What Is Self-Confidence?
Jessica Gutowitz November 17, 2021
- The Importance of Self-Confidence
- What Causes Low Self-Confidence?
- Effects of Low Self-Confidence
- Self-Confidence and Gender
- Confidence-Building Exercises and Practices
What is self-confidence? According to Krista White of the University of Nevada, this term refers to a person’s belief in their skills and abilities.1 Although some scholars use the term interchangeably with related ideas, such as self-concept, self-esteem, and self-certainty, others suggest it is distinct.1 The scientific literature on the topic considers the former terms to be personality traits with high temporal stability, meaning they are likely to remain constant regardless of the scenario. In contrast, self-confidence fluctuates over time and across situations.1 For example, a doctor’s self-confidence may be high while performing surgery but low in a pottery class.
The Importance of Self-Confidence
Self-confidence affects many aspects of one’s life, including their emotions, motivations, success, and achievement.2 Two pertinent areas in which we see this across age groups are academia and sports.3,4 For instance, research has shown that self-confidence among school-aged children can affect not just their immediate academic success but also their future potential; students with high self-confidence and self-efficacy are more likely to engage in tasks that will help them develop knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as show effort and persistence when faced with challenging tasks.3 Other studies have shown that students with high self-confidence put forth greater effort in their schoolwork and use deep cognitive and metacognitive processing strategies more often than students with low self-confidence.5
Self-confidence is also integral for students and adults who wish to be successful in athletic endeavors. In a study from 2011, researchers from the University of Tehran asked 246 Iranian athletes to complete the Multidimensional Competitive Anxiety Questionnaire and the Sport Self-Efficacy Scale and asked their coaches to complete the Sport Achievement Scale. The study found that high self-confidence was correlated with low competitive anxiety and high sports performance.4
What Causes Low Self-Confidence?
People begin to develop attitudes and practices related to self-confidence during early childhood—in fact, researchers from the University of Washington found demonstrable self-confidence in children as young as 5 years old.6 Social interactions and everyday activities can profoundly shape how a child’s self-confidence develops. As a result, people who lack regular access to experiences and activities with clearly defined goals and the means to achieve them may struggle to build self-confidence, especially in play and motor skill development.3
A lack of solid self-concept (a clear understanding of one’s identity) may also contribute to low self-confidence.7 Self-concept includes self-knowledge (“Who am I?”) and self-evaluation (“How do I feel about who I am?”).7 Professors of psychology Jennifer D. Campbell and Loraine F. Lavallee of the University of British Columbia and the University of Northern British Columbia, respectively, posit that people with a clear, stable self-concept are more likely to have consistently positive beliefs about themselves and high self-confidence because they have “positive, well-articulated” views of themselves. In contrast, they argue that those with self-views that are laden with uncertainty, instability, and inconsistency are more likely to have low self-confidence.7
Underdeveloped social skills can also contribute to low self-confidence. People who lack social skills or feel shy or unable to interact with others easily may feel increased social anxiety or decreased self-confidence in social situations.8
Some research suggests that confidence can be biological; researchers have found that being born with or without specific genes associated with higher self-belief levels can cause high or low self-confidence.9 Perfectionism can also affect self-confidence—perfectionists often have lower self-esteem than nonperfectionists.10 Finally, social media can cause low self-confidence because of users’ tendency toward upward social comparisons.11
Effects of Low Self-Confidence
Low self-confidence can affect many aspects of a person’s life and mental health. It is a predictor of some mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety, and can even affect a person’s overall decision making and motivation.12,13
Researchers suggest that low self-confidence is associated with depression. Having a negative attitude toward oneself can leave a person vulnerable to depressive symptoms. Those whose self-confidence depends on external factors—like others’ opinions of them or their performance—may battle feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy when critiqued, even kindly. Additionally, people with low self-confidence are likely to attribute their failures to unchanging qualities, such as their overall incompetence, rather than a specific failure or lack.12 Such negative feelings about oneself can cause depression.12
A longitudinal study published in 2014 used the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale to monitor adolescents’ global (general) and domain-specific (specific to a particular scenario) self-confidences between the ages of 12 and 16. When the participants turned 16, the researchers used the Beck Depression Inventory to measure their depressive symptoms. The researchers then measured depressive symptoms again when the participants were 35 years old. They found that low self-confidence in adolescence is a predictor of depressive symptoms in adulthood.12
People with low self-confidence may have greater levels of anxiety than those with high self-confidence. In a 2014 study, nursing students completed questionnaires and scales assessing self-confidence and anxiety. The researchers found that high self-confidence was correlated with low anxiety; those who were confident in their decisions in a clinical setting generally experienced less anxiety.13
In another study, conducted in 2011, researchers asked 68 competitive basketball players to complete measures of self-esteem, anxiety, self-confidence, and claimed self-handicapping (i.e., acting in ways to sabotage their success) and then asked them to warm up and compete in basketball related tasks. The researchers found that high self-confidence was associated with low levels of anxiety as well as low levels of self-handicapping.14
When people lack self-confidence, they tend to find it challenging to make decisions, especially high-risk or irreversible decisions, like changing one’s job or making a large purchase.15 In 2012, researchers from the National Chung Cheng University and the National Teaching University of Education, both based in Taiwan, found that uncertainty is negatively correlated with self-confidence—when the outcome of a decision is more uncertain, the decision maker exhibits less self-confidence.15
Self-confidence can also protect against market pressure, for example, from advertisements and salespeople. Modern marketing and advertising campaigns aim to convince consumers of their lack and encourage them to expend resources to fill that lack and prevent others from noticing it. Those with high self-confidence, however, feel less pressure to conform.15
