How to become more confident in my life?
July 16, 2009 2:49 PM   Subscribe

I've lacked confidence in every aspect of my life, and it's holding me back. What can I do?

Since I was a young boy, I've felt like I wasn't good enough to be successful. I never felt like I was as athletic or smart as others. In college and grad school, this sense of being a fraud and not smart or talented enough carried over.

This feeling has pervaded my entire life. I didn't apply for internships and scholarships in college. I didn't apply for jobs or scholarships in grad school. In these instances, I felt like there was no point in applying because I wouldn't get them. There would also be times when I would be paralyzed by fear of applying and being rejected, and would go sleep or watch TV.

Now, I'm in a dead end job, and am too unconfident to try and get another job. I look at jobs and my mind instantly goes to reasons why I won't be qualified for the job. Other times, I'm very fearful of being rejected. This is severely hampering my ability to advance my career.

This lack of confidence has also extended into my romantic life. I never approach women because I assume they'll say no because I'm too fat or ugly. As a result, I didn't have my first girlfriend until 25, and have only had 2 serious relationships in my 30 years. My lack of confidence has me worried that I will never find anyone or die alone.

I've been in therapy for a couple of years, and have been tangentially discussing these issues. I just recently realized through talking with my therapist that this lack of confidence is why I never take risks and why I've been held back in my life.

Are there any methods that any of you have used to get over this sort of problem? Are there any books or sites I can consult when I can't see my therapist or that will give me additional insight?

Thanks for any help. If you need to follow up, I've set up a throwaway e-mail at
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Try CBT. It can be hard work, but it can help you completely change the way you view yourself.

I find the For Dummies book helpful.
posted by Solomon at 3:02 PM on July 16, 2009

Fake it until you make it.
posted by kimdog at 3:17 PM on July 16, 2009

Fear is useful in many situations, but it sounds like your fearfulness has gotten out of hand.

People who succeed in many things are usually less sensitive about how MUCH IT HURTS, if they fail. I forgot who it was...I was reading about some guy sat in a park and made himself talk to 100 girls (and get rejected by every single one of them, I believe), to get used to the feeling. After that he was much more at ease in social situations with women.

Sure, it might hurt like hell at first, but you're the guy who's refusing to get in the lake because the water's too cold. The cold makes it feel like you're gonna die, but it's really the fact you're not used to it. Yes there's a chance of hypothermia, but that's still 50 or so degrees away from the actual temperature of the water. Your fear response is overbearing. Like an allergy to pollen. It needs to be readjusted.

Get into a "failure" attitude. Do riskier things every day (though try not to lose your limbs) and approach life more like a scientist, experimenting with what works and what doesn't work. Feel your feelings of anxiety, and go, "hmm, anxiety sure is an interesting feeling" as opposed to going, "Ohmigod i can't do this! I can't do this! I can't do this!"

You have a lot going for you right now. It may not feel like it, but you're very lucky: you're like a kid who has yet to discover all the crazy, wonderful, (and fucked up things) that happen in this world. Next weird thing that pops up in your head, do it. And make sure it gets you out of the house.

Your fear of failure is killing you slowly. Embrace spectacularly!
posted by thisperon at 3:43 PM on July 16, 2009 [18 favorites]

I've been in therapy for a couple of years, and have been tangentially discussing these issues. I just recently realized through talking with my therapist that this lack of confidence is why I never take risks and why I've been held back in my life.

Whoa. Might be time for a new therapist. Perhaps you were doing therapy for something else (substance abuse, etc.) and this insight came to you obliquely, but it seems odd that you've only been tangentially discussing what is a very large central problem in your life. Either you're not comfortable with the therapist, or they may be too passive.
posted by benzenedream at 3:52 PM on July 16, 2009

You just have to be willing to accept risk. There is no easy way to do it. Approaching women you risk rejection. Applying for a job you risk rejection. You just have to take the risk and eat the pain when you fail. Then do it again. Make a spreadsheet of risky things and rate them on their fear-level. Try to gain X fear-points per day. Then 2X. Etc. If anyday you fail to gain the goal-amount, punish yourself with ice baths and a taser. The only thing that holds you back is your aversion to risk. Get into gambling and betting. Become a risk-addict, finding existential satiation only in the prospect of the next cliff-dive. Etc. Or do nothing and collect your pension and die a husk of a man. Another thing you could do is join the military and kill other people as retribution upon the world for your constipated angst.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 4:02 PM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Man, this might be a little less than the advice you're looking for, but there's this quote by Theodore Roosevelt that I always think of when I'm trying to psyche myself up to do something;

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

It's that last bit that always gets me.
posted by Pecinpah at 4:02 PM on July 16, 2009 [11 favorites]

Flip this around:

What's the pay-off you get for not applying for those scholarships and jobs? What's the pay-off you get for not approaching women? What's the pay-off you get from that dead-end job?

