4 Actionable Tips to Build
Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem
Last week I explained the differences between Confidence and Esteem using etymology and my own experiences. While the two words certainly overlap, they are quite different. Like I mentioned in the previous article, language - and how we use it - is important. It manipulates and fascinates, complicates and simplifies. Confuses and enlightens. Depending on how it’s used.
Simply put, language matters, but so does action. Atomic Habits author James Clear writes, “Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practicing creates skill.” By the end of this article you should have knowledge of some actionable exercises to build self-confidence and self-esteem and be able to put them into practice.
Last summer I enrolled in Yale University Professor of Psychology Dr. Laurie Santos’ online course The Science of Well-Being. In one of the units, Santos speaks about the G.I. Joe Fallacy. Named after the well-known toy and cartoon character, and inspired directly from the traditional ending of each episode of the show, when G.I. Joe’s character delivers a PSA and then says, “Knowing is half the battle.”
Dr. Laurie Santos and her colleague and collaborator, Tamar Gendler, invented this fallacy as a pushback on the idea that knowing something, or having awareness of something, truly is “half the battle.” Santos and Gendler believe knowing is much less than half the battle.
According to Santos and Gendler, true behavioral change and personal transformation is mostly about habit-forming and situation selection. More on the latter another week, as this post is mostly about habits.
As Dr. Santos writes, “The lesson of much contemporary research in judgment and decision-making is that knowledge—at least in the form of our consciously accessible representation of a situation—is rarely the central factor controlling our behavior.”
Meaning, it matters less for me to tell you the etymological difference between confidence and esteem than it does to show you how to build habits that change your relationship to confidence and esteem. In other words, it matters less for you to be aware of a habit than it does for you to practice it and engage with it, or stop practicing it and disengage from it if the habit is negative. Again, knowledge still matters, just less than half the importance of action.
I promised actionable tips to build Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem, so here you go:
Tip #1 - Embrace Self-Doubt and Our “Shadow” Using These 2 Exercises
It is only natural for us to avoid or put off doing tasks that we don’t feel confident about doing. We may wait until we feel more confident. Sometimes we’ll say to ourselves, “I’m not ready yet.”
Whether we believe that to be true or not, we’re right. Because it’s all about our mindset. Besides, the time will pass anyway.
We experience self-doubt as a result of our brains trying to protect us. From ridicule or from fear. From embarrassment or failure. Self-doubt serves as a reminder of all the times we tried something and it went wrong or felt painful. This experience in itself is a reflection of our level of self-confidence and self-esteem. Which is why we’re here to face it and challenge that experience for what it is: an illusion. After all, my favorite made-up acronym is for the word “fear” - False Evidence Appearing Real.
Embracing self-doubt has been shown to help us perform better. A 2010 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that athletes who embraced their self-doubt outperformed athletes who self-reported they were 100% confident in themselves.
Question: Do you know your Shadow Self? Follow-up question: Are you aware of what the “Shadow Self” is? If your answers are ‘Yes’ to both, pat yourself on the back, but keep reading. If your answer is ‘No’ to at least one of the questions, this next bit is for you my friend.
The shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves. First coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the “shadow” describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject or repress. All we deny in ourselves—whatever we perceive as inferior, evil, or unacceptable—become part of the shadow. We deny these parts of us to protect ourselves from our more primitive nature; the parts of us consisting of negative emotions and experiences like rage, envy, greed, and the striving for power.
Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the shadow always appears larger than the self and more dangerous. In terms of the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde it must be Jekyll, the conscious personality, who integrates the shadow and not vice versa.
Our shadow is full of all our personality traits others have rejected.
Next week, I will share a full post about the shadow self and how to use it in our career. For now, let’s focus on today's action items. Here are two exercises we can do at home to embrace self-doubt and face our shadow self:
Challenge your good traits.
Yup. You read right. I want you to challenge all the parts of your personality you think are the best things about you. The keywords you would use to describe yourself in three words. How do you do this effectively?
Imagine you’re being interviewed for a position you really want. Emotions may be high, because obviously you want to put your best foot forward. The interviewer is asking you to describe yourself in three words. You may answer something to the tune of, “Reliable. Hardworking. Loyal.”
Whatever those three words are, have you ever really stopped to ask yourself deeply, “Why those words?”
Here’s why, based on the psychology of the shadow: Those words describe our deepest cuts to our sense of self-worth and self-love. Those traits are what we subconsciously feel insecure about. Those words exist as our called upon, most cherished personality traits because at one time in our life, someone rejected them. Or questioned their existence in us. Or worse, tried to bully them out of us.
