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Are More Achievements the Way to Self-Confidence?

I saw someone on Instagram recently espousing a broken philosophy about how to develop self-confidence. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically they said:

If you’re struggling with self-confidence, don’t bother with affirmations or self-talk or anything like that. Just go out and achieve awesome things until you can no longer deny your own greatness.

This is one of the classic blunders of self-confidence. I’ve fallen into it, and I’ve seen many other people fall into it as well. The blunder is the idea that more achievements are the solution to low self-confidence. The thinking goes something like, “If I can just accomplish this one more thing, then I’ll feel good about myself.”

Now, I fully support the idea of going out and accomplishing things. Further, there is some truth to the idea that affirmations without accomplishments are not likely to be helpful. But, the idea that doing great things will magically cure your self-confidence problems is a fantasy. It’s a great fantasy to be sure, but it’s just a fantasy.

I know that when I hadn’t learned to acknowledge my accomplishments to myself in my self talk, I would tear down or invalidate them in ways that were completely destructive to my self-confidence. Further, many of us have an insidious tendency to move the goalposts: “Maybe that last accomplishment didn’t help me feel confident, but this next one surely will!”

I have a friend whose experience in this regard is really illustrative. In her late 30s, she decided to pursue her childhood dream and become a doctor. Her undergrad degree involved no science and math, so she had to start from high school math. Along the way, she would tell herself, “If I can just get into med school, then I’ll know that I’m good enough.” After several years of diligent study and practice, she was accepted — not just into any medical school, but into one of the top 20 med schools in the US.

But, did her self-talk change to acknowledge her accomplishment? No. There was a brief period of celebration, but then it changed back. The beginning of med school was really hard for her, and so her self-talk quickly changed to “Maybe they made a mistake when they admitted me and I don’t really deserve to be here. If I can graduate and get into a good residency, then I’ll know that I’m good enough.” She did in fact graduate, and then was accepted for residency — at a different top 20 school.

Did that magically make her acknowledge her accomplishments? No. The beginning of residency was also really hard for her, and her self-talk, again, changed to a different sort of negative. All through residency, she would compare herself to her fellow residents: “I’m not as smart as them, I didn’t go to as good a school as they did, so I don’t really belong here.” Along with those comparisons came—you guessed it—more low self-confidence.

When she finished residency, she was accepted for a fellowship — this time, at a top 5 school. In her current job, her supervisor and other people she works with (including the doctor who wrote the book in her field) have told her that they greatly appreciate and admire her work, that they want to groom her for a leadership role in her organization, and have asked her to take on additional responsibility by leading her team instead of just being a team member.

That is, quite frankly, an astonishing set of accomplishments:

  • graduated from a top-20 medical school;
  • finished a residency at a different top-20 medical school;
  • fellowship at a top-5 medical school;
  • praise and trust from icons in her field.

Although she has gotten much better at it, her self-talk still often involves invalidating or discrediting those accomplishments. So, like many of us, she still sometimes struggles with self-confidence—in spite of her long and impressive list of accomplishments.

My wife recently forwarded to me a quote in a newsletter where the author said “No amount of achievements or certifications has ever erased the self-doubt or insecurity I frequently feel.” This exactly matches my experience, and my friend’s, and the experience of basically everyone I’ve watched and helped over the years. Achievements, in and of themselves, don’t result in self-confidence.

What does result in self-confidence? Well, a few things. How we talk to ourselves about ourselves plays a major role in growing self-confidence. Most of us have limiting beliefs to some extent or another; how we confront those limiting beliefs also plays a major role in growing self-confidence. And, when we do succeed or accomplish things, how we acknowledge those successes and accomplishments is fundamental in growing self-confidence.

It’s true that it’s usually easier to build our self-confidence when we accomplish things. I’m not going to say that I’m opposed to accomplishments—I’ve got a few of them myself. But, if you’re struggling with self-confidence, it’s unlikely that one more accomplishment is going to be the thing that fixes you. How you talk to yourself and others about it just might.

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