For decades, Western culture touted self-esteem. It got the most important thing wrong

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

What would you guess people are most stressed out about in their careers? One might assume that hating your job, or dealing with the frustration of finding a new one, would top the list. But according to the results of an annual survey that I send several thousand readers of my email newsletter, the most common problem people face is that they don’t feel confident.

Readers said things like:

I want to start a business, but I fear looking foolish.

I feel I shouldn’t have been picked for the role I am in. I feel like a sham.

I doubt myself and find it hard to ask for what I want.

These responses are from smart, accomplished individuals. Most of them have advanced degrees. Some of them have earned high-ranking leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies that are household names. Why are they questioning their competence?

Unfortunately, confidence is an elusive goal for many people. And that’s because we fundamentally misunderstand the way it works. We tend to think confidence is a personality trait, and treat it as a pre-requisite for action. So we put off signing up for a dating site because we feel insecure about our looks, or neglect to apply for jobs because we worry that we won’t be competitive. But the truth is that confidence isn’t an innate trait; it’s a quality gained through experience. So we should take risks in order to build confidence—not the other way around.

The misunderstood history of self-confidence

Why are we so obsessed with the idea of self-confidence? Many cultures—particularly that of the US—–view extroversion, charisma, and social skills as highly desirable qualities. After all, if you’re going to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, you’ve got to believe in yourself. Research also shows we’re more attracted to people who are outgoing. We automatically equate outward displays of confidence with competence.

Influenced by the rise of youth culture, wealth, and consumerism after World War II, confidence took on a powerful mystique in American culture, contributing to the self-esteem movement of the 1980s and 1990s. High self-esteem was suggested to be the key to success in life—–so powerful it could fix deeply complex issues like inner-city violence.

This ushered in an age of supposed solutions to artificially force self-esteem—from participation awards and meaningless gold stars to showering children with praise, regardless of what they’d done. Entire cottage industries popped up selling superficial solutions to boost people’s confidence in 20 minutes or less by repeating positive affirmations to themselves. (The refrain of Al Franken’s Saturday Night Life character Stuart Smalley—“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”—was pretty close to reality.)

But as the movement hit a fever pitch in the 1990s, renowned psychologist Roy Baumeister grew concerned about the lack of hard evidence backing up claims that positive self-esteem could cure all ills. He undertook a sweeping review of research, which confirmed his skepticism. Out of 15,000 scholarly articles written about self-esteem over three decades, only 200 met rigorous research standards. A former advocate of the movement, he concluded that there was no proof that high self-esteem improved academic achievement, job success, or health outcomes.

What the self-esteem movement showed is that it’s not enough to simply be told you’re special. Nor should we attempt to protect ourselves from struggle and negative feelings like uncertainty and fear. When we attempt to shield our children and ourselves from the normal range of human emotions that comes with seeking out new experiences, we are robbed of the chance to build authentic, healthy confidence.

Earning confidence through trial and error

The key to cracking the confidence may lie in tackling those uncomfortable emotions head on, as entrepreneur Steph Crowder did live on her podcast. She candidly shared how a recent bad review from a listener had blindsided her, ruining her day. But how she handled it made all the difference.

A lot of people might be tempted to follow the conventional wisdom “fake it till you make it” and try to cover up her reaction with false positivity. However, research shows that keeping up appearances is stressful—and can actively undermine well-being. Instead, Steph took her listeners through the process of listening to bad feedback and learning from it. Studies show people who deal effectively with their emotions in this way, an active coping skill called emotional regulation, have higher resilience and greater self-esteem. Steph’s example illustrates the face that the only way to build self-worth is through behavior. You have to put yourself in difficult situations, so that you can learn how to survive them.

Do the work

We would all do better if we understood, as Mindy Kaling has put it, that confidence isn’t something that ought to come to us naturally. Rather, as she writes in her book Why Not Me?, “confidence is like respect: it’s something you have to earn.” Kaling recalls:

When I started at The Office, I had zero confidence. Whenever Greg Daniels came into the room to talk to our small group of writers, I was so nervous that I would raise and lower my chair involuntarily, like a tic. Finally, weeks in, writer Mike Schur put his hand on my arm and said, gently, “You have to stop.” Years later I realized that the way I had felt during those first few months was correct. I didn’t deserve to be confident yet.

Over time, however, as she gained experience, Kaling became more confident. The same applies to all of us. We need to do things that we think are scary—not because we have blind faith that we’ll succeed, but simply because those things are worth doing.

As research from Angela Duckworth suggests, struggling builds character. Failure breeds wisdom and maturity. We need to fail and experience discomfort, and over time, build a track record of demonstrated success. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can perform in front of a crowd or run a marathon or ask a person out on a date, it’s a lot easier to have confidence the next time you face a big challenge.

And so if you don’t feel confident in your life, don’t treat it as a personal flaw. Perhaps you simply need more practice. Let’s learn to view confidence not as a personality trait but as an acquired skill—one that’s available to all of us, if we’re willing to put in the work.

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