How do I increase my self-confidence?
March 19, 2006 8:10 PM   Subscribe

How do I increase my self-confidence?

Here's a long story.

I've got horrible self-confidence issues. I mostly think that everything I do sucks. I don't understand why anyone would like me, and I'm shocked when anyone says my work is good (even though they often do, and I have a very decent social life). In fact, even posting here on MeFi is a challenge, because I'm afraid people will think I'm just an idiot. I do it anyway, but then it stresses me out for hours and I can't even look at the thread I added to. I've been struggling with this my whole life.

I'm in art school. I had a work-in-progress critiqued today, and although I thought I was just being open about the faults in the project, everyone seemed to pick up on some deep feelings of complete inadequacy I have about myself and my work. Yes, that was mentioned, in the crit, by people I barely know. I've gotten better about showing things I think are sub-par in class, because I just have to. But I still sometimes slip and say something, while introducing the piece even, about how unhappy I am with my work. I know my standards for myself are too high, and I've been dealing with serious depression for years. But having recently talked to my mom about this and having seen the way she and her mother approach similar situations, I'm afraid I just have this doomed future of never living up to my own standards, and, more importantly, never having any decent career because I can't convince others that I'm not a failure.

I've recently gone off of my depression meds, and am experimenting in the whole "fake it 'til you make it" philosophy. I can deal with everyday life (mostly), but when I'm talking about something I'm really passionate about, I can't seem to at least project the impression that I think my work, or myself in general, is at all important to anyone besides myself.

How do you deal with it? How do you manage to at least pretend to believe in yourself, when inside you think you're a steaming pile of shit? And how do you do it without seeming like a self-absorbed ass? What can I do to train myself to be more self-confident?

Disclaimer: I have a therapist, but am taking a break (plus, I can't really afford her right now). Going off the meds was a completely personal decision, based on the side effect vs. benefit ratio, which has reversed and I just wasn't getting the benefits anymore. It's been long enough that I'm not just going through withdrawl, and this was a problem even while on Zoloft. I'm planning to see the therapist in a month or two to see if I can try another pill. I eat well, and get as much exercise as I can, busy schedule and depression permitting.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe try breaking down your process some. Examine what parts of your work you like and what parts you dislike. Then you could concentrate specifically on the skills you feel you are having trouble with, while self-appreciating your talent where it is more currently realized. You may find that you can defend the whole better if you can concentrate on what you are doing well.

Also, I would get back on whatever drugs your Dr prescribes until you can see about alternative medications. I have known a number of people with depression and have never seen anyone get better by laying off the drugs. In fact, I have seen some disasterous situations arise as a result of going off-meds.
posted by aburd at 8:28 PM on March 19, 2006

Long term cognitive therapy and antidepressants together have an extremely high success rate.

The drugs help lift off the physical source of the depression, and the therapy helps you retrain your mind out of the rut it has been forced into by the physical depression.

I would definitely keep trying different anti-depressants until you find one that has the right effectiveness/side effect balance, but in the meantime...

The most effective thing I did while working myself out of my depression was writing. Specifically, when I found myself going off the deep end into "I suck, nobody likes me, why don't I eat some worms", I just wrote it all down.

This had the dual effect of getting it out of my head ("Okay, I don't have to think about this any more, it's on the paper if I need a reminder.") and giving me a chance to review my notes later when I was feeling different.

Years later, depression lifted, it's had the third effect of leaving me three notebooks written in my own hand by a person who I barely remember anymore. The depression and low self esteem seeps through every word though.
posted by tkolar at 8:57 PM on March 19, 2006

I've had the agonizing self-criticism thing since, like, jr. high shcool. I'm in grad school, now, and even though the ol' CV isn't too shabby, I still feel like a complete fraud sometimes.

What seems to work for me when I need to get really enthusiastic about presenting my research is to pretend I'm just representing someone else... someone who happens to be uber-competent, super smart, and probably fantastic in bed. It helps me a lot to pretend that I'm not personally involved in any of the work I turn out.

