Self-confidence is something we all struggle with. And it’s something that, for a good portion of my life, has truly eluded me. Of course, we’d all love to be self-confident all the time — or at least appear to be! But of course, that’s not really what happens. There are always going to be moments in our lives when our self-confidence is lacking. So what is self-confidence, and how can we nurture more of it in ourselves? To answer these questions, I recently sat down with Dr. Aaliya Yaqub. She’s the Chief Medical Officer at Thrive, she leads Thrive workshops on well-being and mental health, and, last — but not least important — she’s also a mother of four.
Jen: Welcome, Aaliya.
Aaliya: Thank you, Jen. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and something I work on every day with my kids.
Jen: Let’s start by defining our terms, because self-confidence is something that’s different from arrogance, and even from self-esteem.
Aaliya: Self-confidence is your authentic belief in yourself and your own abilities. So it’s not really something you can necessarily fake. I know we say, ‘fake it until you make it’ just so we can get by, but real self-confidence has to authentically come from within. That impacts how you talk to yourself in your head, where your mind goes when you’re thinking about your own abilities, and how you’re thinking about your goals and achieving them.
That’s different from self-esteem, which is more feelings of self worth. That’s associated with guilt and somewhat related to how you were brought up and the experiences you had during childhood. And then of course, arrogance is on the opposite end of the spectrum. None of us want to be arrogant or cocky, like a peacock showing their feathers saying, ‘look at me, I’m so amazing!’ We want to stay away from that.
Jen: So some people who show arrogance may or may not actually be self-confident.
Aaliya: Yes, those can be related, but they can also be independent of one another. Sometimes people who are arrogant or cocky are actually full of insecurity and have low self- confidence.
Jen: So let’s talk why self-confidence is important to life-work integration. In my own life, self-confidence shows up in how confident I feel in setting and communicating my own boundaries, especially in the workplace, but also with family and friends.
Aaliya: I think many of us have realized we have to be able to bring our whole selves to work. There is no longer that veneer of, ‘I show up to work and everything happening in my personal life stays outside.’ We’re showing up every day as whole humans, and, like you said, those boundaries are important. So if you don’t feel empowered enough or have genuine belief in your abilities, you’re not going to show up and say, ‘Hey, this is what I need: I need to be able to turn off my email in the evening because I have to spend time with my family. I’m not going to be able to take on everything that’s thrown my way, so I’m going to ask the people around me for help when I need it.’
That’s crucial to our well-being. And if we can’t speak up for ourselves, it becomes really difficult to manage. So I love that you brought up boundaries.
Jen: I think a lot people think the idea of needing to ask for help isn’t actually self-confidence, but it is, right? Like raising your hand and saying, ‘I can’t do all of this,’ or ‘I need help.’ But some people — and perhaps even myself several years ago — would’ve believed that asking for help or saying I can’t do something is weak or not self-confident.
Aaliya: Absolutely. We’ve all been there. In my early twenties, I was in a new relationship, I was about to have a baby, I was finishing my training and I thought, ‘gosh, I have all these responsibilities — I have to somehow do it all.’ We place that burden on ourselves.
It was actually when colleague spoke to me that I had this aha moment. It was Dr. Harvey Karp, who many know as a very renowned pediatrician. He said everywhere in the world throughout history for the last hundreds and thousands of years, parents have known that it takes a village to raise kids. But somehow in Western society, we think it’s acceptable and normal for two humans to be raising a child all on their own and juggling all of these professional pursuits.
So I thought to myself, you know what, he’s absolutely right. Not only does it take a village to raise a child, it takes a village for you to thrive. Whether you’re a parent or not, you need to be able to raise your hand and say, ‘I need help.’ No matter what part of our lives we’re talking about, but especially in the workplace. I think people often drown silently and that’s related to self-confidence. If you’re confident and you really believe in your abilities, then it’s not weak to ask for help.
Jen: If we don’t feel self-confident or have those beliefs in ourselves, how does that affect our overall mental health and well-being? What are the dangers of not feeling self-confidence?
Aaliya: It manifests in so many different ways. People are less likely to reach out and create social connections when they’re not feeling confident or feeling social anxiety, which has been an issue during the pandemic with more loneliness and less social connection. But it also manifests if you have a predisposition to be depressed or have anxiety.
Jen: So if we’re in a situation that we don’t feel self-confident, what do we do? Do we try to project self-confidence even though we’re not feeling it?
Aaliya: The ‘fake it till you make it’ school of thought might give you a bit of that confidence boost so that you can actually go out there and do the things you want to do. I’m not against that if you need to do that. But at the same time, it’s so important to work on self-confidence, and it’s something I’ve been working on my entire adult life. Our brains are so plastic, it’s incredible. We can retrain our brains and rewire the circuitry and neural pathways. We can create healthier and better habits that lead us to live more fulfilling lives. And we can teach people tools and strategies they can use every day to help practice and build self-confidence.
Jen: So what are some of your favorite Microsteps to help build self-confidence?
