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How Do You Fix Low Self-confidence? 4 Steps To Overcome Low Self-esteem

Updated: Jul 25, 2023


From business leaders and executives, to students, teachers and parents; from shop workers to scientists, people come to me seeking personal and professional development coaching. They tell me they want to be able to speak up in public, be clearer when presenting at work, constructively criticise or debate in meetings, and build the emotional and relational skills they need to get ahead in their career or live their best life.

However, quite often, what we actually end up working on is their self-esteem. In fact, increasingly the people I work with have one thing in common; they suffer from confidence-related anxiety.

In this article I discuss what we mean by self-confidence and self-esteem; how low self-confidence can impact your life and work; how it develops and keeps you stuck; how you can break the cycle of self-doubt, and explain how you can rebuild your self-confidence and self-esteem in four clear steps. Whilst it can be influenced by a number of different variables, the key thing to know is that self-esteem is not fixed and can be developed.

What is self-confidence?

Self-confidence is made up of several parts. They refer to different aspects of the way you view yourself, the thoughts you have about yourself and the value you place on yourself, but each has a slightly different and subtle meaning.

'Self-image', 'self-concept' and 'self-perception' all refer to the overall picture you have of yourself. 'Self-acceptance', 'self-worth', 'self-respect' and 'self-esteem' reflect the things you believe you can or cannot do, your overall opinion of yourself and your sense of worth. Lastly, 'self-efficacy' relates to your belief in your ability to succeed in a specific situation or accomplish a certain task.

As well as describing a range of personal characteristics, the tone of them may be positive (e.g. 'I am good at...', 'I am kind') or negative (e.g. 'I am bad at...', 'I am useless'). When the tone is positive, you are likely to have broadly healthy self-confidence and when negative, low self-confidence.

In this article, self-confidence is used to describe the overall picture you have of yourself and your capability, while self-esteem is used to describe the overall sense of value, worth, approval, pride and appreciation you have for yourself.

Low self-confidence is often caused by self-doubt, low self-esteem or overthinking worries about other people's opinions and actions.

What is the impact of low self-confidence and low self-esteem?

Low self-confidence/self-esteem is expressed in many ways and you have probably spotted some clues in other people you have met. It might have been in the way they talked about themselves (overly self-critical or apologetic), or avoided talking about themselves (quiet, shy or anxious), or in their body language and emotions (tiredness, tension, anxiety, shame, hopelessness, frustration, and anger).

However it presents itself, low self-confidence impacts many aspects of life, which then feeds into even lower self-esteem. It can seriously affect performance at work, through the avoidance of challenges or obsessive perfectionism and fear of failure, leading to less pay, fewer opportunities and career stagnation.

It might also impact your personal relationships through increased sensitivity, self-consciousness, or people pleasing; putting you at risk of manipulation by others. Or maybe you put on a front and pretend to be someone else. Either way you are likely to find this exhausting and frustrating.

As well as exhaustion, you may experience trouble sleeping (caused by anxiety), changes to your concentration and a low mood. It is worth mentioning that these are also signs of depression when present consistently (over two weeks or more), so it may also be worth speaking to your GP if you think you might be experiencing this.

How does low self-confidence develop?

At the heart of self-confidence lies your core beliefs about yourself and the kind of person you are. However, although these beliefs often look and feel like facts, or truths, they are in fact just opinions. They are taken from conclusions you have made about yourself based on your experiences, and the messages you have received about the kind of person you are (or aren't).

But, as you know, opinions can be mistaken, biased or just wrong! From a cognitive behavioural perspective, it can help to explore the in-grained rules and beliefs you have developed based on your experiences (which can be rooted in childhood/adolescence). They are often related to failing to meet other people's expectations, being the 'odd one out', being bullied or lack of care or affection.

What is the vicious cycle of low self-esteem?

Despite your negative beliefs about yourself being rooted in the past, their impact still continues today. If you have low self-confidence, your everyday patterns of thinking and behaviour keep you stuck there, preventing you from accepting, valuing or appreciating yourself.

In her 2016 book 'Overcoming Low Self-esteem', Melanie Fennell explains that negative self belief leads to the development of a set of 'rules' that you feel you must obey in order to feel comfortable with yourself. When you find yourself in a situation in which you break your 'rules' (or worry that you might have broken them), your negative beliefs about yourself are triggered and the vicious cycle (See Figure 1).

