Have you ever told yourself, “I’m never going to make it at this company” or “I’m hopeless at my job”? It’s quite normal. There’s very few people who have never been self-critical of their work. Having said that, a lack of self-confidence in the workplace can be a real barrier to valuing yourself fully and seizing the best opportunities. So, what are the roots of a lack of confidence? And what can you do to fight against it?
The origins of lack of self-confidence
According to the French psychiatrist Frédéric Fanget, who also wrote a self-help book on the subject, we are all capable of overcoming feelings of inadequacy. Informed by years of practicing as a psychotherapist, he explained, “Self-confidence is much more than a mere cog in our mental functioning; it is central to a pyramid that is, at its base, grounded on self-esteem—which is acquired from an early age—and which is externalised, at the top, by self-assertion. As such, it’s a fundamental part of our personality. If it runs out, then there is suffering.”
Self-confidence can be described as the image that individuals have of their own competency in reacting to any given situation. It is therefore linked to the beliefs or prejudices that people have towards themselves. Unfortunately, these preconceptions are not always well founded and can hinder personal development.
Negative beliefs are not only rooted in past experiences—and, in particular, failures—but also according to how people in authority, such as parents or teachers, reacted to those experiences. More importantly, such beliefs also depend on how the person receiving criticism reacts. For example, did a bad grade trigger remarks such as “You’ve really disappointed me!” or was it spoken of as something that you could work on to improve? Indeed, demeaning remarks about skills and abilities such as “You’re no good at this” or “You’ll never get there” can give negative beliefs the power they need to take over. They can batter self-image and often give rise to self-critical thoughts such as “I’m not able to…” or “I’m never good enough” or even “I need to feel like people love me.” Over time, these negative thought patterns concerning self-confidence will erode your ability to reach your potential.
While lack of confidence can be exacerbated in specific areas of life such as work, it is rarely confined to just one. People with a lack of self-confidence usually experience difficulties in a much wider sense. This is certainly the case for Caroline, 28, a project manager who says, “I’ve noticed that my lack of self-confidence isn’t just in the workplace, but in many areas of my life.”
Lack of self-confidence: what are the consequences?
A lack of self-confidence leads to negative emotions. They can involve fear (fear of failure or not being loved, for example), guilt (feeling that you’re always responsible when things don’t go the way you would have liked), shame or a sense of exclusion. These emotions provoke negative thoughts such as “I really suck” or “I missed out again”. These thoughts, in turn, will influence your overall behaviour. For example, if you feel fear, you may well adopt defensive behaviour patterns such as trying to plan everything up to the smallest detail, in an attempt to avoid unexpected things happening in your everyday life.
What’s the impact on your professional life?
At work, a lack of self-confidence can lead to repeated failures or exclusion, which can hinder professional development. Indeed, if you feel incapable of taking on new projects and new responsibilities, you are less likely to get ahead in the workplace. This is what Caroline went through in her previous job. She said, “I felt that every opportunity which was presented to me and could have helped me progress was too difficult for me and so I failed to take them on. During my first yearly performance review, my manager mentioned my lack of self-confidence. She said I wasn’t daring enough, that I should take more risks and put myself out there more. That’s when I realised that if I had more confidence, I could have done more. It was damaging my career progression.”
Lack of self-confidence often causes a sense of frustration or even anger because it prevents people from doing what they could or would like to do. It’s a truly vicious cycle: the accumulation of failures caused by a lack of self-confidence often only increases and worsens the core problem, as self-confidence issues are so closely related to the fear of failure. You might feel that attempting to avoid a potential failure by avoiding a task or issue might reduce your apprehension over it, but it also prevents you from experiencing a potential success that would help you in regaining self-confidence. Therefore, the more you avoid a subject or a situation, the more you’ll perceive it as a danger due to your failure to tackle it head-on.
Thus, if you lack self-confidence in the professional environment, you run the risk of adopting avoidance behaviours. As a result, you will likely overlook important responsibilities such as public speaking, managing sensitive files, proposing a project that you’re really enthusiastic aboutdefending your own opinions. Feeling insecure can really hinder you during the recruitment process as well, especially when it comes to “selling” yourself to others. It deprives you of the chance to get out of your comfort zone in order to embrace new opportunities that are offered to you.
Can you “cure” a lack of self-confidence?
The good news is that a lack of self-confidence is not an immutable state of affairs, but rather a dimension of your personality that can be worked on. Coaching or psychotherapy can be of great help with this, but there’s also other exercises that can, step by step, help you regain confidence in yourself. Here are a few.