You get to live hassle-free in your own little bubble with no one stressing you. And, hey, you feel bad about all that, right, so you must be a pretty OK person. Now back to the couch, where you're still and comfortable and no one is bothering you or competing with you or harshing your mellow.

Lack of confidence is your EXCUSE. It's your way to not even bother trying. Lack of confidence isn't the problem -- in fact, it's your way of ADDRESSING the problem!

Yeah, I'm totally projecting. But I found that once I made myself think outside that cycle of self-defeat, and looked at the behavior itself as the issue to be addressed rather than the reasons for the behavior it became much easier to change the patterns that needed changing. And that rewires you. Really.

So, yeah, fake it until you make it. Change the behavior first and the rest will follow.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:05 PM on July 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

- You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. Cheesy but true. What's the harm in trying? Tell yourself "eh, I don't really want it, but let me try for it anyway" so if for some reason you don't get what you want you're not as disappointed.
- It takes money to make money. So money is not a good example, I just couldn't think of a better quote, but it takes time to apply for jobs and internships, it takes effort to train for a sport, it takes a lot of trying and being social to meet a significant other. But you what you get out finally is bigger than what you put in. So forget thinking about it in a way where you're figuring out whether you're good enough, think of it as an investment - "if I put in so much time or effort, I get out something better." The more you try for things the more you get out of something. Which brings me to my last point:
- It's all a numbers game. With getting dates, getting a job. It took me over 10 interviews after I graduated from college to finally get a job offer, and I have an awesome awesome job that I love now. Sure it would've been easy to think "oh, I'm not good enough, let me stick to working at Starbucks instead of going after a job in my degree" but I knew that if I went on so many interviews, at least one of them would work out. A 1 in 10 success rate isn't bad considering if I didn't try at all I wouldn't be this happy. Same thing with dating. I've been single and trying to date for 3 years. Things just don't work out. But I figure if I keep trying and go on SO many dates, one of them is going to lead to something good eventually!

Oh, and to build confidence, exercise.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:47 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

What Solomon said. CBT, or REBT. Google 'Albert Ellis pdf' . A therapist I was seeing about 20 years ago gave me a copy of his "A Guide to Rational Living". I've used the 'rationale' every day since. It really will change the way you think.
posted by wafaa at 5:58 PM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Become good at something. Don't pick something that will seriously harm your life or career if you fail. Pick something you can do as a hobby. Practice it every day until you're good at it and you know you're good at it. Then you'll have one thing in your life that you'll feel confident about. That will make you more confident in general, and you'll realize you have the ability to master things. You'll then have the confidence to master more things.

If you fail at the above task, it's because you're too lazy to practice for as long as is necessary. Or it's because you picked something too hard. (Don't pick String Theory.) From your writing, it's clear that you have at least average intelligence. That means that you CAN master gourmet cooking, reading through all of Shakespeare's plays, the ukulele, gardening, etc...

Join an online forum with other people who are trying to do the same activity. Note when you start being able to answer other people's questions.

I've noticed that many un-confident people (including a younger me) have a mistaken idea that most experts are naturally gifted. They try reading one act of a Shakespeare play, don't understand it, and so conclude that they're not as smart as those people who get Shakespeare.

That's bullshit. I'm one of those people who get Shakespeare. I became one of those people via hard work. I read the plays over and over; I read books about the plays; I spent many hours looking up archaic words in dictionaries... When you hear me talk confidently about Shakespeare, you don't see all the sweat and tears behind my confidence. Well, getting to where I am did take a lot of work, but I guarantee you none of that work involved anything more than average smarts: an average guy can look a word up in the dictionary.

