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Tricks to avert low self-confidence

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17th-Sep-2018       
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Alice Boyes, PhD :
I had one of those days today when it felt like life was delivering one kick in the teeth after another. We all have those days. When they happen, it's normal to go into a mode of fluctuating self-confidence and second guess all your life decisions.   
Here are some of the mental tips and tricks I use when I'm feeling this way and recommend to others. Give them a try and see if they work for you!
1.    Ask yourself: "What did I find anxiety-provoking at first but is now relatively easy?"
Fluctuations in self-confidence often happen when we're embarking on challenges that are new, hard, or both. Try keeping a mental (or physical) list of things that were intimidating and anxiety-provoking when you were a beginner but come easily now that you're a pro.  
Your examples can be big or small. For instance, maybe you've learned how to create a listing on Craigslist. Or maybe you have examples in the parenting domain. I remember feeling really intimidated about installing a car seat in a rental car the first few times I did it, but now I wouldn't find that anxiety-provoking at all. Technology and money-related skills are good categories to consider when you're trying to come up with your own examples.
Tip: You might find it difficult to recall examples when you're in a low mood, so do some brainstorming when you're in a better mood so that you have a list you can think back to.
2.    Step back to gain perspective.
When your self-confidence has taken a blow, it's easy to go into a mental tailspin to the point you start asking yourself if you're a loser at life in general. Try to step back and get some perspective.  Are you a decent parent? Are you reasonably competent at lots of things? What are your accomplishments?
Be specific with yourself about what's happening for you mentally. For example, I ended up with a $300 water bill due to a stupid mistake, and it triggered me to think, "I'm terrible at things to do with money." Objectively, this isn't true. Balance your thinking. You might not be perfect, but you're probably not terrible either.
3.    Ask yourself: "Who I am comparing myself to?"
When something knocks your confidence about your decision-making, that mood drop often triggers social comparison. When this happens for me, I find myself comparing myself to people who've made outstanding accomplishments (like these people who bought a run down warehouse for a bargain and rehabbed it, increasing it's value to the point they have several hundred thousand dollars of equity in it.)  I think "Why aren't I doing things like that?" However, if I'm more reasonable in my social comparison, I can see that I'm doing pretty well. Again, I'm not an absolute rockstar, but most of my decisions are still good ones and I've got plenty of accomplishments.  Everyone can achieve outstanding accomplishments eventually, but these tend to be few and far between, even for high achievers, and they're interspersed with mistakes and mediocre results.  
Common objects of social comparison include siblings, Facebook friends, classmates, and people you read about or watch online. Sometimes I compare myself to people younger than me and think "I should be doing better than I am at my age." I know it can come across a bit disingenuous and irritating when accomplished people talk about experiencing low self-esteem moments. However, it just goes to show that behind the scenes even successful people are still making plenty of life mistakes and have patterns of self-sabotaging behavior that frustrate them. Life is messy for everyone.
4.    Recognize that feeling self-doubt doesn't necessarily mean you're on the wrong track.
Like all emotions, self-doubt is an evolved signaling system. It prompts us to think carefully about what we're doing. However, it's an imperfect signal. The system produces many false alarms, especially for people prone to anxiety, and can trigger unhelpful rumination. Feeling self-doubt doesn't necessarily mean you're on the wrong track. It often just means you're confronting a challenge that is hard, new, or both. While self-doubt feels uncomfortable, it has some benefits too.  My colleague, Dr. Barb Markway, wrote an excellent piece on the upside of self-doubt.
When your self-doubt isn't completely a false alarm, there are plenty of strategies you can use.  When you feel regret over imperfect decisions, you can try these tips for coping with regret. When you realize you need to improve in an area, it's easier to do this if you're prepared to focus on improving your habits rather than attempting to achieve perfection (shooting for perfection will likely backfire).
5.    Know what you need to weather the storm and bounce back.
Know what works for you when you need nurturing in order to get through emotional challenges. You might choose social strategies, like contacting friends, or debriefing about stressful situations with your romantic partner. You might have physical strategies for coping with stress like having an early night, napping, exercise, slow breathing, yoga, or meditation.  Or, consider your favorite behavioral strategies, like treating yourself to food you like or going to a movie. If you feel socially isolated, consider reaching out to some weaker social connections, such as colleagues who you know but aren't particularly close to.
Lastly, keep in mind anything you tend to do when you're stressed that actually makes you feel worse, like staying up very late. Troubleshoot self-sabotaging patterns like this. It's natural to want to stay up when you need to wind down from your day, but if it's causing issues for you, then you might need to start your wind down process earlier in the evening. For example, take a bath at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. on days when you're feeling stressed.
Wrapping up
Pick your favorite few tips from this article and try them out next time you doubt yourself and your decisions. Not every strategy will work for everyone, but there are plenty to try, so experiment and see what works for you.
(Alice Boyes, Ph.D., translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives).

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