Confidence. It’s something we all want more of, yet it can feel so elusive. We know people who radiate self-assurance, who move through life with their heads held high, immune to self-doubt. And we want to be more like them.
So we try to psych ourselves up, walk taller, and act like we think a confident person would act. But it feels like wearing an ill-fitting suit–we look the part on the outside, but on the inside, we still feel like the same insecure person.
As a psychologist who has spent decades counseling clients on improving their self-esteem and cultivating sustainable confidence, I’ve noticed some clear patterns. Many of our instincts around building confidence are misguided and can backfire. Confidence can’t be willed into existence through sheer effort. In fact, the more we strive for it directly, the more anxious we become when it fails to magically materialize.
So what does work? The key is letting go of what undermines confidence in the first place. By identifying and progressively eliminating the unhelpful habits that erode self-trust over time, you remove the obstacles standing in the way of genuine confidence.
Here are four confidence-sabotaging tendencies to watch out for on your journey to believing in yourself.
1. Stop Seeking External Validation
When plagued by self-doubt or insecurity, one of the most natural impulses is to seek reassurance from others. Whether it’s asking your partner if you look okay, polling friends and family before a big speech for advice, or compulsively checking social media likes after sharing something personal–external validation provides a quick hit of confidence.
In the moment, it genuinely feels like it’s helping. Hearing “Don’t worry, you’ve got this!” offers relief when you’re terrified of an upcoming performance review. Receiving compliments on your new outfit provides a rush of confidence before a first date. Getting enthusiastic support for a risky career change temporarily abates your anxiety.
So what’s the downside? Why should you curb this very human desire for reassurance and validation from others?
The Vicious Cycle of Reassurance Seeking
The central issue with relying on external validation to feel good about yourself is that it reinforces the belief that your fears and insecurities are justified and should be eliminated.
Each time you desperately seek reassurance from your partner when you suspect they’re mad at you, ask your friends if you’re annoying them, or nervously fish for compliments about your qualifications before a job interview, you’re sending a message to your brain:
“This feeling of anxiety is dangerous and needs to be gotten rid of at all costs. Something bad is going to happen if I can’t stop feeling this way.”
So you get the reassurance, which provides temporary relief. But next time you feel that same uncertainty or fear in a similar situation, your brain remembers: Oh right, this feeling needs to go away ASAP. The last time I felt this, everything went to pieces!
So, your anxiety intensifies, and you need more reassurance than ever just to function. Cue the vicious cycle.
The Confidence of Tolerating Discomfort
The irony of compulsively seeking external reassurance is that it erodes confidence over time. Though it provides short-term relief, you become more dependent on others to regulate your emotions and more convinced that anxiety spells catastrophe.
The solution is subtle but powerful: cultivating the belief that feeling afraid or insecure, while uncomfortable, is not dangerous. No matter how intense the discomfort gets, you can handle it.
Of course, this takes practice. Emotions can feel like imminent threats in the moment. The next time you feel compelled to endlessly vent about your insecurities or reach out for validation, try this instead:
- Validate the fear or anxiety as legitimate, but remind yourself it’s only an emotion, not a premonition.
- Accept it fully, without judgment or need to eliminate it right away.
- Then, redirect your attention to something more productive or enjoyable.
It’s going to keep feeling scary, and you’ll want to retreat to old patterns. But each time you can tolerate sitting with the discomfort without reaching for reassurance, you’re signaling self-trust. Your confidence will grow as your actions embody the belief that you can handle feeling insecure.
Disconnect Your Self-Worth from External Feedback
At the heart of reassurance-seeking is connecting your self-value to what other people think of you. This makes sense–as social creatures, we evolved to care deeply about our standing within groups. Being valued by our tribe was critical for survival for most of human history.
But this vestigial wiring can work against us in the modern world. While feedback can help us improve, when our self-esteem is contingent on approval from others, we’re always on shaky ground.
Making approval the basis of your self-worth also means you’re rejecting yourself. Think about what messages like “I’m only lovable if I’m perfect” or “I’m worthless if I’m not popular” really mean–you’re tying your value as a human being to metrics completely outside your control.