I'd advise against aburd's suggestion of analyzing your process. In my experience, you can always find something trivially wrong with what you've done, no matter how much time you spend on it. Spending time thinking about it will only amplify the problem for you, where other people probably won't notice.
posted by logicpunk at 9:08 PM on March 19, 2006

If you haven't already read it, Dr. David Burns' book Feeling Good is good for getting yourself out of the beating-yourself-up habit. It's about depression and cognitive therapy methods.
posted by Pigpen at 9:46 PM on March 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

Do talk to the doctor who prescribed the Zoloft for you and let them know it seems to have stopped working. It should be possible to find another antidepressant that works better for you.

In the meantime, try actually writing down your own critique of some perceived personal failing; then change the name, so it reads like a critique of somebody else - preferably somebody else whose work you respect. Put it away for a couple of days, then read it over. I'm guessing you'll be a little shocked by how unnecessarily harsh it sounds.

Having high standards is a fine and beautiful thing; working hard to try to live up to them is a fine and beautiful thing. Beating yourself up because you're not already there is NOT a fine and beautiful thing, and doing it most of the time is a sure-fire way to stay depressed.

Anybody who gets good at any kind of creative endeavour does so by working and working and working at it. One side effect of all that work is that you get a deeper understanding of your chosen field, and you perceive more and more gaps in your own grasp of it; perfection/mastery is an ever-receding target. That's just the nature of things, not a reason to beat yourself up.

Meanwhile, all those people around you who haven't done all that work will naturally become increasingly impressed by what you can do. They're not bullshitting you; they really are impressed. And if you're doing stuff that really does impress people, that means - by definition - you're doing impressive stuff.

Giving yourself points for that doesn't come easily, and it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that any kind of self-praise is going to turn you into an asshole and sap your will to improve. But it really is good for the soul to take a breather every now and again and reflect on the things you can do today that you couldn't do last year.
posted by flabdablet at 9:56 PM on March 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

A useful cognitive trick I adopted (and still use) when I was learning how to quiet my own inner critic: every time you catch that inner voice criticizing you, pretend that you're not speaking to/about yourself -- imagine instead you are speaking to/about a good friend who you really care about. Would you be so harsh with him/her, or are you actually inclined to be tender? Would you nitpick so mercilessly, or are you able to see the big picture in a more easygoing way? Do you demand utter perfection, or do you cut them some slack? Just treat yourself in your head like you'd treat your best friend to his or her face. In this way, you will get the real, visceral experience of being kind to yourself. And you never know -- you may find you like it and would like to make a habit of it.

Also, it's interesting (and i think certainly significant) that this is something that runs in your family. Given how you were raised, you may have internalized the idea that it's simply not acceptable to think of yourself in kinder, more positive terms -- that it's somehow unseemly or vain or foolish or abnormal to believe in yourself. For example, you may have the assumption that if you like yourself as you are now you'll stop striving to better yourself (or your circumstances/finances/etc) in the future. Whatever the underlying (and even unconscious) assumption is, bringing it out into the open for the purpose of demythologizing it can be very powerful in helping break its spell.

Finally, understand that your worthiness of being liked and even loved is not contingent on what you do (e.g., produce good art, say the right thing on MeFi, etc.) but is entiurely about who you are. You are worthy of love, kindness, and compassion even if you never make another piece of art in your life. You don't have to earn those things through perfect artwork or scintillating comments, or whatever else you feel pressure to produce. You are worthy of them simply by virtue of being here on this planet with the rest of us imperfect goofballs, who are all muddling forward the best we can, too.

I wish you the very best.
posted by scody at 11:33 PM on March 19, 2006 [4 favorites]

Gosh, you sound just like me!

Drugs are not always the answer, but they can help. I was on Effexor for about four years and then stopped; having been "normalized" while on the meds helped me realize the really glum feelings were, honestly, part of my brain chemistry and not because it was "true" that I sucked. If you haven't been on meds for very long, I concur that you might want to try a different pill, but they're not all-powerful and you may not need them your whole life.

One thing that really helped me, and it sounds stupid, is doing affirmations. You have years and years of your inner voice programming yourself to think you suck. It will take some time to undo that, but it can be done. Pick a phrase, and the more "wrong" it seems to you now, the better: like, "I am a brilliant and talented artist" or "My artwork is the best in the world", or even, "I am justifiably proud of my art." Write it into three sentences like so "I am justifiably proud of my art." "(yourname) is justifiably proud of his/her art." and "(yourname), you are justifiably proud of your art."

