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How to develop confidence when you feel worthless, according to science

There are scientifically proven ways you can improve your self-esteem, right now.

concept of happiness and self-confidence smiley face sticky note with sad face sticky notes

You can improve your self esteem by making simple changes to your everyday life, according to science.

Image by ntkris on Shutterstock
  • Low self-esteem can lead you to feel worthless, unlovable, and unwanted.
  • Feelings of low self-esteem have been directly linked to aggression, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and a general lower quality of life.
  • By changing some of the things you do every day (how you dress, your posture, how you think of yourself), you can develop more confidence and higher levels of self-worth.

What is low self-esteem?

concept of low self-esteem man feeling sad depressed against colorful background

People who struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness are also susceptible to developing mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Low self-esteem (and a lack of confidence in yourself) often leads to feeling bad about ourselves and our lives. People who struggle with feelings of worthlessness hold themselves in lower regard, often feel unlovable, unwanted, and incompetent.

According to research done by Morris Rosenberg and Timothy J. Owens, people who struggle with low self-esteem also tend to be hypersensitive to the world around them.

It's very common in this situation to have a fragile sense of self that is often driven by feelings of worthlessness and an unmanageable lack of confidence.

This type of hypersensitivity can plunge someone into a state of profound depression with one single event that, for others, would not affect them very much.

Common symptoms of low self-esteem can include:

  • Being unable to trust your own opinion, always thinking someone else's opinions are better.
  • Not voicing your opinion or feeling confident enough in your ideas to share them.
  • Being afraid to take on challenges with the fear that you will not be able to overcome them.
  • Thinking you will "fail" or "be a failure" if you don't accomplish something (even if it's unrealistic).
  • Being hard on yourself but lenient with others, even in situations very similar to your own.
  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks, feeling emotionally drained.
  • Going to extremes (either working yourself so hard and overachieving or hardly putting any effort in and underachieving).
  • Pouring yourself into work to avoid the strain and fear that comes with more social situations like relationships and friendships.

How does low self-esteem affect our day-to-day lives?

According to a 2005 study published in the SAGE Journals, low self-esteem is directly related to aggression and antisocial behaviors. Low self-esteem is also linked to delinquency, particularly in young adults.

People who struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness are also susceptible to developing mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Eating disorders are also common in individuals with low self-esteem issues, particularly emotional binge-eating.

A 2006 study by the University of Wisconsin, Madison also linked low self-esteem during adolescence to poor health, criminal behavior, and limited economic prospects during adulthood. The results of this particular study prove that self-esteem is an important construct that can predict real-world outcomes (in education, job success, lifestyle, and overall health) in people who struggle with it.

How to retrain your brain to replace low self-esteem with confidence, according to science and philosophy.

concept of self confidence white pencil with quote on yellow background

How you dress, the music you listen to and how you expect to be treated by others are scientifically linked to your self-esteem levels.

Photo by The CEO Kid on Unsplash

Wear black and invest in nice-smelling cologne or perfume.

How you dress (and how you smell) can make a difference. According to this 2015 study that assessed what colors people associate with different personality traits, black was voted as a "confident" color that makes people think of attractiveness, intelligence, and confidence.

In this 2014 study, 128 men were divided into three groups: one group dressed in suits, another in casual attire and the last group dressed in sweatpants.

They were then asked to roleplay a negotiation scene for getting a raise at work. The results of this study prove the men dressed in suits (dressed for success) scored higher levels of dominance, job performance, and confidence, which ultimately resulted in them getting better negotiation deals in the roleplaying scenes.

This 2009 study by researchers at the School of Biological Sciences (University of Liverpool) proved that how we smell greatly affects our self-confidence. Not only that but how we smell can also have an impact on how others view and treat us, which can also have a positive impact on our self-esteem.

Listen to bass-heavy music.

Did you know that the type of music you most frequently listen to can subconsciously be driving your insecurity? This 2014 study by Northern University explains that music with a louder baseline can make you feel more powerful, dominant, determined, and motivated.

Take more photos (including selfies).

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have conducted a study that proves taking photos of yourself (or seeing yourself in a mirror, paying attention to the way you look) can actually raise your self-confidence.

In this study, a group of 41 students took three types of photos every day: one of themselves smiling, a photo of something that made them happy that day, and a photo of something they believed could make someone else happy.

Each type of photo had positive effects on the participant's self-esteem levels, but the photo they took of themselves reported the highest levels of increasing self-confidence.

Talking to yourself in the second person will help improve your confidence.

While it's important to take note of how we think about ourselves (because this says a lot about our self-confidence), did you know that positive self-talk (actually talking out loud to yourself in a positive way) is scientifically proven to help with self-esteem?

If you have ever tried to psych yourself up for a job interview with the phrase "you've got this!", you're on the right track, according to science.

A 2014 European Journal of Social Psychology study had half of the participants in the study talking to themselves positively (in the first person), while the other half were told to talk to themselves positively in the second person (using "you" statements).

The people who spoke to themselves in the second person reported higher levels of motivation and confidence in themselves after these exercises. Researchers suggest the reason for this is because the use of "you" reminds us of receiving advice, praise, and encouragement from other people instead of just ourselves.

What matters most is how you expect other people to view you, not how they actually view you, according to UCL researchers.

"Low self-esteem is a vulnerability factor for numerous psychiatric problems including eating disorders and depression." says lead researcher Dr. Geert Jan Will. "In this study, we identified exactly what happens in the brain when self-esteem goes up and down."

By understanding what happens in the brain when self-esteem raises and lowers, we can better understand when this happens and pinpoint what caused the increases or decreases.

The results of this study proved that social prediction errors (when we expect to have positive interactions or approval with other people but don't) were the key to determining if self-esteem went up or down.

Self-awareness and positive affirmations help.

Confidence can come from being honest with yourself, but that is much harder to accomplish when your feelings of worthlessness are telling you there are no redeeming qualities about yourself.

According to new brain-imaging studies published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, when people practice self-affirmations (positive self-statements), the brain's self-processing (medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex) and valuation cortex (ventral striatum and ventral medial prefrontal cortex) are both activated.

The results of these scans highlight the positive neural processes that happen when we self-affirm, proving that self-affirmations work.

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