The antidote is cultivating radical self-acceptance. Confidence comes from trusting your inherent worth as a person, separate from measurable outcomes. Constructive criticism can still be useful for growth–you just don’t interpret it as an indictment of your being. Feedback reflects how others see you, not who you are.
As you untether your self-esteem from external validation, you’ll be guided by an inner compass instead of tossed about by the opinions of others. Confidence arises when your sense of self-worth comes from within.
2. Stop Worrying About the Future
In addition to seeking validation about the past and present, another way our confidence gets torpedoed is by worrying excessively about the future. From work to relationships to health, you can probably easily list a dozen things you feel uncertain and anxious about going forward.
And in one sense, some degree of concern makes sense. After all, the future is full of unknowns, and potential dangers lurk around every corner. Our brains evolved primarily to prioritize survival–not peace of mind.
But while vigilance has its place, worry becomes problematic when it’s chronic, disproportionate to the actual risks, and prevents us from enjoying the present. Confidence arises from trusting we can handle what comes, not trying to obsessively control life.
The Illusion of Control
Why do we waste so much energy playing out disastrous hypothetical scenarios and trying to mentally prepare for every conceivable problem, even though it destroys our peace of mind and confidence?
It comes back to that primal drive for control and certainty. On a gut level, worrying feels like taking action against potential threats. If we run through all the things that could go wrong ahead of time, maybe we can prevent or mitigate the damage. Our hypervigilant brains confuse worrying with security planning.
The problem is no matter how much we worry, the future remains unpredictable. We have direct power only over our present choices, not external outcomes. But because worrying feels like it’s warding off the unknown, providing a sense of control, we easily become addicted. Just like with reassurance seeking, short-term relief comes at the cost of long-term insecurity.
Accepting Lack of Control
If confidence arises from faith, we can handle what comes; how do we cultivate that mindset amidst constant uncertainty? We can do it by learning to tolerate lack of control and make peace with uncertainty.
Easier said than done, of course. The primitive parts of our brains will resist acceptance of powerlessness. Start small by noticing when you’re worrying and ask yourself:
- Is focusing on this potential future scenario helping me achieve or enjoy anything right now?
- Can I actually control the outcome by thinking about it?
- What’s a more positive or productive thing I could focus on instead?
Don’t try to force yourself to stop worrying entirely. The mere act of realizing you’re worrying and consciously redirecting your thoughts is progress. You’re training your brain that while a lack of control feels uncomfortable, it’s not dangerous.
Over time, you’ll spend less time playing mental chess against hypothetical futures and more time making the most of the present, where your real power lies. With practice, acceptance of uncertainty becomes easier. And the more you embody that mindset, the more your confidence will grow.
3. Let Go of Past Regrets
Many of us don’t just dwell on the uncertainties of tomorrow–we also have a tendency to ruminate about yesterday’s mistakes. Whether it’s regret over a failed relationship, embarrassment about a professional misstep years ago, or shame about not being the parent we wish we were, the past wields huge power over our confidence.
Reliving past embarrassments or failures can feel eerily similar to constructive self-reflection and problem-solving. But rumination, for its own sake, rarely illuminates any lesson we didn’t already know. It just leaves us demoralized as we waste time rehashing the unchangeable.
But if it only makes us miserable, why do we continue picking at the psychological scabs of past regret?
The Temptation of Rumination
Like worry and reassurance seeking, rehashing the past can feel productive in the moment, even if it erodes our confidence over time. In the short term, rumination provides relief through the illusion of control and problem-solving.
By endlessly analyzing what went wrong, what we should have done differently, and how terrible we feel about it all, we get temporary respite from painful feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. Our minds trick us into thinking that if we can just figure this out, we’ll be able to fix it or prevent it from happening again.
But the past cannot be changed, no matter how much mental energy we throw at it. Those momentary feelings of empowerment come at the price of increased self-criticism and eroded self-worth when the same negative thought loops replay over and over. We feel worse and worse about ourselves while solving nothing.
Letting Go with Self-Compassion
So how can we resist the siren song of rumination when regret and shame rear their ugly heads? The key is self-forgiveness.
