourself credit for everything you try. By focusing on what you can do, you applaud yourself for efforts rather than emphasizing end products. Starting from a base of what you should do helps you live within the bounds of your inevitable limitations.
- Take Risks. Approach new experiences as opportunities to learn rather than occasions to win or lose. Doing so opens you up to new possibilities and can increase your sense of self-acceptance. Not doing so turns every possibility into an opportunity for failure, and inhibits personal growth.
- Use Self-Talk. Use self-talk as an opportunity to counter harmful assumptions. Then, tell yourself to "stop” and substitute more reasonable assumptions. For example, when you catch yourself expecting perfection, remind yourself that you can’t do everything perfectly, that it’s only possible to try to do things and to try to do them well. This allows you to accept yourself while still striving to improve.
- Self-Evaluate. Learn to evaluate yourself independently. Doing so allows you to avoid the constant sense of turmoil that comes from relying exclusively on the opinions of others. Focusing internally on how you feel about your own behavior, work, etc. will give you a stronger sense of self and will prevent you from giving your personal power away to others.
Should you feel you would like further help in developing self-confidence, the Counseling Center offers free workshops, discussion groups, and individual counseling. You may call the Counseling Center at 217-333-3704 for more information.