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I wrote yesterday about how we present ourselves to others. I said “Update your canned responses with something that truly represents who you are or what you aspire to be.” I didn’t add, “… and that you believe”.

One of the big problems with the inspirational, self-esteem boosting rhetoric we hear so much of, is that it is usually aimed at getting us to change our beliefs about ourselves.

This has been going on for 30 years or more and it has done a lot of good for a lot of people. BUT, the research shows that trying to get people to change their beliefs about themselves by simply telling them how good they are or filling their heads with affirmations and mantras, doesn’t generally work.

Confidence boosting like this is OK as long as you already have a fairly positive attitude about your abilities, but if you are low in self-esteem and confidence, inspirational talk can actually make you feel more alienated and more of a failure.The distance from where you feel you are to where the inspiring talk wants you to be is simply too great, and it seems unachievable.

If you thoughts tell you something like “I’m a useless waste of space and my efforts only lead to failure”, that’s a powerful belief, and probably one that is born out by experience. Of course I believe that you can ‘change a thought to change a belief’, but it has to be done in the right way, and for some people, asking them to do this is simply a step too far.

I have found – in therapy, training and in my own life – that learning by experience counts for more than inspiration and facile encouragement. Attempts at confidence boosting by simply telling someone they special doesn’t work. Please note that I am not saying we should not support and boost others. We should, especially with those who need it (including our children). But to hope that will be enough for them to flourish, is false.

We learn by seeing the results of our own efforts, and that includes dealing with the slings and arrows of misfortune (to misquote somebody or other). Belief is primarily built on experience, and talk, however supportive and silver-tongued, can’t replace that.

See also

Baumeister, R., et al: Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?

Amy Cuddy: How Posture Affects Confidence

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