Aaliya: I love talking about Microsteps — these small habit changes are the most effective way to change behavior, and making them as easy as possible is even better. So first is practicing gratitude. It sounds so simple, but what does that actually mean? It means every day, just say out loud or write down three things you feel grateful for. It doesn’t have to be something major. It can be, ‘I’m grateful for my coffee,’ or ‘I’m grateful the sun is shining.’
When you practice gratitude, you’re thickening grey matter in your brain, and creating those new neural pathways. Gratitude activates the parts of your brain associated with pleasure and reward. And I love this – the research shows that people who practice gratitude actually report being happier. It really decreases cynicism, resentment, anger, and those feelings we can get stuck in if we get frustrated, especially at work. And it’s so important for kids, too.
Jen: My favorite thing about gratitude is if you share it with others, they reap the same benefits, too. So I always say it’s great to practice gratitude for yourself in quiet times, but there are also times when you want to send somebody a quick text message or a handwritten thank-you note, and then you both get the benefits of gratitude.
Aaliya: Another thing I recommend that’s really scientifically validated is positive affirmations. Those are those statements you say to yourself — positive self-talk like, ‘I am worthy,’ ‘I am strong,’ ‘I’ve done hard things before, I can do this too.’ It really fosters a growth mindset.
Jen: Let’s talk about failure, because all of us in life have some fear around failure or making a mistake. And that often holds people back from trying things. If you’re self-confident, how does that impact your acceptance of failure and making mistakes? And on the reverse, if you aren’t feeling self-confident, you don’t really try new things or try to innovate the because you’re too afraid of that failure.
Aaliya: Yes, for many years I was the poster child of being afraid of failure. I was a perfectionist, a child of immigrants, I went to medical school. Then in medical school I failed an anatomy exam, and I thought, ‘gosh, this is the end of me. I am done. I am not smart. I am not worthy.’ It took many years to realize that failure actually leads to growth and opens up new doors. There’s always a silver lining.
So I try to teach my kids exactly that, which is, without failure there is no success. You have to grow through things. And unfortunately, societally, there’s a lot of shame associated with failure. You tried something and it didn’t work out, so maybe you’re not smart, maybe you’re not good enough. And we reinforce that messaging with children when we say, you’re a good girl, you’re a bad boy.
Jen: We label them.
Aaliya: Absolutely. But with my kids, I’ll say, ‘look, mommy failed at something today. I made a big mistake.’ And they think it’s funny at this point.
Jen: What would the world be like if we all laughed at our mistakes? When you get far enough away from some of your mistakes, you actually do laugh at them. But certainly not in the moment. For me, I’m still ruminating weeks later about what I should have done differently. So maybe it’s the eyes of a child, right?
Aaliya: Yes, normalizing failure is an incredible thing for us to all participate in across society — we have to just be okay with it, because without failing we don’t learn.
Jen: For me exercise is incredibly important in my life and to my well-being. And it helps with my self-confidence. I often tell people that I exercise more for my mental health than for my physical health. But I also think about when I first started exercising or first tried a new exercise, and was terrible at it. After you practice, you get much better. So now I go into the gym and I feel very confident. I know what I’m doing. I know what I like to do, I know what I don’t like to do. How do things like exercise or whatever your thing might be, help us in building self-confidence?
Aaliya: Exercise is a great example because it can be intimidating for people to start a new activity. I’ll tell you I started Pilates a couple of months ago, and I look forward to it every single week. But at first it was super hard, then you just get a hang of it. When you practice something, you become more comfortable with it, you see yourself grow and get better.
So it’s a matter of pushing through some of that fear we carry. We think, ‘I don’t even want to try it because I might not be good at it,’ or ‘what will people think of me if I start doing that? What if I’m terrible at it?’ It’s really just about putting yourself out there and being brave enough to try something new.
And exercising is a fantastic booster for self-confidence. Obviously we know what the physical benefits are, but like you said, it’s so incredible for our mental health — those endorphins and chemical compounds released in our brains really make it such a fantastic activity.
Jen: So when we bring this all back to the workplace — as leaders or as colleagues, what are some things we can do to help others build their self-confidence?
Aaliya: Building social connection and practicing empathy in the workplace is really important, especially right now when we have spread out teams. One thing that we talk a lot about at Thrive is compassionate directness, which is being able to give feedback in real time that’s very direct but which also comes from a place of compassion and empathy. Then the person giving feedback don’t hold it in and develop feelings of resentment, and the person receiving it understands that it’s coming from a good place and can course correct. And as you course correct and get on the right track, you’re closer to achieving your goals, you’re more effective at work.
In my own life, I’ll say that feedback I receive in this way that’s very compassionate is so helpful because we all know ourselves and think we know best. But when you hear a colleague say, ‘have you tried doing it this way?’ it’s really refreshing and helpful.
Jen: I love it. Thank you so much for this conversation. I know I’m taking a lot away from it.
Aaliya: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun and I love talking about this topic.