Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.”
Wise words, and it works both ways! If you underestimate your potential, or if you ignore your accomplishments, you’ll view yourself in a much less positive light than others do. Conversely, if you overestimate your potential, or feel as if your potential has already been reached when in fact it hasn’t, then you’ll view yourself as more accomplished than others see you. Distortions in self-image go both ways. And over the years I have found that a person’s self-image can vary from mood to mood, day to day or context to context.
So it certainly makes sense to try to enhance your self-image, and the first step is to pay regular attention to what you’ve already done well. You’ll not only be less dependent on others to bolster your image, but when they do, you will give it more credence.
The next step is to never sell yourself short. Don’t assume you’re incapable of something if prior efforts, or even inner motivation, suggest you might be able to accomplish the task. Better to keep trying, and learning from failures along the way, than to give up for no reason. Get into the habit of placing facts above feelings, so if you get the momentary feeling that you can’t do something, it won’t automatically paralyze you. The value-added here is that a feeling that you “should” be able to achieve something will not lead you to an unearned sense of confidence or entitlement. “Should” and “actually did it” are two different things. Too many people define self-confidence as a feeling, and a feeling alone. This leads them to think: “If I feel good about myself, then I’m confident.” This can lead to your becoming dependent on your feelings, and any sense of inadequacy that might pop up could lead you to shoot lower than you should. Again, the other side of the coin is a sense of overconfidence that can lead you to expect applause for something you did not achieve, or something of which you’re perhaps not capable.
Feelings are important. They are the way to experience life’s values. However, feelings do not, by themselves, tell you what’s true. If you tie confidence to feelings alone, you’re prone to distortion – in either direction. The resulting decisions can result in either a false sense of accomplishment or a false sense of inadequacy.
Confidence requires that you stay in touch with the facts about yourself. Like exercise, nutrition, or bodybuilding, it can’t be done all at once. You can’t say, “I’ll do this one mental exercise and then I’ll have confidence.” The growth and maintenance of self-confidence is cumulative and must be ongoing. It’s like trying to create or break a habit: It takes repetition and practice.
Like muscles or weight loss, you can foster and maintain self-confidence. Just because it’s gradual doesn’t mean that it’s not real. Do regular mental workouts by using the facts to introspect, then writing down what you did well. Congratulate yourself for your progress. Then teach yourself to aim higher tomorrow. Take on daily life with a firm and accurate understanding of who you actually are, and who you might yet become. Demand the freedom to expand and become all you can be, and honor the same for others. Your life will be richer and more fulfilling as you get into the habit of feeling good about yourself.
Michael J. Hurd, Daily Dose of Reason