For example, one of your 'rules' is 'you should only ever be nice to people or you will be disliked'. After a difficult conversation at work (trigger), you worry that you might have offended someone (activation of 'rules', uncertainty and negative predictions). This leads to rumination and over-analysing the conversation, building your anxiety and disrupting your life. This then confirms your negative beliefs that you aren't a good person / not worthy / disliked etc., whether you actually offended them or not. (Most likely not.)

Trigger situations can be major life events, such as relationship break downs, new job, losing your job, empty-nest syndrome etc., but it's actually the day-to-day, small-scale situations that can create the most self-doubt. Noticing them and tuning into the language you are using (e.g. 'pull yourself together', 'now look what you've done', 'you're such an idiot') is a great first step!

How can I break the cycle of self-doubt?

If you have low self-confidence, your everyday patterns of negative thinking and behaviour keep you stuck there, preventing you from accepting, valuing or appreciating yourself.

It is worth mentioning that overcoming this is not an easy process; which is why working with a professional coach or therapist is most effective.

However, by choosing to make a start and then keep trying, you can learn how to become aware of your anxious predictions and self-critical thinking and how to treat yourself with kindness and respect.

The strategy I use with my clients is to help them learn to ACT; increase Awareness, Challenge negative thoughts, and Try new thoughts and behaviours. Read on to find out more about my four step process to break the cycle of self-doubt and build self-confidence and self-esteem.

How can I build my self-confidence?

Step 1. Identify anxious predictions and negative thoughts

If you find yourself in situations where your 'rules' might be / have been broken, you are likely to experience anxiety in the form of spiralling negative thoughts (predictions) and self-criticism. The self-criticism occurs because you feel your negative beliefs about yourself have been confirmed by your experience. People with low self-esteem are often very hard on themselves, which feeds the cycle by triggering feelings of guilt, shame, depression and embarrassment.

To overcome this, you need to learn to identify when you are experiencing a negative thought or enacting in self-criticism. Learn the type of thought by downloading my free guide to common automatic negative thoughts here.

Awareness - Catch the thoughts when they happen. Closely observe and record what is going on. Are you overestimating the negatives? Or underestimating your personal resources? What unnecessary precautions are you taking? What kind of thoughts are they? Be aware of mood changes, thought patterns such as sweeping statements or 'shoulds', body sensations such as tension or behaviour patterns such as avoiding people.

Challenge - Step back and question unhelpful thoughts instead of accepting them. Examine the evidence that supports or contradicts them & search for more realistic perspectives. Ask yourself; What is the evidence? Am I confusing a thought with fact? Am I assuming my perspective is the only one? What is the effect of these thoughts? What are the biases in my thinking? Am I being fair to myself?

Try - Use direct experience to check if a new perspective will be more helpful. Take a risk & try facing a situation you would normally avoid & drop all unnecessary precautions. Experiment with being kinder to yourself and valuing your strengths, as you would those of a friend. Search for a more balanced and healthy perspective of yourself.

Step 2. Build self-acceptance and positive self-talk When you have low self-esteem, negative bias in your perception means that you are unable to identify your good points. The same bias in your interpretation makes it hard for you to see yourself in anything other than a negative light, making it hard to accept and value yourself for who you are.

Add in the social bias towards not 'boasting' or 'bragging' about your gifts and virtues, means that you probably feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when thinking about yourself in a positive way. You may also be afraid that someone might question you or 'call you out' and deny the compliment.

Awareness - The first step is to really get to know yourself. To learn to recognise your strengths, skills, values, and talents - start by making a list. It is typical for unhelpful thoughts to pop up during this process, but think about the challenges you have faced and the things you have achieved, no matter how small. What are you discounting?

Challenge - This time, instead of challenging your thoughts, you are going to challenge yourself to recreate and visualise the times you remember demonstrating those qualities. Experience it as vividly as possible in your mind, including who you were with, what you sensed, what emotions you experienced. Notice what effect this has on your mood and practice dismissing that 'yes, but' voice.

Try - Turn this awareness into an everyday event by recording examples of these positive moments daily and including as much detail as possible. Which of these moments were 'pleasure' and which were 'achievements'? Have a go at planning activities that bring pleasure or achievement and use the skills learned above to challenge the negative thought patterns and achieve the desired effect.

