What does it mean to “believe in yourself”?


For most of my life I have heard the words… “You just need to believe in yourself!”

It didn’t seem to matter who uttered these words, whether it was a sport psychologist, a teacher, a co-worker, a coach or a friend, I just kept hearing the same message. It’s not that I necessarily disagreed with them or that I didn’t want to believe in myself, I just couldn’t quite get my head wrapped around what that meant! As an athlete, I would continue to struggle through the pressures of a big game, and at work I would struggle when someone was being overly critical and expectations were high.

If you Google what it means to believe in yourself, there are answers like “being trustworthy with yourself and to others”, or “being okay with making mistakes”. Collins Dictionary defines it as “confidence in oneself and one’s abilities”. Wiki How says to believe in yourself you must do three things: “nurture positive views, talk to people who love you, and find a cause that you believe in”.

This still wasn’t all that helpful so I started asking people in my life to define what it meant to believe in yourself. I was given answers such as “having confidence in yourself”, “knowing you are going to be okay even though you may fail” or “embracing what is unique to us and being okay with being different”.

I also heard things like “that’s a hard question”, “those words don’t really resonate with me” or “I don’t know”.

So I then asked a second question, “What kind of qualities do people with self confidence display?” This time I received slightly more insightful answers like quiet confidence, smarter than me, stronger than me, determined, humble, risk takers, not people pleasers, trail blazers and intuitive.

It has been my experience that “believe in yourself” is a ubiquitous phrase that we often use with each other, read about in many different contexts or hear said on television but it is difficult to dissect what it really means.

Then I discovered Dr. Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion (selfcompassion.org) and it all started to click for me. Dr. Neff has been researching self-compassion for many years and she has found that it can be helpful with managing many aspects of the human experience, including belief in oneself.

She describes self-compassion as having three components:
1. Self-Kindness – Talking to ourselves like we would talk to a friend.
2. Common Humanity – The recognition that we are connected with others, who have had similar experiences and that challenges in life are part of the human experience.
3. Mindfulness – Acknowledging our experience rather than ignoring or overreacting to it.

Charles Horton Cooley, a well-known sociologist from the early twentieth century, proposed that self-worth stems from our perception of how others see us. Dr. Neff says that “self-compassion does not try to capture and define the worth or essence of who we are. It is not a thought or a label or a judgment or an evaluation. Instead, self-compassion is a way of relating to the mystery of who we are.” She goes on to say that “when our sense of self worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect, rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals, our sense of self worth is much less easily shaken.”

This is the piece, in my opinion, that we miss when we try to talk to people about believing in ourselves. It’s not ever going to come from something anyone says or anything we accomplish until we intrinsically believe we are worthy. How do we intrinsically believe it? It’s not just a thing that you decide you want and then you snap your fingers and you have it, it’s hard work and it takes practice and is a process that starts with being kinder and gentler with ourselves every day. It’s about giving ourselves a break when we screw up, because everyone screws up. It’s about acknowledging how hard life can be sometimes when we are in a pressure cooker and managing other’s expectations of us. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves about what we perceive others are thinking about us.

According to Dr. Neff, “When we give ourselves compassion, the tight knot of negative self-judgment starts to dissolve, replaced by a feeling of peaceful, connected acceptance”. I believe that is the place where we start to figure out what it really means to believe in oneself.

Self-compassion for me was the bridge that allowed me to move “believe in yourself” from a concept in my head to a knowing in my heart. It was the light that came on that enabled me to see my own strengths so that I no longer had to feel intimidated by how much better I perceived others to be around me. It was the volume button that appeared which allowed me to finally turn down all the outside voices so I could hear my own.

So now the next time I hear that nagging voice in my head when I am contemplating doing something that feels scary, I am going to say to myself… “Maybe I don’t have the ability, maybe I will fail and maybe it will be painful, but this is part of the human experience in which I choose to participate. I will continue to learn, see the strengths in myself and others, and no matter what I know that I will be okay.” Then I will go for it… with a better understanding of what it means to “believe in yourself”.