How to believe in yourself
This post is part of my series on PBH for Grown-ups — you can see all of the posts here.
Here’s a chicken-or-the-egg for you: Which comes first, belief in yourself or success?
Can you succeed at anything if you don’t believe in yourself? Can you believe in yourself if you’ve never achieved anything?
You can see how this works with PBH. If you start when children are very young helping them deeply and meaningfully explore their interests, helping them set and remember their goals, helping them work through difficulties and find the knowledge/skills/assistance they need, then they learn very early on that if they keep at it, they will get where they want to go. They learn it’s not magic, it’s a collection of skills and habits and knowledge, and they can collect those and learn to wield them. That understanding, carried on through childhood and the teen years and into adulthood, is the path to meaningful work — the path to a life of passion and purpose.
When you help an older child get on this path, it’s not so easy. They don’t automatically believe in themselves the way a three-year-old does. They don’t have simple faith that if they want it, they can work for it and get it. They may have a set idea of whether they’re smart or stupid. They may have a set idea of what learning is. They may have lost their faith in themselves or in the adults around them. They may have begun to equate anything that smacks of educational as painfully boring and pointless. Bonus: also possibly humiliating, if they feel stupid. They may have lost their faith in you. They aren’t sure that you mean what you say; they aren’t sure they can trust you to follow through. Worst of all, they may have lost faith in themselves. They no longer believe they are smart, powerful, talented, and capable. They may have lost the joy in learning. They might prefer to avoid any situation that seems challenging, because they hate confronting their own insufficiency. They might not want to put themselves in a situation that’s going to make them feel stupid, and since every learning situation begins with figuring out what you don’t know, they may have decided they hate learning.
The most important part of getting that kid back on the path toward self-directed learning is rebuilding the trust between you. He has to trust that you are going to let him learn about what matters to him. He has to learn that you really are going to let him stay in control — you’re not going to take over, you’re not going to ruin what he loves by turning it into a unit. He has to begin to see you as a trusted resource: someone who’s going to be there for him, giving him what he needs, taking him where he needs to go, and not letting him down.
Then you begin to help him begin to believe in himself. You help him identify his interests. You help him identify his goals, and you help him break them down into achievable steps. You help him have a series of small successes — and reflect on them. He begins to see the possibilities of working on something that he cares about. He builds on that foundation of trust that you provided: it’s about him and what he wants to do, and you are going to help him make his ideas happen.
If you want to begin baby-stepping yourself toward your own success, you need to become that trusted resource for yourself. You need to learn to trust in yourself, or you will never be able to do the hard things you need to do.
(Let’s be clear about what we mean by “success” — we mean working hard at something you care about. We don’t mean Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold. We don’t mean limos and ticker-tape parades and magazine covers. We are talking about a meaningful life and the chance to apply your talents and abilities to something meaningful to you. We are talking about feeling competent, capable, and useful in a life that matters, doing work that matters.)
Whether you have supportive friends and family or not, you are always going to be your own wingman. How can you learn to trust yourself? To believe in yourself?
- Do you act in a way that is beneficial to your own long-term self-interest?
- When you set a goal, how likely is it that you’ll follow through?
- Does “now you” always screw over “tomorrow you”? (apologies to Seinfeld and night-Jerry/morning-Jerry)
- Do you keep sliding your promises to yourself to the next day while you do things for others?
- Do you like yourself?
- How well do you rate your chances at success? Would you invest in yourself?
- When you screw up, do you let yourself off the hook? Do you pile on the self-loathing?
- On a scale of 1 to 100, how committed are you to your plan? Are you leaving yourself an out?
- Do you think you’re trustworthy for others? Do you do what you say you’ll do? Do you follow through?
- How do you feel when you’re alone with yourself?
- When you think about changing your life, do you focus on your strengths or what you want to change?
- Do you think your goals are achievable?
- When you make a “to do” list, how often do those things actually get done?
- Do you talk about your plans more than you actually work on them?
Are you a trusted resource for yourself? If not, maybe you need to build up some trust in yourself — so you can believe in yourself enough to accumulate some small wins. Those small wins will form the foundation of your future success. Chicken, egg — the important thing is to get the gears turning. A little bit of trust, a little bit of success. They feed each other, and they help each other grow.
How to build trust in yourself:
- You can’t build trust without giving yourself the opportunity to succeed or fail. Get in the game. Stop planning, stop researching, and try to choose action every day.
- Build up a balance sheet of small wins. Break down big goals into achievable tasks. Start small: set ridiculously small goals and then meet them. Then slowly ratchet them up. It’s more important that you work every day (achievable) than work for three hours a day (difficult). Use the time you have.
- Cultivate self-respect. Stop the negative self-talk. Stop focusing on everything you’ve ever done wrong and focus instead on doing something right. Would you trust someone you didn’t respect? Start becoming a person you can believe in.
- Own up. Don’t waste time making excuses. When you mess up, just accept it, call it what it is, and forge ahead. Every time you make an excuse and lie to yourself, you’re throwing another shovel of dirt on top of your self-respect. You’re making it that much harder to move forward. Plus, no one trusts a liar — even if the liar is yourself.
- Believe things can change. Don’t beat your head against a wall. If you just can’t write an hour a day, try a half an hour. Try 15 minutes. If you just keep excusing yourself and don’t change anything, you’ll keep getting the same poor result. You have to change one of the parameters. Either make the goal smaller or try something else, but don’t just keep repeating behaviors that don’t work.
- Keep a journal or daily log. It doesn’t have to be full pages of handwritten text. You might use a calendar. But jot down what you’re achieving. Keep track of your small wins. Write down the minutes you worked or what you achieved. Start focusing on the positive and make as much of it as you can. Focus on your progress, not your failure. Whatever you award with your attention will grow: pay attention to what’s working.
- Ease off the pressure. What you want is a solid foundation to build on. If you press yourself to hurry, hurry, hurry, all you’re going to do is fall apart. Yes, it can feel terribly slow to start with so few minutes a day of real work when what you really want to do is rocket your way to success. But success isn’t a magic trick. You are building something significant and you want it to be solid and strong. Learning to trust yourself means making a series of very deliberate and reasonable steps. Slow and steady wins the race.
- Pay attention to small choices. If you always have big plans for the future but make choices today — this morning, this afternoon, this evening, this hour — that don’t align with your goals, then your plans will never come to fruition. If you make small choices right now that do align with those goals, then you will slowly but surely advance.
- Wait to commit until you make a declaration of intent. Every time you let yourself down, you solidify your opinion of yourself as untrustworthy. The less you believe in yourself, the less likely you are to work hard for yourself. Why should you give up a doughnut this morning when you know you’ll just eat one tomorrow morning and the morning after that? Why should you sit down and work for 15 minutes this afternoon when you know you’ll just skip it tomorrow and the next day and eventually whatever you did today will end up in a drawer with all your other false starts? Instead of bumbling along in fits and starts, take a pause and either really commit and do it or don’t — because if you keep letting yourself down, you’ll never learn to trust yourself.
Learning to believe in yourself is much more than a flowers and rainbows moment where you look in the mirror and chant affirmations. Lack of trust in yourself is like a boot on your car, keeping you from going anywhere. Doubt eats up time. Doubt keeps in you in the planning stage forever, endlessly weighing options. Doubt delays taking risks. Doubt is afraid to fail, so it puts everything off until tomorrow or next week or next month.
Becoming a trusted resource for yourself is just like becoming a trusted resource for your child. It’s about focus and attention. It’s about commitment. It’s about realizing that how you support yourself is vitally important.
Start earning your own trust. Start becoming someone you can believe in.