Conversely, they describe the traits others have celebrated at some point as well. As above so below, for different reasons. We should think of the shadow as the roots of a tree. Our life’s tree. If we dream to reach our highest selves, we must invest in our understanding of our lowest selves. A tree only grows tall with deep, strong roots.
We must embrace the depths and origins of our self-doubt - Who told us to doubt ourselves? What experience led us to believe we were lacking? When did we start to question our abilities, worth, and intelligence? Why do we feel so emotional when someone rejects our efforts to be ____?
Reflect on these questions to heal, and use the answers you find as foundations for your journey to personal success. You may just find that the three words you use to define yourself don’t actually define your true self, but perhaps some shadow self you’re trying to defend yourself from.
2. The 3-2-1 Shadow Process
The 3-2-1 Process uses shifts in perspective as a way of identifying and integrating shadow material. “3-2-1” refers to 3rd-person, 2nd-person, and 1st-person — the perspectives that we move through in this exercise.
This process is also summarized as: Face it (3), Talk to it (2), and finally, BE it (1).
Okay… but how? (You’re going to want to grab a pen and paper. For my dysgraphia friends, you may want to use an audio recording device/app.)
Step one is to Face it. Think of a person that frustrates you. Currently, recently or from the past. Describe those qualities or traits that you are repelled by, disgusted by, or frustrated with. Use 3rd-person language to describe these things e.g. They, He, She, It. If it helps to talk aloud, do so. I recommend writing it all down or recording it. Since you aren’t sharing this with anyone - unless you choose to do so - don’t worry about being “correct” or censoring your description. Let it out.
Step two is Talk to it. Start an imaginary conversation with this person or situation which frustrates or annoys you. Speak in 2nd person, using “you” language e.g. “Why are you doing this?”, “What do you want?”, “What are you trying to show or accomplish?” Now, imagine answering these questions you have with their response. This is not always easy. Really reflect on what the other person is trying to tell you through their actions or words. Write it all down. Hit record. Let it out.
Step three is Be it. Become this person you are at odds with. Speak from their position. Take on the qualities that annoy or disturb you. Use 1st-person language e.g. I, me, mine. Fill in the blank: “I am _____.” and continue saying this sentence. I want you to empathize with the person who irks you. Imagine the position of being a person who might struggle changing their unwanted personality traits. Write it down. Hit record. Let it out.
Now, the flip. You can actually use the 3-2-1 Shadow Process to reflect on people who you are positively affected by, attracted to, in awe of, or inspired by. This refers to something called Hero Worship, which I will write about next week.
We use shadow work and embrace self-doubt in order to fortify ourselves. To deepen and strengthen our foundational roots. To better understand the community of humans around us. We do this 3-2-1 process and challenge our good traits in order to strengthen our ability to recognize our insecurities. To face them head on in the name of building self-esteem and self-confidence. To define what is holding us back or keeping us in a fixed identity we didn’t intentionally choose. And we don’t just do this once and consider it done. We practice as often as we can. Personal success is not a destination, but a journey down the river of life and career.
We are the raft and our habits are the oars.
Tip #2 - Use Object Placement to Form Good Habits and Quit Bad Habits
I’ll keep this tip short and sweet.
My gym bag takes residence in the passenger seat of my car. The book I’m currently reading sleeps on my pillow while I’m away from home. I keep the dog leashes by the front door. My smoothie blender is living alone on my kitchen counter.
See where I’m going with this? Here’s my simple equation:
My goal is to workout more often = My gym bag stays in my passenger seat
My goal is to read more = My book is on my pillow when I get ready for bed / night routine
My goal is to walk the dogs more frequently = The leashes are in eye-sight by the door
My goal is to eat healthier = My smoothie blender takes priority on the coveted kitchen counter
I place objects in my way on purpose. In this equation there is a hidden variable, which is my enduring laziness. My procrastination monkey says, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Of course I won’t. The mind wants comfort and ease, so I must act in a way that combats my nature. I place objects in the way of what my mind is tricking me into wanting, because what I really want and need is getting ignored.
In fact, this works for breaking bad habits too. Example:
My goal is to actually wake up on time = My alarm is set outside the room so I have to get up
And, it’s not just about placement of objects. We can use this idea for quitting bad habits by being disciplined in where we place our bodies e.g. moving closer to the gym or taking a different route home from work to avoid the liquor store.
After all, we are products of our habits and our environments.
Tip #3 - Try Things that Make You Happy Engaged: Journal, Exercise, and Play Every Day
Happiness is fleeting. Not a destination, not tangibly held. It’s not something I chase, because it’s not something that can be captured, only experienced briefly. Observed on a whim, gone with a breeze. So I don’t try things that make me happy. I try things that make me involved. Engaged. Curious and interested.
