I work with a lot of very smart and successful people, and one thing they all seem to have in common is that no matter how much they achieve, they never feel good enough. In fact, for most of them, it is the feeling of not being good enough they will say drives their success. They always think that if they just get to the next level or climb the next mountain, then maybe they will finally get rid of that nagging gnawing feeling that somehow they are fooling everyone.
Almost all of them recognize they have a very negative inner critical voice that holds them to a standard that is different than everyone around them. Their inner critic in their head berates them and says things to them that they would never say out loud to anyone else. I am such an idiot; I am a phony; I never do anything right; I will never succeed. But for many, what brings them into therapy is that they reach a point in their success where they realize self-flagellation is no longer working. Their lack of self-confidence is holding them back.
You would think at that point they would be ready to dump their inner critical voice and find more ways to be their own cheerleader, but it’s not that easy. A lot of people view their inner critic as a friend. A friend that makes them always try to be better and doesn’t allow them to slack off. They fear that without their inner critic they will become lazy and apathetic.
Finding self-confidence when you’ve got a loud and active inner critic in your head, requires a deliberate process. Below are four steps that can help you get started:
1. Recognize the enemy.
The inner critic has never been your friend. Every time it speaks to you it causes you to experience a negative emotion. Fear, anxiety, self-doubt, shame. It causes you to fixate on what is wrong with you instead of what is right. It prevents you from seeing the very things you need to see in order to build self-confidence. Every time you notice the inner critic speaking in your head, talk back to it and tell it to go away, tell it you are ending the relationship, tell it you are no longer going to listen to it anymore.
2. See what is already there.
Your inner critical voice has been keeping your blind to who you really are. The second step is to see what has always been there. Look back at the things you have accomplished in your life. List as many successes and achievements as you can think of. Then find one or two other supportive people who you know and trust, and ask them to name as many of your successes and achievements as they can think of. You will likely be surprised that they come up with things you hadn’t thought of.
Once you have your list, write down as many positive traits and characteristics you know you have that helped you achieve those accomplishments. Then start growing your list forward. Start adding every win you get to it. They don’t have to be huge things. A positive comment from a co-worker about something you did or feeling good about a great workout would be a perfect thing to add to the list. Try to write down at least three to four things a week. The goal is to keep the list running so it becomes a tangible document that you can use as evidence to prove the inner critic wrong.
And no, this exercise will not cause you to become a narcissist. All human behavior is on a continuum. Being on either end of the spectrum is usually not a healthy place to be. Your goal is to simply move more toward the middle on the self-confidence continuum where there is a healthy balance. Humility and self-confidence are not mutually exclusive, they are very complementary traits.
3. Practice self-kindness.
Now that you are booting the inner critic out of your life, you will need a new best friend. A positive inner voice that is soothing and self-compassionate. This voice isn’t going to let you off the hook, it is going to be more honest with you than the critic because the critic was mostly lying. But instead of speaking to you in an abusive way, it is going to sound more like a loving kind parent who wants the best for their child. It’s also going to acknowledge your wins and positive qualities on a regular basis. If you need help finding a kinder inner voice, I recommend reading the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff.
4. Acknowledge your own journey.
Mark Twain once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” One of the most destructive ways you kill your self-confidence is when you compare yourself to others and make the faulty assumption that you should already be somewhere other than wherever you are. Comparing yourself to someone else doesn’t take into account the fact that you have completely different life experiences, biology, genetics, etc. People don’t come out of the starting gate all in the same place. Comparing yourself to others prevents you from taking credit for your own journey and all that you have become based on your own set of circumstances. Always remember that your life experience is your own.