Write each sentence five times, longhand, one after the other, once a day (before bed is good, or first thing in the morning). At first you'll fight the statements and think "This is stupid. This is a lie. I'm not proud of my art..." and so forth; let that happen, it's your old programming fighting back. But slowly, you'll start hearing the words during the day, "Hey, I'm proud of my art." And you will slowly start to at least consider it, and then gradually accept it. It took me about one 80-page notebook full but it does work; I was doing it for writer's block and depression, but getting to work on my self-confidence is my next mission.
posted by Rubber Soul at 11:36 PM on March 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

You are worthy of love, kindness, and compassion even if you never make another piece of art in your life. You don't have to earn those things through perfect artwork or scintillating comments, or whatever else you feel pressure to produce. You are worthy of them simply by virtue of being here on this planet with the rest of us imperfect goofballs, who are all muddling forward the best we can, too.
I couldn't agree more; the moment you not only believe this intellectually but also on a gut level you'll have conquered the major obstacle to self-confidence. As you learn do disconnect your sense of self-worth from your achievements, you will allow yourself to try out new things, make mistakes and not feel bad about "failing". Trial and error is a great way of learning, so you will see yourself improving. This improvement in turn provides the basis for self-confidence.

Reinterpret life as a game / dream. The following is a transcription of part of a talk given by Alan Watts. It made me look at things from an entirely new perspective.
Let's suppose that you were able, every night, to dream any dream you wanted to dream. And that you could, for example, have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time. Or any length of time you wanted to have. And you would, naturally, as you began on this adventure of dreams, fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure you could conceive. And after several night of 75 years of total pleasure each, you would say: "Well, that was pretty great, but now, let's have a surprise. Let's have a dream which isn't under control, were something is going to happen to me that I don't know what it's going to be." And you would dig that, and come out of that and say: "Wow, that was a close shave, wasn't it?" And then, you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further and further outgambles as to what you would dream. And finally, you would dream were you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.
I also highly recommend Feeling Good. This book is absolutely amazing: it will learn you the techniques the to straighten out the negative thinking patterns that make you feel unnecessarily bad in the first place. These techniques are deceptively simple yet highly effective.

Good luck!
posted by koenie at 2:25 AM on March 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

Maybe you can enlist the assistance of a handful of your closest accomplices. Tell the people that are around you regularly to set up a virtual quarter jar for your self-deprecation. Every time they catch you saying that you suck or some aspect of you sucks, they are to remind you that you don't and that you shouldn't be saying these things. It doesn't really matter what they say, just that they remind you of it every time you do it. The goal here is just to help remind yourself of how prevalent this is in your everyday life, and to not let you get away with doing it constantly. I think that you have conditioned yourself to feel this way automatically, and you let yourself do so without even thinking about it. If you are at least reminded each time then perhaps after a while you will be able to catch yourself before it happens and tell yourself that you're not going to self-deprecate this time.

IANACBT (I am not a cognitive behavioral therapist)
posted by Rhomboid at 2:46 AM on March 20, 2006

For the last 20 years, I've been directing plays, drawing illustrations and writing books. My work gets praised, I get job offers and good reviews. But to me, it all sucks. It's never even remotely good enough. In my heart, I'm a terrible director, a crappy artist and a hack writer. I wish I could tell you how I made myself stop feeling this way, but I can't -- because I didn't. But I CAN tell you that most of the time it doesn't matter.

As an artist, my job is to serve the art -- not my ego. So if I'm feeling sucky, I just plunge deeper into the work. In all art forms, there are rules or procedures. I follow them. I do research. I cut cliches and try to replace them with clear, evocative words. I work on learning how to draw hands. I just take it one step at a time and try to perfect little things. If, in the end, I feel like I've done a bad job, that's MY problem. It has nothing to do with the art or people's perceptions of it. If it's REALLY getting me down, that means it's time to throw myself into a new project. No time for navel gazing!