1. (Re)learn to talk to yourself more positively
As mentioned, the beliefs or prejudices we have about ourselves are at the heart of the whole process of devaluation, as they keep us in a persistent mire of personal dissatisfaction. Therefore, it’s vital to (re)learn how to have a kinder and more positive internal discourse. For example, you can first stop the harsh self-criticism as soon as you do something that isn’t so great. Instead of reflexively thinking or saying, “I’m so stupid!” or “Well, I’m hopeless anyway”, you need to get your act together and make your speech more positive. Try imagining someone you love speaking this way to themselves in front of you. You would most likely try and help them put things into perspective and not let them talk about themselves like that. Well, you have to do the same for yourself. It’s often the case that we are more benevolent to others than we are to ourselves.
2. Accept your strengths and honestly acknowledge your weaknesses
Because no one has to be perfect in order to be valued or loved, it’s necessary to get to know yourself better. Taking stock of your resources, as well as their limits, helps in consolidating or rebuilding self-confidence. It’s then possible to make a list of your strengths and your weaknesses while trying to be as objective as possible. What can also help is noting down the positive compliments that people give to you. That’s because when you lack self-confidence, you tend to remember only the negative things and to ignore all the positive things people have said. Making note of the positive alongside the negative will give you a more balanced view.
3. Take the time to revisit past successes
Often when you lack self-confidence, it’s difficult to bear in mind your past successes. As a result, you might constantly doubt your skills. If you look back at those moments of success, however, you will remember you drew upon resources you didn’t know you had. What’s more, taking stock of everything you’ve done over the last few months can be an interesting exercise in and of itself. This can help make you aware of everything that you have done successfully but that you might have forgotten or minimised.
It’s best to correlate figures, such as “I’ve managed to reach my objective of new hires over the last three months: six project management profiles, four project manager profiles, etc.” For Caroline, meeting twice a month with her manager to take stock allowed her to realise everything she was able to achieve and the areas where she was really adding value: “Thanks to our fortnightly reviews, I realised that I was actually doing a lot of things. Taking stock like that really allowed me to see my progress and achievements and gain a little more confidence in myself.”
4. Strengthen your skills
Caroline got this advice from her manager: “Take one or two topics that interest you and invest the time in reading and learning about those areas. Sure, you won’t end up knowing everything, but your expertise will really improve.” And she put it into practice. She said, “With this advice, I gave myself the means to become an expert on certain subjects and to realise that it was easier to both trust myself and talk about myself.”
It’s true that strengthening your skills helps you feel more confident, since it begins to break down feelings of insecurity and ineptitude.
5. Talk about it and reach out if you need to
Talking about personal difficulties can often seem hard to do as it can make us feel vulnerable. But talking and engaging in self-work with a professional such as a psychologist, psychotherapist or coach can help us deconstruct our beliefs and overcome a lack of self-confidence. Moreover, a caring management team in the workplace can be a real support in building or rebuilding your sense of self-worth.
Self-confidence, especially at work, is a subject that concerns us all at some point in our lives. If you experience it after a professional failure such as being fired or a period of unemployment, it can also affect you in your day-to-day life. However, this outcome is not inevitable. It is always possible to work at (re)gaining self-confidence.
For Caroline, our interviewee, her own experience in her company allowed her to work on building self-confidence at work. Later, she was finally able to embark on a freelance project to “work on something that spoke to me, that made more sense to me. Ultimately, it was my own specific experiences and my questions about my ability to do things that allowed me to take the plunge.” So, why not take a cue from Caroline and dare to believe in yourself. It’s never too late
Translated by Andrea Schwam
More inspiration: Our relationship with work
The Abilene paradox: a challenge to strategic decision-making
Do you ever feel like a compromise was the wrong choice for both sides? Well, that situation has a name...
Oct 31, 2023
Where does the Material Girl fit into the modern workplace?
Thirty-five years after Working Girl hit the cinemas, what should we learn (or unlearn) from the rom-com classic?
Aug 07, 2023
How I discovered my ambition after 40
Our Lab expert Laetitia Vitaud explains how backward social norms have made “female ambition” a dirty phrase
Jun 28, 2023
9 to 5: Escaping the dream that 80s movies promised
From Working Girl and Wall Street to Top Gun, our in-house movie nut drills into how ‘80s classics reshaped the office
Jun 08, 2023
Enforced fun: Is it time to ditch team building?
As companies across the board vow to create more inclusive work environments, a conversation about team building is long overdue
Mar 09, 2023
The newsletter that does the job
Want to keep up with the latest articles? Twice a week you can receive stories, jobs, and tips in your inbox.
Looking for your next job opportunity?
Over 200,000 people have found a job with Welcome to the Jungle.Explore jobs