If you suffer from low confidence and low self-esteem, you may be familiar with the an effect I refer to as the Paradox of Confidence. It’s a self-esteem Catch-22; you don’t feel confident because you have no accomplishments to feel confident about. However, without having that confidence in the first place, you aren’t able to achieve those accomplishments in the first place.
In case it wasn’t obvious, is a wonderful way to set yourself up for failure. After all, part of having confidence in the first place is being able to trust yourself and in your abilities. But how could you possibly be confident if all you have are failures, flaws and missed opportunities? But because you have no confidence in yourself or your abilities, you sabotage your best efforts; you take fewer chances, you don’t try as hard and you can’t rebound as quickly or easily from mistakes or failures. These experiences just go on to confirm that yes, you shouldn’t be confident, which causes you to further mistrust yourself and encourages you to just quit trying in the first place.
And if you did succeed… well, who’s to say that this was a genuine success and not some crazy black swan event, never likely to happen again? How do you build your confidence off of that? Especially if you aren’t able to accomplish that a second time?
You could be forgiven for thinking that confidence is just for other people — the gifted few who won the lottery at birth and had success handed to them on a silver platter. But you’d be wrong. The Paradox of Confidence is circular reasoning born out of misunderstanding of just what confidence is. Like validation, true confidence isn’t built from externalities; it comes from within yourself.
But rather than continuing the self-reinforcing cycle of negativity, let’s talk about the mistakes that shatter your confidence. Here’s how to break out of cycle, and develop true, bulletproof confidence.
Confidence Does NOT Come From Success
Here’s the first misconception about confidence: people think that confidence is born out of success. If you’re winning, then you keep on winning because those wins increase your confidence. This makes you feel bolder and more in tune with your abilities and more willing to take your shot.
But confidence — true confidence — doesn’t work like this. If it did, nobody could be confident. Like… ever. After all, how could you have confidence in something you have never done before? After all, everyone starts as a complete newbie at literally everything, and failure is an inherent part of learning. While it’s true that people may have advantages in some areas that others don’t, even the strongest natural talent is just a bonus to people’s stats, not a guarantee of success. That talent means nothing if they don’t build and apply those skills. That, in turn, means that they aren’t going to be guaranteed success, especially when they’re first learning.
And every D&D player can tell you: it doesn’t matter how good your stats are; you can still roll a critical failure.
However, one of the things we don’t talk about is how little success helps with confidence. You can be incredibly successful — someone who has it all, by any objective measure — and still have low to no confidence. Not only does overall success not guarantee confidence, but success (or confidence, for that matter) in one area doesn’t necessarily translate to confidence in other areas. Those credits simply don’t transfer. Millionaires and politicians can be the thinnest skinned, most insecure people imaginable, despite their material success. Everyone has heard stories of celebrities who are complete basket-cases, needing constant reassurance from their entourage that they’re as special, smart, talented, whatever that they’re purported to be.
In fact, entertainers are a prime example of this. Many entertainers are famously insecure, in no small part because the underpinnings of their careers are out of their hands. In fact, whether a particular actor, singer or creator succeeds or fails is the result of forces that are outside of their control. Sheer talent isn’t enough; their entire success depends on the opinions and approval of others. Their careers are influenced by the dictates and fickleness of complete strangers. Even the most talented can find themselves shut out of the industry because of the changing winds of fashion and trends, the whims of studios and casting directors or even whether their work gets picked up and promoted by The Algorithm.
And even those who do make it to the top often find their position to be precarious. Brendan Fraser is a prime example of this. Despite being an incredibly bankable star who had hit after hit under his belt and the looks of a golden god, he was racked with insecurity. Ironically, his looks were actually part of the problem; he was continually hammered with criticism that he was just a pretty boy, not a tough guy or action star. In his attempt to prove that he was more than a pretty face, he quite literally destroyed his body making movies in an attempt to prove a point to people who couldn’t give less of a shit about him. There would never be a point where he could do enough to silence that criticism; no matter what benchmark he reached, people would insist that it didn’t count.
This is a familiar story to many folks whose success never granted them confidence. They felt that their success was a fluke, a fraud, a mistake… and inevitably “the truth” would come out. They try their damndest to push those anxieties away, trying to silence them through accomplishments, material goods or social success, but that niggling worry infects everything.
If confidence is about success or results, then confidence is inherently unstable and fleeting at best. You can only be as confident as your last success, and you’re at risk of losing it all at any time, often due to factors you could never account for or control. As a wise man once said: you can commit no mistakes and still lose.
That’s why confidence isn’t about externalities, nor is it born from success. Confidence is born from trust and acceptance. You can’t have true confidence until you accept yourself, warts and all.
