So Tell Me About Overcoming Poor Self-Esteem

Ok, so I’m interested in knowing how you and yours have overcome poor self-esteem or an overall lack of self-confidence. I encounter this a lot in my own life.

Recently this has become a big issue at my new job. I was hired to work in the Spanish language queue at the national headquarters for a 53-branch non-profit organization… which is pretty much my dream come true, to get paid to speak Spanish and make a difference in people’s lives all at the same time.

Problem is, I can’t overcome this sense of doom, this anxiety that screams, You have no idea what you’re doing and no-one should have ever hired you! I learned the ropes in English pretty quickly (the basics at least–it’s a really complex job and they just seem to keep adding perpetual layers of complexity as we go), and my first day in the Spanish queue will be tomorrow. I took a single Spanish call on Friday, and though I got through the call, it triggered a full-blown panic attack in which my language abilities plummeted. Things I had known just flew away from me in the midst of all that anxiety. It took my entire lunch hour to calm down, because I believed that Spanish call was some kind of harbinger of doom, a representation of the fact that I really don’t belong there, that I’m not good enough.

I vowed to practice with the scripts (it’s not a strictly scripted job and a script is not required, but they help when you’re new) with my husband this weekend. We took a long walk and I decided to do a warm-up in Spanish. Out pours all this Spanish that was so distant from me when I was doing that call. We did go over the scripts, and I did fine laying there on my couch ‘‘interviewing’’ my husband in Spanish as if he were a client. I mean, it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t awful, either. Out comes all this evidence that I really can do the job, and do it well eventually, if I could just overcome all of that fear and panic and anxiety holding me back.

The new job is but one example of the way low self-esteem plagues me. It kills me what I do to myself. I look in the mirror and think, ‘‘Jesus, I’m so ugly I probably make people uncomfortable when they look at me.’’ I chat in the lunch room with some co-workers and think, ‘‘Wow, they must think I’m a weird loser.’’ These co-workers or anyone meeting me would have no idea this is what I am thinking and feeling inside, because I’ve learned to fake it.

Anyways, just wondered how others have dealt with this and overcome it. I need some inspiration. I’ve changed all sorts of negative behaviors and self-defeating attitudes, I know I can change this one with a little guidance. Now that I see the problem so clearly, I sure as hell am not going to live like this for the rest of my life. I can sense all of these wonderful opportunities waiting for me beyond the barrier of my self-doubt. It would change everything. It really would.

So have at it. And as always, thanks for listening. :slight_smile:

You’re not alone. Everyone feels insecure from time to time.

The thing you have to realize is that people do not spend their time thinking of ways to torment you. That shit went out in middle school. Think about it…when was the last time you had a disparaging thought about someone’s looks or manners, beyond over the top weirdness? You may notice someone is odd, but you don’t point them out to your friends and snicker about them behind their back. You probably think “Huh” and go on your merry way.

That’s the way it is in Grown Up Land, and believe me, it took me about 20 years to realize it. I used to think every time my boss shut her door she was talking to her supervisor about ways to fire me. I used to think when people were laughing down the hall they were laughing at me. Not anymore.

olives, I remember when you were looking for ways to get hired at this job. You have a unique insight, been there done that, that will be extremely useful. Do not give your past experiences the power to drag you down.

Practice practice practice, and realize, even if you do screw up, it’s not fatal. As someone told me once…“We’re not brain surgeons. If we screw up, no one dies.”*

Stop thinking negative things about yourself. Next time you see yourself in the mirror, think something positive. I assure you, your co-workers do not think you’re a weird loser. Buy yourself a new dress or something to wear on the day of your presentation. Be confident, and build on your successes.

*Of course, if you’re a brain surgeon, that’s another matter. But you’re not, so it applies. :smiley:

I realize that I’m basing my opinion on a single post, olive, but I’m wondering if you might have an anxiety disorder.* I say this because I’ve struggled with anxiety for years and I’ve had the exact same thoughts. In law school I was terrified to speak in class because I was sure everyone would think I was an idiot and didn’t belong there. I’ve had panic attacks at work when I thought that I wasn’t capable of doing my assignments. My problem turned out to be a chemical imbalance. I started taking medication to control my seratonin levels. I still have some anxiety, but I can control it with behavior modification.

