Self-confidence is the absolute first choice people make when they start working on the program. About a quarter of all participants want to build up their self-confidence, and this is logical. Psychologists have known for a long time that self-confidence is the key to success of any good therapy. A good program will therefore make sure that one re-gains their self-confidence to find their own solutions to any problem. Whether one is considering a program to treat a major depression, an alcohol addiction, or anxiety disorders: the secret is to re-build the self-confidence of people, so that they once again can take matters into their own hands and look for their own solutions.

The Problem: Learned helplessness undermines the self-confidence

When the American psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967 started as a young assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, his new colleagues asked him to clarify an unexplicable phenomenon. In the lab, experiments were done on the behavior of dogs to look at theories of classic conditioning. A certain group of dogs namely did not respond as the theory predicted that they would. After experiencing a light, unpleasant electric shock, they stayed in place instead of taking action in order to escape the painful stimulus. It seemed like the dogs had learned to stay in place, helpless. Seligman disregarded the known theories and started a research project to find out what was going on here. He concluded that dogs, who get their first electro shocks at a moment where they are able to take action, they will respond when a painful stimulus is administered. But if they, during a certain period, are unable to escape the painful stimulus, they will only try a few times to escape the pain, and then stop trying. When one then takes away the hinder which stopped them from helping themselves, Seligman concluded that the dogs still did not take action: they stayed in place, apathetically, in the place which administered the first electric shock. They experienced 'learned helplessness' - they had learned that action was futile. The animals kept showing this helpless behavior until a new training program re-trained them in order to teach them that they could help themselves to escape the painful stimulus.

That same phenomenon occurs in humans. Someone who is depressed has learned that, whatever they do, they will feel apathetic, empty, and unhappy. Someone with an anxiety disorder has learned that the anxiety will return again and again, and someone with low self-confidence has at some point learned that it is useless to believe in oneself. To differentiate between people suffering from low self-confidence and people dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression, we make use of the online self-test on Someone with low self-confidence will have to retrain his or her brain in order to once again take action to reach their goals: a happy, pleasant life where you can learn to reach the things you want. In the next paragraph we will explain how you can re-build your self-confidence.

The solution: Looking at yourself in a solution focused manner

The mechanism of learned helplessness makes it so that the brain is confused. There are three fundamental insights which might be missing:

  1. inadequately seeing what you can do
  2. insufficiently knowing what you want
  3. inadequately estimating what you need to learn to reach a goal

A program to re-gain self-confidence needs to focus on teaching to (re)discover what you already can do, what you want, and finally identify what you need to learn to reach your goals. Learning these 3 steps does not happen all at once, but rather in subsequent phases. It comes down to that you are gong to re-train your brain to once again find answers to these 3 key questions. We discovered, in our program, that people who spend 15 minutes daily on answering these questions while being patient and accepting that they will stumble sometimes before knowing how, will slowly learn to re-build their self-confidence.

Month 1: (Re)discovering what you already can do

People with low self-confidence are better in discovering what they cannot do than what they can do. Their attention namely focuses way too quickly on their weak points, instead of their talents or strong points. The balance between optimism, realism, and pessimism is gone. The balance is leaning to pessimism, activating the mechanism of learned helplessness. That works in a paralyzing way in different aspects of life, including the capability of learning new skills which are needed to reach your goals. The golden rule therefore goes: first, re-gain self-confidence by re-discovering what you can do, and only after you are completely capable of doing so, move on to the next phase. To re-balance your inner balance, you need to focus on what you are able to do. That can be done by answering the same question on a daily basis: 'What useful or pleasant things have I done?' In short, you learn to observe your strengths. On average, the brain needs thirty days or so to redefine its balance. Being patient is key here. That is also the reason why some people prefer using a computer program to help them to work on this focus on a daily basis. It happens very easily that one forgets the good intentions of practising on a daily basis. Every small step counts. When the answer to this question is 'nothing', you are aiming too high. Then you need to practise to zoom in on smaller things. It is not easy to observe and appreciate small steps in the right direction. It is a learning process, paired with falling down and getting back up again! As long as your self-confidence is low, it is very important to solely focus on mini-successes. If not, you re-activate the learned helplessness, causing a relapse. We recommend people to do this exercise for one month, before moving on to the next phase.

Month 2: (Re)discovering what you want

Because of the learned helplessness, one often does not have an objective image of what one wants anymore, because one has learned not to believe or trust in that one can reach their goals anymore. A content life in which one can do good things for oneself and others. The result can be that people with low self-esteem lose sight of what they really want. Their image thereof becomes unclear or confusing, especially if the self-confidence has been low for years. When our brains have learned to no longer believe in our capabilities, they often stop answering future-focused questions, or flee into vague, non-concrete dreams. One namely knows that one will never do that of which one dreams, and so someone with low self-confidence will stop training their brain in answering specific questions which help to make the desired future come true. The solution is found in re-activating the brain and to train it in asking and answering concrete future-focused questions which will help you to focus a more and more specific and concrete picture of the future you desire. These specific pictures will namely help you to then work out a concrete plan of action, which can then be followed. The most important question to help us re-discover who we are, is the question: 'What has made me thankful or pleased?' By answering this question daily, you will re-discover what you want after just a few weeks. People namely want things that make them feel pleased with themselves. The future-focused parts of the brain are re-activated by this focus. In this phase, too, a time span of one month is best before moving on to the next phase. In this month, participants learn what they really want, both privately and professionally.

Month 3: (Re)discovering what you want to learn

Only after the previous two phases you will be ready for the next step: learning to analyze what you have got left to learn, in order to reach your desired goals. Asking this question too early in the process, would trigger the learned helplessness in the memory. The main question here is: 'What do I want to learn to reach my goals?' Share this article with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked-In, and then do our free self-test.

Paul Koeck, MD