But how do you get there?
Practice Radical Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion
Here’s a truth: confidence requires trust — trust in yourself and your capabilities. That sort of trust requires self-acceptance, and self-acceptance requires embracing yourself and all of your imperfections… no matter what.
Here’s the thing: everyone has things about them that they hate or resent. It doesn’t matter who it is, where they’re from, or how beautiful, skilled, charismatic or otherwise privileged; there’s some part of themselves that they despise. Find the most beautiful man or woman in existence and they could read you chapter and verse of all the little things that they think are unattractive or even repulsive. It doesn’t matter that what they consider to be “flaws” are so insignificant or so idiosyncratic as to be unnoticeable and unremarkable; to them, those defects are as obvious as a fart in church.
Of course, the fact that we live in a world where we can create the illusion of perfection only makes things worse. Social media influencers present a curated view of their lives that makes it seem better than reality. FaceTune, Instagram filters, complicated make-up and clothes and flattering lighting allow us to hide our flaws or edit them away — often to the point of impossibility.
But that same ability to erase our imperfections doesn’t translate to reality. Even when people do turn to drastic measures to try to “fix” what reality has given them, it never helps. External changes don’t fix internal problems, especially when you’ve convinced yourself that your “best” self involves features that can’t be replicated on a human body.
However, the problem is never the supposed flaw or flaws; it’s that we think of our nicks, bumps, quirks, differences or imperfections as definitional. We treat them as mistakes, defects or deficiencies that mark us as broken or undesirable, when in reality, an imperfection is just a difference. It’s what makes you unique. It’s what makes you you.
In fact, it’s the belief that perfection is not just possible but necessary is part of what drives low confidence. We assume that perfection is the minimum standard and that not achieving it is some sort of moral failing.
Developing true confidence comes from learning to love yourself, including your flaws. Consider this speech from Game of Thrones:
“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
While this isn’t wrong, it’s not the entire truth either. It doesn’t come from a place of confidence, but defensiveness. There’s a difference between “armoring yourself” in your flaws and accepting yourself for who you are and recognizing that “different” isn’t the same as “flawed” or “bad”. Loving yourself and accepting yourself means that you get to a place where it doesn’t offend you to have those differences pointed out, but to accept and own it and not to accept it as a “flaw”. It’s not a flaw, it just is what it is. It’s just you
But self-acceptance is only a part of the solution to breaking the Paradox of Confidence. What else do you need to grow true confidence?
Get Comfortable With Discomfort
One of the reasons that people suffer from low confidence is because they’re ultimately afraid of discomfort. This is a fear with a thousand faces: fear of failure, a fear of awkwardness, fear of rejection… even a fear of success and what that might mean. They keep themselves strictly ensconced in their comfort zone, where they know exactly what to expect and how everything will go.
The problem though, is that your comfort zone isn’t static; it’s elastic, and its size and shape are dependent on your actions and choices. For a lot of people, that means that their comfort zone is continually shrinking. When you avoid difficult situations or circumstances that make you uncomfortable, you frequently find that your comfort zone closes in on you.
The perverse thing about of avoiding your fears and anxieties is that avoidance doesn’t actually help. In fact, studies have found that avoiding the things that make you uncomfortable or anxious tends to just makes things worse. By trying to avoid the things that make us anxious or uncomfortable, we end up reinforcing those same anxieties. We become increasingly afraid of feeling afraid and thus try to avoid situations that might cause those feelings to arise. So not only are we avoiding those specific triggers, but we’re avoiding situations where we may encounter those triggers which, in turn, often turn into avoiding scenarios in which we might find ourselves in those situations. We become afraid of feeling afraid. We get uncomfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
And, as a result, our comfort zone continues to shrink. The potential causes of discomfort increase and the room we have to operate in continues to get smaller and smaller.
Learning to become comfortable with discomfort, on the other hand, expands your comfort zone. Part of what makes anxiety so insidious is that it’s born out of a sense of helplessness, a feeling of being out of control. There’s something wrong and you don’t know what it is and you can’t stop it or fix it. But by engaging with the situations that make you uncomfortable, you recapture a sense of control. You may not necessarily be able to fix it or change it, but you prove to yourself that not only can you face it, but you can face it on your terms. Maybe you can’t resolve it, but you can survive it… and fear + survival = confidence.
And that willingness to take your power back and confront things on your terms is what allows you to expand your comfort zone. You’re pushing out, rather than curling into yourself. You’re pushing yourself past what you assume your limitations are, rather than letting yourself be defined by them.