That’s not to say that you need medication. My brother had a problem similar to yours when he started his tech support job: he knew all of the material backward and forward, but he would freeze up when he had to relate that material to a caller. In his case, he improved with more time on the job and plenty of positive feedback from his bosses (who, fortunately, understood his anxiety and were very supportive). Remember that there’s a learning period for any job. No one expects you to be an expert in your first week.

This may be something as simple as needing more time on the job to build up your confidence. If you keep experiencing panic attacks, however, you may want to see your doctor. Even reading books on anxiety management techniques may help.

And don’t get so down on yourself! :slight_smile: You’re absolutely right – there are wonderful opportunities waiting for you. Read over what ivylass wrote, then read it again. She gave some really good advice.

Good luck, olive. My e-mail addy is in my profile if you feel like chatting.

  • I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice, etc., etc., etc.

ladybug, I appreciate your concern. I do have an anxiety disorder… okay, more than one… and I did have treatment for it for several years as well as medication. But I consider myself largely recovered… I know reading my post it probably doesn’t sound like that, but compared to where I was even two years ago, I really have made a lot of progress. I no longer take medication or require therapy, and I can function pretty well in every day society now.

Cognitive Behavioral techniques tend to work quite well for my anxiety issues (especially exposure therapy and flooding, which I guess is what this next week will be for me, heh.) I’ve just never had to apply them to matters of self-esteem before. I’m not really sure exactly how to combat those negative thoughts, though on re-reading my post it’s clear that the negative thoughts are stirring up all sorts of trouble.

I’ve always felt sorry for brain surgeons for this reason… no words of comfort await them when they face their jobs. I also have a friend who is a rocket scientist… not good to point that out when she’s stressed! :wink:

Personally my way of feeling secure is to make sure that I know enough to feel secure. If I know more about programming, Japanese, or what-have-you than anyone else at the company I work at, then there just isn’t need to worry. And if I know that I’m doing my darndest to learn what I need to know, then I can at least feel confident that I’m on the path and it’s just a matter of time.

The book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy has some excellent cognitive behavioral exercises to address negative thinking. It might help.

That’s wonderful! I’m glad to hear it. :slight_smile:

Building up your self-esteem is a long process. It wasn’t until I hit my 30s that I accepted who I am and stopped feeling self-conscious about everything. As strange as it sounds, I just stopped caring whether other people thought I was ugly, weird, etc. You’d be amazed how much confidence that builds. I’ve gone from being a total introvert to someone who takes charge in the office and gets things done. More importantly, people have embraced my quirkiness and accepted it as part of who I am.

The best advice I can give you, olive, is to never apologize for who you are. Let your coworkers see the real you, and don’t worry about what they think. You might be surprised by their reaction.

Well, I haven’t had to deal with half as much as you have, but I did (and do) have trouble with low self-esteem, and bouts of irrational angst in social situations.

What helped me, was to realize that this fear is irrational: It’s not my body sending me signals, it’s not my sane mind warning me, it’s a bugg. It’s an error that needs to be worked out, a fault in my mental gears, an error. That means, anything that helps get it out is helpful. You don’t try to find a use for a rotten carpet, a mad animal or a mountain of filth: you get a shovel and get rid of the whole mess.

So what helped me was a series off mental tricks, designed to dodge the monster. These are some I used:

A jedi knows no fear: Yes. it’s goofy, but bear with me. I used this as a way to convince myself that any fear was wrong. That means I gave myself the complete freedom to stamp it out. Any time the fear showed up, I put a lid on it, fought it, drove it away, because not only did it not serve a purpose, it was evil. I also used this sentence to steel myself before a potentially scary situation.

When you don’t understand a problem, do the parts you do understand, then look at it again: This one was meant for math problems, but it works for anything. When you take a call, you could think, “ok, I don’t know how to get through this call, but can I get through the initial greeting?”. And of course you can: a greeting is the most formalized and therfore simple part of a conversation. Then you do the next bit, and so on (but don’t think that before you get there).

They can’t see your fear: It actually took me a while to realize that people cannot tell when I’m afraid unless it’s really bad. This helps, trust me. If you think you need it, perfect a “blank face”, a neutral expression to wear when frightened.