Self-confidence can also alter one’s susceptibility to the compromise effect.15 The compromise effect holds that most consumers will choose a “middle” option over a set of products that includes more extreme options.16 A 2012 study found that the compromise effect has a stronger hold over people with low self-confidence because they are more uncertain when making decisions.15
Self-confidence can play a role in one’s level of personal motivation. One of the core tenets of motivation theory is that ability and effort are complementary, and, therefore, low self-confidence negatively affects one’s ability to act.17 Because of this, those who want to improve their performance and motivation may need to build self-confidence. Roland Bénabou of Princeton University and Jean Tirole of Toulouse Capitole University, economics professors with focuses in psychology, wrote that low self-confidence makes it difficult to persevere when faced with obstacles and set ambitious goals.17
Self-Confidence and Gender
Gender has an effect on overall self-confidence: women tend to have lower self-confidence than men.8 For example, in the 2014 study on anxiety discussed above, researchers found that, compared to female nursing students, male nursing students had higher self-confidence and therefore, lower levels of anxiety and increased ability to make clinical decisions.13
Research has shown that a discrepancy between the number of women and men in academic leadership roles in South Africa may affect—or even create—a gendered confidence gap in the country.18 Researchers in a recent 2020 study examined 74 academic managers to determine the accuracy of their self-perception, as assessed by an average of nine and a half external raters through a questionnaire. The researchers found that those with a highly accurate self-perception were characterized to have high self-confidence. The researchers found that although the female and male leaders were perceived as having comparable effectiveness by the raters, the women tended to underestimate their capabilities significantly, relative to the men, and thus have inaccurate perceptions of themselves.18
Notably, in a 1991 study concerning cheerleading, women exhibited more confidence than men when performing female-typed or traditionally female-dominated tasks, specifically cheerleading. Researchers—including Diane L. Gill of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Department of Kinesiology—asked men and women to complete questionnaires about their self-confidence in cheerleading tasks, broken down into cheers and motions, partner stunts, jumps, tumbling, and cheerleading dance. The findings showed that women reported higher self-confidence in cheers and motions, jumps, and cheerleading dance, and men and women reported equal self-confidence in partner stunts and tumbling.19
In another study published in 2016, researchers discovered that knowledge of and comfort with gender identity might also affect self-confidence levels. Researchers asked 127 transgender people, recruited from different parts of the United States via social media, to fill out the Career Decision Self-Efficacy (CDSE) form to determine their confidence levels in career decision making before and after transitioning. The study found that the participants displayed higher levels of self-confidence and self-efficacy after transitioning. The researchers explain this by noting that identity development throughout the transition process likely helps transgender people develop understanding and awareness about themselves that translates into their careers.20
Confidence-Building Exercises and Practices
People with low self-confidence can work toward developing better self-confidence. Here are some methods and exercises that can be effective.
Believing in oneself is an important component of self-confidence. Self-confidence is not necessarily related to one’s actual, real-life skills, but rather to how one perceives themself and their skills. Self-perception can be biased; many perfectly competent people have low self-confidence because they see themselves as incompetent. Nursing students, for example, who have high self-confidence, do so because they believe in their ability to achieve their goals and overcome obstacles. Shifting one’s perspective from self-doubt to self-belief can have a significant effect on their self-confidence.21 Some ways to cultivate self-belief include:22
- remembering past successes
- trusting oneself
- practicing supportive self-talk
- forgiving yourself for past mistakes
Keeping a journal can be a helpful tool for many people with mental health conditions, and journaling can help people develop self-confidence. For instance, someone with low self-confidence might find it helpful to keep a daily log of everything they accomplished or “did right” that day. Focusing on and tracking one’s successes can help an individual recognize their skills and capabilities and increase their self-confidence.21
Setting manageable goals can help set people up for success. The more successful experiences someone has, the more their self-confidence will increase. However, unattainable goals risk setting people up for failure. Even lofty goals can help build confidence if they include clearly outlined and achievable steps toward the final goal.23 “SMART” goals are an excellent way to start. This idea advocates for setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.24
Affirmations, or repeated positive self-suggestions or mantras, can also help develop self-confidence.23 For example, the affirmations “I am confident” and “I am capable” can foster self-belief. Affirmations can help people concentrate on the qualities they want to embody. Additionally, by using affirmations to bolster one’s self-confidence and self-belief, people can become more resilient to failures; the affirmations can act as a buffer against failure and challenging obstacles.23,25
Practicing self-acceptance, or the idea of being satisfied with oneself despite shortcomings and regrets can bolster self-confidence.23,26 Accepting one’s faults can help a person avoid damaging their self-confidence when confronted with them. Accepting oneself for who one is can also induce happiness and contentment, as it alleviates feelings of self-hatred.23
Mindfulness, a state of awareness, reflection, and contemplation, can be a helpful tool to release tension and stress.23,27 Mindfulness and mindful breathing techniques can allow awareness of the body’s responses and sensations, making it easier to manage emotions. Releasing stress and focusing on one’s feelings can help bring awareness to and foster self-confidence.23 Studies have shown that mindfulness meditations, like Shaktipat meditation, can improve self-confidence.28
Self-confidence is an essential aspect of everyone’s day-to-day life. It influences achievement, social interactions, work, and more. Those with low self-confidence can engage in simple exercises and practices to continue developing their self-confidence even as adults. Those who struggle with their self-confidence might consider some additional reading on the topic.