One of the things that helped me is that I didn't master Shakespeare for work or school. I just did it because I wanted to. The pressure was off, and I knew I could take my time. But the payoff -- beside a love of Shakespeare -- was a ton of confidence that transcends this specific skill.
posted by grumblebee at 6:14 PM on July 16, 2009 [6 favorites]

Nthing CBT. Definitely pick up a copy of David Burns' Feeling Good.
posted by kookaburra at 6:19 PM on July 16, 2009

Here's my quick recipe for increasing confidence, that works for me. Confidence comes from:
1) Controlling your feelings about yourself, and not getting overly depressed or fearful that you can't take any action. This is where CBT or your therapist can help.
2) Learning the nuts and bolts of how to do something - concrete knowledge as to how to apply for job, meet women, or whatever other thing you want to do. This can be gotten from how-to books, your therapist, your friends, observing other people, or practice.
3) Doing that thing repeatedly - assuming and accepting you're going to have a bunch of failures when you first start. Give yourself permission to suck! Expect to be rejected. There's no rule that says you have to be great or even average at anything you are just starting out doing. Everyone goes through this.
4) Evaluating what you've done so you can improve, without totally putting yourself down and condemning yourself.
5) Noticing your successes, even really small ones. The more small successes you accumulate, the more confident you'll feel, and the bigger your next successes will be.
6) Go to step 1 and repeat.

Many people, myself included, make the mistake of getting stuck in one of these steps, i.e. always focused on step 1, how they feel, but never actually moving to step 2, learning anything that could improve their performance. Or repeatedly doing the thing they want to be confident about, but never evaluating how they can improve. Or never repeating until they get better.

I would talk to our therapist more directly about these issues, but make sure you don't get stuck in step 1 and don't move forward.
posted by lsemel at 12:21 AM on July 17, 2009 [7 favorites]

I mean 'your therapist' - sticky 'y' key.
posted by lsemel at 12:22 AM on July 17, 2009

Volunteer. You feel better about yourself by helping others.
posted by CodeMonkey at 6:43 AM on July 17, 2009

Don't internalize failure. Don't connect it with your innate value as a person. In fact, don't connect success with your innate value either. Try to focus on being the best person you can be- the ups and downs are as much due to luck and serendipity as they are to talent. Let go of judging yourself based on outside comparisons.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 6:47 AM on July 17, 2009

Confidence is like a muscle - you build it by using it. Like building muscle, you start lifting small weights and then move on to bigger things once you're able.

Think of something that you're absolutely, 100% confident that you can do, no matter how small or simple. Then build on that. For example, to build social confidence, you might recall that you're 100% confident that you can successfully converse with your co-worker. Build on that slowly by striking up a conversation with a different co-worker you don't know as well. And so on. Eventually, you'll build up to the point where you're comfortable striking up conversations with total strangers.

Then build on that some more. If you practice this, you'll eventually build up to the point where you will have social interactions that you could not today imagine yourself having.

(Yes, I know I'm describing, basically, CBT.)

Good luck.
posted by mikewas at 7:17 AM on July 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

yeah, my friend, you need some easy wins. I've been there.

first, take a couple days and write on some paper: what are the top 3-5 principles of your life that you believe in? recall, reflect, refine

keep refining that list. think about your life. those principles are there, you just have to recognize the patterns. this is important, because at first you will have to focus on accomplishing something you believe in. it doesn't make subconscious sense to pursue a goal that doesn't fulfill you, and your subconscious will give up

then, start thinking about easy goals that fit. what types of things have you always wanted to do that fit into that picture of yourself? for me it was running. one of my principles was mental and physical health; so, running fit perfectly. i broke down the goal into bite sized pieces. my target: run a 5k by summer. so, first step, run a mile. then 2 mile... etc.

then, reach out to friends. for me, accomplishing a goal is 10000X easier with some shared experience. but, don't ask your friends to help you. instead approach them as if you're helping them, that you're their coach. be a positive in their life. they will come with you and share in the experience. for me, I motivated two other people to run a 5k with me by summer.

then you do it. you will start slow, but you will meet your goal. then you extrapolate that to other goals. for me, my second goal was to have a work of art shown at a local gallery.

You will make mistakes, and you will have to break yourself free from the fear of failure (HUGE!). But, I've been there, and I am telling you it's possible.
posted by TheOtherSide at 4:43 PM on July 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

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