Self-Confidence Is Just Telling Yourself the Right Stories

If affirmations and self-love rituals all feel too earnest, the good news is you don’t need them to achieve a better self-image.

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I was preparing for an intense meeting recently and was so worried about it that the anxiety made my body ache and my stomach hurt. It also activated that negative voice in my head. The one that likes to remind me how I’m a failure, not living up to my own extremely high expectations, or makes me worry about what other people think of me.

I told my therapist about my thoughts and worries. She suggested I write out positive notes to myself on sticky notes and put them around my computer screen, a unique benefit to meetings being on Zoom. 

Cringe. I resisted immediately. I’m a psychiatrist myself. And like so many of my patients, I have never been one to fully jump into the concept of self-love (outside of listening to music like Miley Cyrus’s new song “Flowers,” on a particularly bad day). It often feels cheesy, silly, and not at all like me. 

“Pop culture has made the concept of self-love sort of consumerist and corny. Sheet masks, bubble baths, and vainly saying ‘I’m awesome’ in the mirror doesn't build sustainable self-esteem,” Maia Wise, a licensed independent clinical social worker and therapist at Wise Therapeutic Solutions, tells InStyle. Self-love is also abstract and doesn’t really have specific actions to take. According to Jaime Zuckerman, PsyD and licensed clinical psychologist, “It leaves us stuck in our heads thinking about trying to love ourselves without actually doing or changing anything.”

Sitting on your couch for 30 minutes trying to love yourself more by telling yourself to love yourself more is unlikely to produce any meaningful change. However, working in your garden for 30 minutes every Sunday because you value having a peaceful home is way more likely to create feelings of self-love.

Another roadblock? “I think people can be wary of the term because there is a concern that too much self-love can border on narcissism.” says Emily Mukherji, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. 

No one wants to be perceived as a narcissist for trying to care for themselves, but this feeling can be balanced if those acts are more in line with your values and mean something to you. Dr. Zuckerman asks patients to do a value assessment first and determine what matters to them personally — such as friendship, work, and athletics. “Sitting on your couch for 30 minutes trying to love yourself more by telling yourself to love yourself more is unlikely to produce any meaningful change,” she says. “However, working in your garden for 30 minutes every Sunday because you value having a peaceful home is way more likely to create feelings of self-love.”

I knew I didn't want my sticky notes for my meeting to feed my ego (“You are amazing!”) — or pretend my only value was working hard. I wondered, then, if there was a way to listen to my therapist’s advice without diving head-first into self-love. 

The answer? Self-compassion. Unlike the vaguer concept of self-love, Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, defines self-compassion as being focused on alleviating suffering. Love can be both positive and negative, she says, but passion comes from the Latin word meaning to suffer, so compassion helps particularly with the more painful things in our lives.

You don’t need to love yourself or ignore your pain, you need to recognize it and be nicer about it.

As a result, self-compassion is anything but toxic positivity — it’s about acknowledging our suffering and supporting ourselves through it. Dr. Neff explains, “You aren’t pretending things are other than they are … you’re actually enabling yourself to be able to turn towards [the negative] and work through [it].”

She explains that while self-compassion isn’t a magic pill, it is always available to help in the moment, even during moments of acute suffering. Dr. Neff adds, “If you’re in a battle, if you’re an ally to yourself, clearly you’re going to cope better than if you’re an enemy, shaming yourself or being harsh with yourself … You don’t need to love yourself or ignore your pain, you need to recognize it and be nicer about it.” 

In other words, instead of sucking it up and ignoring negative emotions or blaming ourselves for them, we need to first try telling ourselves that this is hard right now. It can be helpful to notice and name our thoughts and emotions. Dr. Zuckerman says this can allow us to separate our thoughts from facts. She recommends we look at our critical thoughts simply as “just passing words and not buying into their meaning.” 

If we feel we did something wrong or are a bad person, we have to try to challenge that belief, Dr. Mukherji says. In these situations, it’s important to draw on the relationships where we are naturally more caring than we are with ourselves. 



The relationships can be with our friends, a child, or even a pet, Dr. Neff adds. She advises people to think, “What would I say or do to this other person I care about? And that's kind of a template for what you might say or do for yourself.” 

Of course, you might not catch and change your thoughts every time, but it helps to start to notice them. Dr. Neff points to intentional self-compassion breaks as one way to do this, focusing on the three components of self-compassion: “That you’re mindful about your suffering, you’re kind and supportive towards yourself, and you feel connected to others.” If it feels hard to start with your thoughts or feelings, physical touch can also help. Dr. Neff calls it a “strong signal of compassion” and points to research that shows it decreases our fight-or-flight response. All you have to do is put your hands on your heart or face and breathe. Dr. Neff says this is a gesture to “let your body know that you’re there for you.”  

If this all still feels a bit woo-woo to you, know that self-compassion has significant health benefits. Dr. Neff points to more than 5,000 research articles that have been written on everything from the benefits to stress, anxiety, and depression, in addition to relationships and physical health (many written by her and her research group). Practicing self-compassion can also help us feel less alone. Studies show this to be true during the pandemic, when many of us felt isolated. “Plus, it can make life more enjoyable if you aren't constantly criticizing yourself or second-guessing yourself,” Dr. Mukherji adds. 

Still, and perhaps not surprising, we find ways to judge ourselves about our self-compassion. Pooja Lakshmin, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and founder and CEO of Gemma and the author of Real Self-Care, says, “You have to be compassionate with your self-compassion. Meaning, expect to fall off the wagon and have days where you forget to be kind and generous to yourself. Even with the practice of self-compassion, we are not aiming for perfection.” It also takes time, like years, to be good at it.

Ultimately, I put my trust in my therapist and wrote down words on a few different sticky notes to acknowledge and challenge my negative thoughts in the moment. I wasn’t overly positive, I was realistic. “You might be stressed or anxious, but you can handle it,” I wrote. “This sucks, but you got this.”

I might not have loved myself at the moment, but I didn’t hate myself, either. To my surprise, it helped. I hope it helps you, too.

You don't have to buy into the parts of self-love that make you roll your eyes or laugh, but you can recognize it for what it can and can't do. In moments of suffering, turn to self-compassion instead. As Wise points out, “You can treat yourself to bubble baths, date nights, and vacations, but what counts is how you speak to yourself in moments of distress, sadness, or worry.” I couldn’t agree more.

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