I feel like everyone else is smarter than I am. What can I do to feel more confident?
Lack of self-confidence, or low self-esteem, is a concept that is used to account for almost everything in the psychological realm--from a common bout of nerves to a very serious episode of psychosis. Everyone seems to agree that you can't have too much self-confidence and that too little of it isn't a good thing. Even the super-cocky and self-righteous narcissists are believed to be suffering from low self-esteem underneath their bravado.
What is self-esteem?
Valuing or caring about yourself and believing in your worth as a person define self-esteem. If you are high in self-esteem, you feel self-confident and proud of some aspects of yourself, whether your appearance, personality, sense of humor, generosity, intelligence, or some other trait. On the other hand, if you are low in self-esteem, you are quite self-critical and prone to downplay your positive qualities, exaggerate your negative ones, and create in your own mind a very distorted self-portrait.
How realistic is your feeling that everyone else is smarter than you are?
It’s probably not realistic at all.
For one thing, intelligence is not a unitary trait but a combination of many individual factors, such as verbal, numerical, spatial, visual-motor, memory, and abstract abilities, among others. This means you could be very smart in one or more of these areas and even below average in others. Since you’re already in college, the chance of you being “below-average” in all of these abilities is very, very small. Realistically, as a college student, the worst you can be is below average in one or two of the skills related to academic success. If so, then you may need tutoring in those areas where you lag behind, but it does not mean that you are not as smart overall as the person sitting next to you in class.
Ask yourself why you’re so self-critical
Most of the time, self-criticism comes from highly-critical parents or caretakers, whose judgments of you were quite flawed. In other words, their perceptions of you (e.g., that you’re dumb) may have little to do with you objectively, and more to do with their own frustrations about how little they accomplished in life.
Unfortunately, you became the object of their anger, a position that you didn’t volunteer for and didn’t deserve, but what happened is that you internalized their criticisms (which is how your "inner critic" was formed) and you became your own worst enemy. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” What she was trying to say is that you don't have to accept comments from others that make you feel bad about yourself.
Low self-esteem can also come from unfair comparisons with another person in the family. Sometimes, a very gifted sibling becomes the basis of comparison. A brother or sister with unusual talent in math or music, for example, may be the one in the family who got most of the attention growing up. And you were left feeling “not as good as” the person who got all the attention, even though you have talents of your own.
What can you do about feelings of low self-esteem?
1. Disagree with your inner critic
If you find yourself thinking that you’re not very smart, disagree with those thoughts by saying to yourself “That’s not true!,” and replace your inner critic with positive thoughts, such as “I’m smart in these areas----” or something similar. Do not let your mind go down negative pathways. Instead follow up with something positive about yourself that you know is true.
2. Love yourself!
Even though the phrase sounds like a cliché, loving and caring about yourself are very important components of self-esteem. Loving yourself means valuing your accomplishments, enjoying your successes, and taking good care of yourself. Even the biblical injunction, “Love your neighbor AS yourself,” commands you to love yourself along with your neighbor. It doesn’t say “instead of yourself.”
3. Think about what you have accomplished
What strengths do these accomplishments demonstrate?
If you did a great science project last semester, that probably means that you have an aptitude for science. If you went out of your way for a friend recently, that suggests you care strongly about others, and are probably suited for a career in one of the helping professions. In other words, identify your strengths and keep them in the forefront of your mind, especially when you doubt yourself.
4. Visualize your success
Think about yourself as an intelligent person succeeding academically and/or professionally. Visualizing yourself succeeding often helps you overcome the obstacles you believe are in your path.
Like everyone else in this world, you are unique —there is no one quite like you, so learning to value your specialness is necessary to succeed in this crazy world of ours!
I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.