Making mistakes, disappointing ourselves, regretting how we handled certain situations–these are fundamental parts of the human experience. With the gift of hindsight, we can probably all think of a litany of moments from our past that we wish had gone differently. Events we wish we could change.
But treating ourselves (or others) with compassion, rather than criticism, for those universal imperfections is critical. When memories surface of choices you regret, notice if shame or self-judgment arises. Then, consciously try to respond to yourself as you would a close friend in the same situation. Think about what advice you would offer.
The past cannot be altered. Dwelling on it just pulls energy away from the present, where you hold creative power and the possibility of growth. Self-acceptance clears space for self-trust.
Though often frightening, letting go of shame and regret is an act of courage that will reclaim your confidence. Show yourself kindness; you’re only human.
4. Keep Your Actions Aligned With Your Values
One final tendency that can quietly undermine confidence day after day is the gap between our intentions and actions. We all have deeply held beliefs about who we want to be and what’s important–our values. But so often, when push comes to shove, our actions betray those convictions.
Say you value your health, but you keep hitting snooze instead of waking up for an energizing morning workout. Or you want to finally start that passion project you’ve been dreaming about, but watching TV is easier than dealing with the uncertainty of creating something new.
Choosing short-term comfort over long-term fulfillment, again and again, slowly erodes your self-trust. Eventually, it gets harder and harder to muster the confidence you’ll actually follow through the next time commitment strikes.
Why We Sabotage Ourselves
What drives the frustrating gap between our intentions and actions? Why do our decisions so frequently undermine our own goals and values?
At the root is relying on emotions versus reasoned principles to guide our choices and behavior day to day. Unlike values, emotions are oriented toward what provides short-term gratification and pleasure while minimizing discomfort:
Comfort-seeking emotions: want to avoid pain, uncertainty, awkwardness, and effort. They guide you to hit snooze for an extra 30 minutes of sleep, even when you know you’ll regret bailing on your morning yoga ritual.
Excitement-seeking emotions drive you to compulsively check social media for validation or play video games for dopamine hits, even when you genuinely want to work on developing a new skill instead.
At the moment, obeying these transient impulses provides relief. But over time, consistently choosing immediate gratification erodes the foundation of your confidence–trust in yourself.
Building Credibility With Yourself
Lasting confidence can only take root when your brain believes your intentions actually matter–when words reliably translate to actions. Each time you talk yourself out of sticking to your exercise routine, showing up for night classes, or reaching out to connect with someone, your self-trust frays a bit more.
So, what can you do to bring your actions back in line with your intentions? Start with small, daily choices instead of tackling major life overhauls head-on. Notice when the desire for comfort or excitement pulls you toward a decision that contradicts your goals. Then, make a conscious choice aligned with your values, even if it’s uncomfortable or boring in the moment.
Building credibility with yourself through small, consistent actions is the only way to construct confidence that lasts. Our emotions will always try to lead us astray, but you can strengthen the self-discipline to do what matters anyway. Progress won’t be linear, but your self-esteem will grow each time conscience prevails over fleeting cravings.
Confidence Blooms From Within
We all want the kind of self-assurance that allows us to move through the world with our heads held high, immune to self-doubt. But too often, we go about building confidence in counterproductive ways.
My decades of experience as a psychologist have shown that genuine confidence can’t be willed into existence through sheer effort alone. But it can organically blossom when you identify and progressively let go of the habits that have been quietly sapping your self-esteem all along.
It comes down to this:
Stop seeking validation from others. Allow yourself to feel uncertainty without immediately trying to make it disappear.
Stop worrying excessively about the future. Make peace with the limits of your control.
Stop dwelling on past regrets. Respond to yourself with compassion when you fall short.
Stop allowing fleeting emotions to override your values. Align your actions with what matters most to you.
Constructive feedback still has its place on the path of growth. But you interpret it as information rather than an indictment of your worth.
The more you embody self-acceptance and act from your principles rather than transient impulses, the more your confidence muscle will naturally strengthen. When you no longer undermine yourself with unhealthy habits, confidence can blossom from within.