However, part of what people get wrong about getting comfortable with discomfort is that they assume this means that they’re no longer uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily the case; one of the truths about this world is that pain is inevitable. You can’t exist in the world without colliding with others in some form or another. You will be hurt. But while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Much of suffering happens before and after the pain actually occurs; suffering is in the build-up, the anticipation and the aftermath. Even trying to avoid those moments of pain doesn’t prevent the anticipation of it, the fear of it and the increasingly small space you have to live in. You suffer, even in trying to avoid the thing that causes suffering.
But facing your pain and accepting it cuts the suffering. You are engaging it on your terms; facing it may not prevent the pain, but you truncate the build-up and sever the trailing effects. Rather than avoiding discomfort and prolonging the suffering, you face it, feel it… and then it’s over. it’s the difference between ripping off the bandage and slowly peeling it back, bit by agonizing bit. That momentary discomfort, while sharp, is still less than the discomfort that comes from dragging it out.
By accepting yourself, you cut down on the ways the world can hurt you. By being comfortable with discomfort, you expand your comfort zone and reduce the suffering you experience.
Which leads to our next step…
Embrace Improvement, Not Perfection
Let’s get back to developing true confidence by talking about something you don’t necessarily realize you’re confident in: your ability to walk and talk, to get around and to communicate.
There was a point in your life where you couldn’t; you were dependent on others for all of your physical needs. You couldn’t express yourself except through incoherent noise, you were immobile and unable to change your circumstances. But you learned. You figured out how to move your limbs in ways that became forms of locomotion. You learned that people responded to different noises and how to imitate the noises that they made. More, you learned what those noises meant and how to use them yourself.
Now, you do all of those things without even thinking about them; they’re so ingrained into you that they’re not even muscle memory, they’re something deeper.
That’s the same learning process that everybody has to go through, for literally everything in life. And part of the process involves sucking at it.
But here’s the funny thing about sucking at something: you almost never suck at something the same way twice. Yes, you may fail at something, even repeatedly… but you’ll almost never fail at it the exact same way. And that’s important, because failing differently is a core part of how you learn.
Here’s the thing: failure is important is because failure increases understanding. One of the things we never consider when we are trying to learn a new skill — whether it be sports, singing, writing, photography, martial arts or flirting — is that when we first set out to acquire it, we know nothing about it. Yes, we know what the finished product looks or sounds like — the striker gets the ball in the goal, the singer hits all the right notes, the charming flirt gets the date, the martial artist breaks the board — but you don’t know how to do it. Not from the inside, from the perspective of the person performing the task. You don’t know the individual components that make up that seemingly simple task until you’ve performed them yourself over and over again. Nor, for that matter, do you know how to apply those disparate parts appropriately, until you’ve committed them to muscle memory through repetition and practice.
This is where failure comes in. By embracing the suck period, instead of avoiding it and being willing to fail over and over again, not only do you start to improve, but you also start seeing where and how you’re failing. And that, in turn, tells you what you need to work on so you can stop sucking at it.
That’s how learning is done. You can’t improve without discomfort and failure. Accepting that and embracing it, instead of running from it, is what leads to the path to competence, and from there towards perfection. This is why we say that the wise man knows what he doesn’t know; they’re aware of what they need to learn because they can see what’s missing.
But embracing improvement is more than just accepting that you’re going to suck at something for a while. It’s also about being aware of your overall trajectory. One of the curses of the human mind is that we often base our feelings on what’s just happened to us. Momentary failure feels like permanent failure. But embracing improvement means that you are more mindful of how much overall progress you’ve made, compared to any specific moment in time. Anyone can fail, just as anyone can succeed, if only through pure chance. But that overall upward slope is what matters more than any individual success or failure.
Awareness of your imperfections is what makes it possible for you to improve, and growth is the true goal. You may fall down, but you know you can get back up again. You may stumble, but you also know just how far you’ve come and how much more you’re capable of.
That’s how you build the trust in yourself and your capabilities that lead to true confidence.
Avoid The Sabotaging Your Own Confidence
One of the the most important parts of developing true confidence is, paradoxically, one of the most neglected: you need to learn to avoid undercutting yourself and your self-assurance.
How many times have you screwed up at something — something you know you’re capable of — and you’ve berated yourself for it? What did that sound like? What words did you say to yourself? This isn’t an idle question; self-talk has a profound effect on your sense of confidence, and words have power. The words you choose and the way you describe yourself can either bolster your confidence and resilience or sabotage it. Consider these different phrasings:
- I suck with women / I’m still learning how to talk to women
- I’m ugly / I feel ugly, but I’m learning how to work on my presentation
- I’m a failure / I have failed, but I can succeed in the future
Notice very carefully how different these phrases are. They describe the same situation but from different perspectives. One is definitional, while the other is aspirational. One is permanent, while the other is temporary. That difference is important, because the words you choose and the way you describe your situation to yourself utterly transforms your relationship to the situation.