Step 3 - Create and test new brave rules

Your 'rules' are usually formed from experience and observation in your early adolescence, and are designed to help you survive in life based on your certainty that your negative self-beliefs are true. But rather than help you survive, they keep you stuck, hold you back and prevent you from accepting who you truly are.

To change them, you need to build your Awareness of your current 'rules' and self-beliefs, Challenge them and Try out some new rules.

Awareness - What beliefs do you have about yourself? Evidence might be present in your self-critical thoughts, the language you use to talk about yourself, your personal history, your fears or worries, or your assumptions. Try to find the one defining self-belief that you believe to be 100% true. Among your beliefs, check for personal rules that reflect what you expect of yourself, and rules as to what you believe is acceptable or not allowed from other people. Are your standards higher than you would expect from someone else? Look for assumptions (If's or Unless), drivers (Should, Must, Ought), judgments (what exactly do you mean by 'awful'?), and themes in your worries, self-critical thoughts, memories or family sayings. Where did the rules come from?

Challenge - As soon as you have found your key negative self-belief, start to work on a new one right away by examining the 'evidence' that supports it. Think about how else this evidence could be understood. Are you being fair to the other person, or yourself? What other reasons might there be for their behaviour? How fair is it to judge yourself based on past mistakes or failures? What rule have you created around this belief? Ask yourself, in what ways is this rule unreasonable? What are the advantages and disadvantages of following the rule? What would be a more realistic and helpful rule?

Try - Change will take time. You need to tackle the old rule when it pops up and experiment with the new rule, acknowledging that it may feel uncomfortable at first. Make a list of clear, specific evidence to look for that supports your new belief and take part in new activities that give you the opportunity to be successful.

Step 4 - Reimagine your future

Even if you have been hugely successful at tackling your anxious thoughts and negative self-beliefs so far, unless you continue to practice what you have learned, you run the risk of going back to your old learned habits.

Creating an action plan will help you continue putting what you have learned into practice and help you stay centred when old unhelpful thoughts crop up.

Awareness - Start by thinking about how you could build on what you have learned. Are there any areas that you would benefit from exploring further? Are there any situations in which you continue to feel anxious? How could you make a step by step plan to tackle them? How will you continue to develop your ability to spot and challenge self-defeating thoughts or behaviours? What clues will tell you your old negative self-beliefs are back in play?

Challenge - Use the 5 Why's to define your goal and then SMART to create your plan:

S - Is it Simple and Specific enough?

M - Is it Measurable? How will you know you have achieved it? What new habits will be in place?

A - Is it Acknowledged? Have you considered the impact on other people? Do they understand what you are trying to achieve? How have you prepared for any negative reactions?

R - Is it Realistic? Have you taken into account your current mental and physical state? Your time, financial or other commitments? Where you can gain support?

T - Is the Timescale reasonable? What's your priority? How much time can you commit each week to working on this? Where do you want to be after 3 months? Or 6 months? How frequently will you review your progress?

Try - Make sure you look at your plan every day and keep it in a safe, easily accessible place. Change only happens with effort and awareness, so be mindful of your progress and seek a champion to help you when you feel like giving up!


In my experience, low self-confidence seems to be a growing issue among all ages and professions across society. Many people experience the impact of low self-confidence in both their work and personal lives and the vicious cycle keeps people stuck in a spiral of self-doubt and low self-esteem.

By following my four step process, you can learn to increase Awareness, Challenge negative thoughts, and Try new thoughts and behaviours. This helps you start to develop the psychological skills you need to overcome negative thoughts and predictions, build self-acceptance and positive self-talk, gain the courage to test out new rules and begin to imagine a more confident future.

Remember, working with a qualified professional coach is proven to be a highly effective strategy to create positive change in your mindset and behaviour. To find out how I could help you overcome your self-doubt and build confidence and self-esteem book a free, no-obligation discovery call today by clicking the button below.


If you want to find out more about me and how I use positive psychology and coaching in my own life, sign up to my weekly e-newsletter 'The Key to Wellbeing'. In it I share research-based tips, strategies and resources that you can apply to your work and home life to create balance, connection, resilience and confidence. Sign up using the button below.


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