This works well for me, because my art isn't autobiographical. But if you're an introspective artist, your lack-of-confidence is a GOOD thing (for your art) -- as-long-as you honestly present it in your work. Why do I consume other people's introspective art? To learn more about myself. To feel that I'm not alone -- that there are other's like me. The world is full of people who lack confidence. If you can honestly express what that feels like, we will thank you.

In the end, it's the same thing: serve the art. That's what it means to be an artist. You may always feel insecure. Work THROUGH it.

By the way, things may improve when you're out of school. Those people critiquing you aren't doing you any favors. I wish teachers and students would STOP playing armchair psychologist. They should discuss your WORK -- not your psychology or their beliefs about your psychology.

An actress friend of mine was told by several teachers that she was "trying too hard." She didn't know what that meant. They would also say things like, "You're overcompensating for insecurities" and "You clearly feel a need to dominate." She was totally confused, because she had absolutely no awareness of feeling this way. But her teachers gave her such a complex, she started to believe them.

Finally, a new teacher told her, "You're too loud. Speak a little more quietly." Problem solved.
posted by grumblebee at 7:00 AM on March 20, 2006 [4 favorites]

*Ugh* memories! I went to art school, a school where all the crits were freudian based and discussed in excrutiating detail that in the end, was pretty worthless. Vaginal, phallic, anal, oral...christ almighty! It took me years to purge that kind of automatic language out of myself when evaluating my work. I also didn't attempt to show my work for years after graduating, but I still made art consistently.

My sense from your post is that your classmates sort of resent your pre-emptive self-dimishment of your work when you introduce it because it robs them of the pleasure of finding fault with it. Don't apologize for your work. It's all a learning experience. All you need to be concerned about in art is that you are making progress with your own work, that one piece is authentically building on the last piece, you are continuing to grow. It's not really a "fake it until you make it" approach, but you do have to value your own work enough that other people's comments--whether good or bad--will not influence your work one way or the other. You have to develop that authentic core in your work and then nothing can touch you. You will always have those nagging self-doubts, that is the nature of being an artist. Just keep making the work. Good luck, grasshopper!
posted by 45moore45 at 7:19 AM on March 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Let me tell you something: At least in my social circle, I've came to the conclusion that there is no problem in being a fraud, because I've found that everyone that I consider exceptional also feels the same way. I've just found there is no way to avoid it, people will sincerely find your most shitty jobs spectacular, and sometimes they will ignore some things you consider spectacular.

I'd give a shot saying that your problem lies in being too good. Basically, people will find anything you do equally good (and probably very good), either if you do it in a hurry 15 minutes before the deadline, or if you spend two weeks of hard work doing it. And, in a bout of cognitive dissonance (I like this word, specially when I use it in the wrong context), you will absorb it like "No matter my efforts, all I do seems like it was done sloppily and in a hurry". I'd bet the truth is the opposite: You can do a good job even when you do it in a hurry and with no dedication at all. And people are used to such low quality, that they just aren't able to fit your notions of "sloppy job" and "good job" in their scales, because your sloppy job is already more than good enough to their standards.

In my social circle the solution was simple: We know we won't be recognized for more effort than necessary, so we just "live the fraud" and only work slightly more than enough. Slack, relax, read metafilter, and once in a while do some work. Find your threshold of sloppiness, and do everything that is aimed at others with that degree of dedication. Keep your full dedication only to the things you know will be recognized. Find a group of people equally good in what you do well, or even work only for yourself (this isn't as good, as it isolates you a little). The first obvious benefit is that you'll be much less vulnerable to criticism, because even if you hear some, you'll just know it was "intentionally mediocre".

Just remember: full dedication to _something_ is essential. Just doing intentionally mediocre jobs at everything will make your life feel a little pointless (again, personal experience). But don't waste your dedication where you know it won't be appreciated.
posted by qvantamon at 9:30 AM on March 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, everything I was talking about above is in a context completely different from arts. That worked for me in my context, but rereading the thread I realized that in arts it is a lot harder to dismiss anything you do as "just work", so this approach may not be ok for this case.
posted by qvantamon at 9:36 AM on March 20, 2006

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