They can only see what you show them: This one works for presentations, spoken exams and whatnot. If you do not show them the weak parts, and just state what you do know, then it takes an action on the other persons part (a question, say), to reveal the hole in your knowledge. It is better to be caught out on an unexpected question then to bumble through an area you feel fuzzy about. Don’t lie, don’t bluff, just state what you know, and realize that the rest is out of your hands. And usually, you will come out of it feeling you knew a lot more than you thought.

Never draw attention to a mistake: I discovered this one during karate examinations, of all things. Someone pointed out to me that the judge/censor has seens tons of other people that day, is tired and probably only catches about half of what is going on. Now, when doing something I was nervous about doing, and made an honest mistake, I had an impulse to point out that is was an honest mistake, instead of letting the other person think I didn’t know any better (by making a face or cursing under my breath or whatnot). This of course, draws attention to the mistake, instead of letting it slip under the radar. When you make a mistake, just continue, start over if you need to, but never do anything active to gloss over it. This has two effects: it projects calm confidence if the other person notices, and it lets you get away with an incredible amount of minor bungles.

There are no excuses: When you did something wrong, just fess upp. Don’t make up half-assed explanations, don’t blame anyone else, don’t whine; just explain what happened, and take any punishment/anger with a calm and stoic demeanor.

And finally:

Fake it till you make it: You are absolutely sure that man over there thinks you’re the most idiotic mutant in the entire universe? You have to talk to him, and work with him? You’re scared? Do it anyway, and tell yourself you can be scared and hysterical later: right now, you’re going to be calm, competent, and an expert at whatever is goin on, no matter if you feel that’s a lie or not. You can fool anyone, be a master con artist, and make everyone think you’re wonderful; and if you can’t, pretend you can. After all, they hired you, so you have them fooled this far. Now just keep going. This way, you can fool your own fear.
This is what works for me anyway.

I used to have a job where if I got in over my head, I could call someone to step in and take over. Now I’m the one others call when they get in over their heads – and I didn’t fully realize that when I first took this job.

I would say that knowledge is the key to gaining confidence.

First off, you have some natural advantages in being brand new – no one expects you to know much of anything, let alone everything. Start by getting a list of people and phone numbers to call when you are faced with issues you don’t know about – this might be one supervisor, or several people with expertise in different areas.

It is perfectly acceptable to say, “Let me see if I can find the answer to that for you”, and call your knowedgeable contact. You can probably do this at the very least for a couple of months, and you may find that this is a core component of your job even later – directing customers to the right place to get the service thay need.

As you mature in the job, the next thing to figure out is what exactly your responsibilities ARE, and what they AREN’T. You need to master those things you are responsible for, and what kind of referral to make for requests that are outside the scope of your responsibility. It’s important to realize that you can’t help every single person with every single problem.

I don’t know enough about your job to know if checklists would be helpful or not, but that is the first thing I would try. Characetrize the type of customer or the type of issue, and make notes about the process to follow for various situations. Among them include a process for first-time issues that you haven’t faced before.

Eventually you won’t need these notes any more, and when you can dispose of your notes you should be able to dispose of many of your confidence issues.

I can’t give any advice about being at peace with yourself (looks, etc) - to me that was just something I had to “get over.” Everyone deals with this at one time or another.

But at work, I’ve found some ways to cope with the stress of dealing with customers:

  • Learn what you don’t know, and know how to find out. I’m not saying learn everything there is to know - I’m saying you need to learn how and when to say “I do not know the answer to that question, but I know how to find out.” If you free yourself from thinking you have to know everything, you relax. Get confident in your skills of saying “I don’t know.”

  • Learn to always move forward. You cannot change the fact that a problem has occurred. There’s no time travel. If a problem comes your way, it is your job to correct it, moving forward. Think of it as a puzzle to solve now. The same goes for mistakes. If you or someone else makes a mistake, don’t dwell on how or why the mistake was made. Move forward and correct it.

  • Learn from mistakes and problems. Once you have corrected a mistake or problem, make it positive by making it a learning tool. “What can I do to avoid this in the future?” and “I’m glad I know not to do that anymore.”