The way we describe ourselves, even in jest, affect how we feel about ourselves and how we see ourselves. You may think you’re making self-deprecating jokey-jokes, but the cumulative effect is significant. You end up training your brain to see those “jokes” as the truth… just wrapped up in self-mockery. It just solidifies those negative feelings and trains your brain to accept that this is who you are and that there’s nothing you can do about it.
This is, needless to say, a great way to cut the legs out from under whatever confidence you may have had.
There’s a vast difference between failing and being a failure. You may be weak or awkward, but defining yourself as weak or awkward implies that this is an unchangeable attribute. But they’re not.
You are a work in progress. You have your attributes, to be sure, but those attributes change over time with growth and effort. A lot of what you consider to be flaws are just temporary; they’re things that you can change and improve. You may be awkward, but you can learn social skills. You may be weak but you can build physical and emotional strength. And you can fail at something now, only to succeed later on.
You choose how you see the world, and by doing so, you choose how you live in it. This is why you want to focus on the things that you can actually control, rather than letting yourself get rattled by the things you can’t affect. You can’t control how other people feel or behave. Nor can you control time or circumstance. You can only do what you can with what’s actually within your control. If you get rejected, then you accept that part of this is out of your control; that other person just didn’t feel the way you hoped they would. You did what you could; now you learn from it and try again, with someone else.
This is why it’s important to track and celebrate your progress, rather than to focus on your failures; your progress is entirely within your control and being aware of it helps keep you focused on the bigger picture instead of being bogged down by details. The circumstances that you are in now aren’t set in stone. They can be changed, especially through your own efforts… but only if you don’t get lost in this one moment at the expense of the totality of it all.
Just as importantly, however, is to recognize that “good enough” is more important than “perfect”. One of the most common ways people undercut their own confidence is by believing that only “the best” has value. They set themselves impossible standards by assuming that only the best, the top tier has any worth, and that anything less is failure. But the problem with this outlook is that you’re creating a baseline that nobody can actually reach. The problem with thinking you need to be exceptional is inherent in the description: they’re an exception, not the standard.
What makes this more absurd is that this isn’t a standard that people apply to most areas of their lives. If you truly believed that the only way to be valued is to be in the top… let’s be generous and say 10%… then how could you ever enjoy a pick-up game of basketball with your friends? How could you ever enjoy any activity when you can’t be an undisputed master of it?
Just as importantly though: people value things that aren’t the best. Hell, people will go wild for things that aren’t even in the same room as “the best”. Sure, people may like The French Laundry or wax rhapsodic about the cuisine at The Fat Duck or Nobu… but people will fight you if you dare disrespect their favorite regional fast-food hamburger joint.
Just because something isn’t “the best” doesn’t mean that people don’t love it or crave it. Believing that you mean nothing if you’re not at the top is just another way of undercutting your confidence and locking yourself into a false confidence based on temporary circumstance.
This is why you need to be your own biggest fan and top hype man. You need to learn to love your entire self and rock that shit accordingly. Don’t talk yourself down, even when dealing with your flaws. You can acknowledge that imperfections exist without also diminishing your own value. There’re ways you can own, even joke about your seeming “flaws” without talking yourself down. Insulting yourself isn’t necessarily a sign of confidence; half the time, it’s just a way to avoid discomfort by getting there first.
In fact, it’s often funnier to talk up your supposed shortcomings. Women, for example, often are insecure about being tall, especially if they’re taller than the men around them. Actress and fetish model Julie Strain would draw attention to her height; she would refer to herself as “Six feet tall and worth the climb”, often adding “and if you get tired, you can pause half way…”
You can bring that same self-aggrandizing energy to your own uniqueness. Yes, you have the body of a god… Hotei, the Laughing Buddha is a god. Sure, you’re losing your hair but look at how gorgeous your skull is, you’re gonna be bald and beautiful. Yes, you’re shorter than average, but not only does it mean you always have plenty of leg-room on flights, it makes other things look immense in proportion. Yeah, you’re not hung like a porn star, but it makes oral sex way easier and your head game makes people see God.
Loving yourself and how awesome you are is a far greater sign of confidence than being willing to shit talk yourself.
But that’s part and parcel of the true paradox of confidence. By detaching yourself and your sense of self-worth from your successes and instead letting your confidence be based on your trust and acceptance of yourself… you create greater chances for success. Your willingness to trust in your own power and love yourself means that when opportunity arises, you’re in the perfect position to take full advantage of it. You’ll be willing to give it your all, and increase the odds that you’ll pull it off.
Because unlike everyone else… you’ll have true confidence.