Why is engagement more important than happiness?
Because engagement is an experience that can be replicated time and time again, while happiness is the dandelion that blows away in the wind. Yes, there are a million dandelions that look just the same. I know that. Stick with me. (Unlike that dandelion.)
Engagement is the secret to achieving flow, and it's the precursor to happiness. Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement 2.0 writes, “Yeast is not the same as bread, but yeast is required to make bread. Engagement is not the same as happiness, but you need engagement to achieve happiness.”
When we are engaged in an activity or task, it means we care about learning more about it. Curiosity taking hold. Being engaged means we care about getting results. It means investing in the process necessary to complete a task and the potential reward for accomplishment. A reward, I argue, should not be aimed at happiness.
Now, this is not to say I don’t do things that make me happy. I do. My argument is in favor of self-development and self-challenge for the sake of results and betterment, which will lead to longer-lasting happiness and personal success. When I think of new things to try, I don’t aim for things I think will make me happy. I aim for trying things which get me involved - mentally, physically, or spiritually. And ideally, all three at once.
Recently, I started boxing training. I have absolutely zero intentions of fighting anybody. I do not plan to use the skills I’m learning for professional or monetary purposes and hope I won’t have to use them ever. However, I pay money to learn how to box - jabs, hooks, uppercuts and footwork - all because it’s interesting to me. The act of boxing physically and mentally involves me. I don’t watch boxing. I box. That’s what I mean by getting engaged.
Journaling also works this way. A pen or pencil. Paper. And you. That’s it! Journaling is a skill and habit many leaders and thinkers swear by, including Tim Ferriss, Richard Branson, and Jim Rohn to name just a few.
I am not a perfect journalist, but I try my best. At the very least, I carry my journal with me everywhere I go - work, meetings, coffee with friends, etc. When I don’t have my journal nearby I use my phone’s note app. Journaling involves me and no one else. The best part is I technically never have to share my journal with anyone unless I choose to do so. This one habit is such a small, easy way to build confidence in your memory, your ideas, and creativity, all of which will help build your self-esteem. (Pro-tip using Object Placement: Decide when feels like a right time for you to journal each day, and place your journal in the environment you’ll be in during that time e.g. on your breakfast table so you journal before work in the morning or on your desk at work for when you get there. And give it residence in that location.)
Lastly, Play. Goofing off. Acting silly. Letting loose. It’s not just for kids. Researcher Stuart Brown, MD, describes play as time spent without purpose. For some, this may get your anxiety going or your head spinning. This might even confuse you because play feels like the opposite of engagement. But, the science is out: Play is for adults too, and it’s vital for our sense of personal success and mental health. Also, when play is used intentionally its disengaging quality becomes the purpose of restoration.
We’re simply not built to take ourselves so seriously. All. The. Time. Here’s a quick actionable tip inspired by author Brené Brown:
Write down three activities you could do for hours on end with no career/work purpose or motivation attached to them. Mine are playing pool, video games, and gardening.
Now carve out time on your calendar. Even when I’m busiest, I schedule time for play. I personally use my “down” hours - time during the day when I feel naturally unproductive or lower energy. It’s important to protect playtime the way you protect work time.
And lastly, try to get others involved when appropriate or possible.
Jacob, wait. Where’s tip number four?
Ah, yes. That’s right, I made a promise to give you 4 Actionable Tips to Build Self-confidence and Self-esteem. I do not plan on cheating that promise.
The fourth tip is about Being You. Yes, you! Each one of us is carrying around individualized experiences and memories. Of course, we are all part of this society and human community as well. We are constantly being influenced by others. Which makes it all the more important to listen to your gut and what works for you. But still try someone else’s way of doing things from time to time.
So, my fourth action item is Keep Doing What is Working for You, and Rid Yourself of What Isn’t. We know ourselves best, better than anyone else. If we’re being completely honest, we know what doesn’t work for us. Though it can be difficult to rid ourselves of those habits or traits.
Remember the G.I. Joe Fallacy: Knowing is not half the battle, it’s much less than half. So now you know some of these tips, but it’s up to you to practice them. And it is practice. Change won’t happen overnight; seeds won’t become trees next week. This work takes time, self-compassion, and patience. After all, patience is respect for the process and true commitment to the goal.
Start small. Fail forward. Tweak the lessons I've written here to your experience.
James Clear writes, “New identities require new evidence.” Personal Success, Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem are all built with evidence. Our new self-confident identity requires new evidence, action by action. Our heightened self-esteem image requires new evidence, belief by belief.
We got this.