As an executive coach, I often have clients come to me because they feel they need executive presence and want to exude confidence to their teams. But oftentimes, they don’t understand what confidence is. Confidence has nothing to do with what is happening in your outer life. It’s always generated from within. It transcends what we do and what we know.
We all have those internal conversations that sometimes include self-sabotaging thoughts that erode our confidence—that internal dialogue can mark the difference between success in life and never fully reaching your potential.
Lean In and Tackle It
When I was very young in my career, the president of my company called a meeting to let our team know about a new, and very challenging, opportunity. He went around the room based on seniority and offered each person the opportunity to lead this new division. I was shocked to hear every single one of them turn it down. Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, I know this is complex, but I can do this!
When the president finally got to me, the last person hired, I said yes, and everyone started laughing, wondering how the newbie will manage this momentous task. He passed me a thick, heavy book and told me to study it. So I dived in and became an expert on the topic. The trajectory of my career changed dramatically that day as a result of me saying yes and leaning in.
I couldn’t do that without confidence in myself—confidence that I could quickly learn the subject matter and do a good job, even when I had no prior evidence or experience for that to be true. When you have confidence, you’ll create more opportunities in your life because you are willing to jump right in and take a risk. Every time you succeed, you build a new layer of confidence. By building your confidence as well as your competence, you build executive presence.
Self-Confidence Versus Self-Esteem
Self-confidence and self-esteem do not always go hand in hand. The magazine Psychology Today defines self-confidence as “trusting in one’s ability or aptitude to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world.” Someone who is self-confident rises to new challenges, seizes opportunities, deals with difficult situations, and takes responsibility if and when things go wrong.
However, you can be highly confident and have low self-esteem, which is an emotional appraisal of our own worth. Self-esteem is defined as “the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to ourselves, to others, and to the world.” Self-esteem is a subjective evaluation of one’s own worth; therefore, there is no proof, evidence, or objective way to measure it.
The thoughts we have about ourselves contribute to our self-image. These thoughts, whether they are good or bad, are the building blocks of our self-esteem. Our self-image, and gradually our self-esteem, can be molded by our parents, family, friends, physical or intellectual abilities, education, and jobs.
We come to define ourselves the way others define us. Thus, if others treat us with kindness, as if we are special and unique people, then we will eventually define ourselves in this way. On the other hand, if we find ourselves treated as if we are a bother to have around, then we will also come to see ourselves in this way.
When you have confidence, you’ll create more opportunities in your life because you are willing to jump right in and take a risk.
Some people confuse healthy, positive self-esteem with audacity or arrogance, a false sense of superiority over other people. True self-esteem, however, means that we do not have to assert ourselves at the expense of other people. Indeed, it is those with negative self-esteem who resort to the tactic of exaggerating their own worth, usually by putting others down. Those with positive self-esteem can acknowledge their own worth and validate the positive qualities of others.
Techniques For Creating Positive Self-Esteem
1 Work on your private thoughts.
How we feel about ourselves privately influences how we interpret our own actions, the decisions we make, the goals we set for ourselves, and how we relate to other people. Negative internal feelings usually lead to lower expectations and achievements, while positive definitions usually result in higher aspirations.
Consider some of the following ways in which these private, internal thoughts can be modified.
- Examine your unrealistic expectations. Negative self-esteem is driven by thoughts couched in “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “musts.” These words imply that we should be something other than what we are. A more positive approach is to replace these words with “wants.” Instead of saying self-punitively, “I should be a better friend,” it may be helpful to change the thought to: “I want to be a better friend.”
- Accept the fact that history cannot be changed. We often punish ourselves endlessly for certain regrettable actions we have taken in the past—and this feeds our negative self-esteem. But we all make mistakes, and we can learn from them. In fact, we, as fallible humans, must make mistakes in life—and perhaps we should be thankful that we have made them, for how else would we learn the route to a happier life? History cannot be undone, but we can focus on the present and future, drawing on our power to create the life we choose for ourselves.
- Reflect on the good experiences in your life. Instead of dwelling on our flaws, it is more helpful to think about what is good in our lives. Think about your successes rather than your failures. We all have life experiences that make us feel good. Define yourself in terms of these positive experiences.
- Set positive goals for the future. Examine your personal needs, desires, assets, and abilities—and think of how you can use them to achieve the life you want. Make your goals realistic and achievable, and work toward them, step by step, enjoying the successes and overcoming the occasional stumbles. Draw on the positive within yourself—with an awareness of how the old negative tendencies may show themselves. Setting positive goals draws on, and reinforces, your positive self-esteem and reminds you of the power you have to set your own course.
2 Diagnose the cues which lead to negative self-esteem.
We all tend to respond to triggers in ways that lower or raise our self-esteem. Identifying the experiences that influence our self-esteem can take work and a genuine commitment to improving the quality of our lives.
For example, if negative thoughts occur when you spend time alone, you may be dealing with abandonment issues. If negativity is triggered when you are criticized, you may have issues surrounding rejection. If you have negative thoughts in the presence of a person who tends to dominate and control, the theme may have to do with authority, judgment, and evaluation. When we understand these underlying themes, we can view them objectively and get closure on them so that they no longer have the power to influence our self-esteem.
3 Take care of yourself and your appearance.
Appreciate your own individuality, your own combination of strengths and weaknesses that make you a special person. Engaging in an exercise program (even simply walking 20 minutes a day) is a good way not only to care for your body but also to make others aware that you value yourself.
Instead of dwelling on our flaws, it is more helpful to think about what is good in our lives. Think about your successes rather than your failures.
Feeling good about yourself, presenting yourself to the world in a positive way, and getting positive feedback from other people are essential components of developing positive self-esteem.
4 Examine your relationships with other people.
Improving your self-esteem involves engaging in productive and enhancing relationships with others. There comes a time to examine destructive relationships—and this may be difficult since we are drawn toward relationships that reinforce our old ways of seeing ourselves.
Destructive relationships reinforce old negative self-esteem patterns. If it isn’t possible to feel a sense of esteem in the relationship, it may be time to end it and move on to other, more productive friendships.
5 Learn to meet your own needs.
Negative self-esteem leads to doubts about your own ability to take care of life’s problems and challenges. This is why people with negative self-esteem may be so demanding of others—at a certain level they may want others to take care of their problems for them. People with negative self-esteem may idealize others and, alternately, denigrate them. If others help you, you idealize them. If they don’t help, you don’t want to waste your time with them. These “all or nothing” themes appear frequently in the thoughts of those with negative self-esteem.
A mature adult life requires integrity. While others may assist you here and there, ultimately you are responsible for meeting your own needs. Acquiring positive self-esteem and self-confidence is essential to this task.
Editor’s note: The full version of this article was originally published on Jody Michael’s blog.
Jody Michael is founder and CEO of Jody Michael Associates, an executive coaching company based in Chicago, Illinois. As a Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, and licensed psychologist, she helps teams and organizations achieve transformational change. Learn more at www.jodymichael.com.
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