  • Give yourself props. If a call makes you feel like shit afterwards, think about all of the GOOD points from the call. “I feel bad that I messed up that translation…but you know what? I got 95% of the rest of the translation right. That’s pretty awesome.” “I feel bad that I could not help that caller…but you know what? I handled it as best as I could.”

It really is a matter of looking at things positively, and it’s not a fake way of thinking. It’s not blind optimism. If you get into a positive groove - always learning, always moving forward, always finding the good - then it becomes natural and you forget to be scared.

Remember - you can’t change other people. You CAN change how you REACT to other people. Makes things so much easier.

I don’t have a whole lot to add, olives, except for a couple of spins on what others have said:

  1. Ask other Spanish-speaking agents how they handled their first few days on the queue. Even if all of your colleagues are all native speakers, they needed to learn how to handle calls at some point. They may also have had jobs where where they had to use English and can give you tips for handling issues in a non-native language. (I’m assuming you’re not the only one handling the Spanish-language queue; if you are, then consult your supervisor.)

  2. If you think your language fluency is going to fail you, make sure you have at least “One moment, I need to get assistance,” (or something similar) written down in front of you.

You’re a smart, articulate person. When you’re in a new job, especially in a foreign language, you’re not going to feel smart and articulate all of the time. Fortunately, that will pass. Just muddle through, one call at a time. You’ll be surprised how quickly most of it seems routine. You’ll probably have cases that are harder to handle once in a while, but you’d probably be bored if you could do the job perfectly all of the time. :slight_smile:

Good luck!!


Wow, this is all awesome advice, seriously, I am absorbing it like a little sponge.

Sam I Am, right now I’m reading David Burns’ ‘‘Feeling Good Handbook’’ and it is an excellent resource. One thing I’ve read since making the OP about performance anxiety: the idea ‘‘I’m so anxious I can’t function’’ is apparently a lie. I only felt like I couldn’t function, but apparently I could have. The book says the best way to cope with this kind of anxiety is to prove it wrong by just staying committed to continuing now matter how certain you are that you can’t think or speak or whatever.

These are all great suggestions, and Septima I love the personal touch you’ve added to your methods for combating irrational thoughts. A Jedi Knows No Fear, Indeed. I really shouldn’t admit that Lt. Worf’s philosophy has helped me through a difficult moment or two… but there it is.

And ladybug, your recommendation to be authentically myself is a good one. I always try to do that, but sometimes I think if I show too much fear people will think I’m weak.

A lot of the self-help literature is focused on feeling good about yourself, and while this can be useful, I don’t think having a healthy self-esteem is all about feeling positive 100% of the time. It’s more about having a realistic view of your actions and your place in the scheme of things. People with healthy self-esteem aren’t constantly beating up on themselves, but they don’t think they’re some kind of perfect gods either.

My problem is that I’m a perfectionist, and at times I have an inflated view of how smart and talented I am. This is great until I screw up and start beating up on myself because I didn’t reach the impossibly high standard I set for myself. The reality is, I’m smart, but there are plenty of people who will always be smarter than I am, and if I strive to model myself after Einstein, I’m only setting myself up to fail, and I will stay miserable.

A lot of times you get the message growing up that you can be anything you want as long as you work hard enough. While there’s a lot of truth to this, individuals do have limits, and it’s important to be aware of them and accept them as a normal part of being an imperfect human being.

For instance, I had a real problem with my looks growing up. The truth is, I have an average face, and nothing I can do will ever change that. I have a much better self-image now than I did a few years ago, because I’ve finally accepted the fact that I will never be considered classically handsome, and that’s really okay, because "average’ does not necessarily equate with “ugly”, plenty of people are perfectly happy and successful with average looks, there are more important things in life than looking like Brad Pitt, and most women don’t care nearly as much about my looks as I do. My looks are only a source of pain for me if I feel like I should be more attractive. This is a case where changing my standards a bit made all the difference in the world. (I know I probably make it sound easy, but in reality I’ve struggled with things like this for years, so change is always going to be gradual).

I look at self esteem as a kind of equilibrium. Having a healthy self-image means not beating yourself up for minor things, but it also means not letting yourself get too cocky, because that pendulum will eventually swing back the other way. The bottom line is being honest and realistic about yourself.


If it’s any consolation, I use the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Dune, myself.