How to get your confidence back when you've been through a rough patch

Life, much like freelancing, has its ups and downs. There are moments when we're riding high and feeling invincible. And then those not so great times when life only drags us down.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

During those darker periods, our confidence tends to hit rock bottom. We hesitate and doubt ourselves. We forget who we are and what we're supposed to be doing, and every single aspect of our life and business is affected.

It happened to me last year. A few significant things occurred personally and professionally, and my confidence crumbled. There was a moment when I thought I'd never get it back. But with a little perseverance and some helpful tricks, I've managed to recover.

If you're currently suffering, don't sweat it. These challenging moments can be positive. In the face of adversity, we learn more about ourselves. Discover our strengths. And our weaknesses. And, when we start to recover, we take those lessons and apply them to our life and work, improving ourselves and our ventures.

To help you get back your va-va-voom, allow me to share some tips on building confidence. The following tips have also helped me. (Thank you to those who supported me through 2018 – you know who you are.)

Have a break from drinking alcohol (or quit for good)

Why is this my first tip? Because I've done it and it has transformed my life. Yep. Just by not drinking alcohol, I've significantly improved my mental wellbeing, and the knock-on effect is that my self-esteem has improved and my confidence has sky-rocketed. (I might well drink again in future, but for now, I'm taking a break.)

Some of you reading this will be hoping I had a problem with alcohol, so you can distance yourself from "weird" non-drinkers like me and reassure yourself that you're not in the same boat. That's fine. You might not be. However, I was a "normal" drinker. Well, for a Brit, anyway. But I realised I'd had enough.

I'm not going to preach about the downsides of alcohol... how it can affect your sleep, cause anxiety and deplete happiness. If you suffer, you'll know all this. If you're one of those lucky people who can handle alcohol, then skip this tip and move on. For me, it was a no-brainer. Better sleep meant a happier, more confident me. And anxiety? What anxiety?

If you really can't bear the thought of giving up your beloved beer, try a few alcohol-free alternatives to help cut down. The quality of them has improved greatly over the last few years, so you can still get that nice refreshing drink at the end of a workday but without the negative effects. I highly recommend Big Drop and Nirvana. My favourite booze-free beer, though, is Paulaner's Hefe-Weißbier – it's just the dog's.

Consider whether you need Instagram

I'm not talking about for business; I mean, personally. Because let's open up an honest dialogue here: does Instagram make any of us happy? Really?

In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), an independent charity that seeks to improve people's wellbeing, conducted a survey of 14 to 24-year-olds, asking them about social media. And many reported heightened feelings of anxiety and depression, poor sleep, body images issues and fear of missing out (FOMO).

It's not surprising. Sharing the "best" versions of ourselves can build an unrealistic picture: like everyone else is having this amazing life and we're not. It can make us feel like we're missing out. Like we're not good enough. We come away from the constant scrolling and feel terrible. And when not enough people "like" our posts, we become miserable – continually refreshing our feeds to see if we're loved.

The RSPH is so concerned about social media's impact that it's launched Scroll Free September, the world's first large-scale social media-free month to highlight the issue and encourage people to re-think how much time they spend online.

The evidence continues to stack up – social media can harm our mental health. So if your confidence is at an all-time low, it might be a good idea to delete any social apps from your phone and take a break from clicking 'likes'.

What's more, embrace the "now". Remove the urge to document your entire life to create a nice Instagram story. Don't film or photograph a concert for the sake of social media – enjoy the moment. You'll feel less anxious, happier and at peace.

For further reading, check out Jon Cockley of Handsome Frank's excellent article on algorithm anxiety for Lecture in Progress.

Accept that "perfection" doesn't exist

Sticking to the subject of Instagram, the pressure to be perfect is a relatively new concept. Sure, people have always suffered a little from the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality, but social media has only pushed this to the extreme.

The terms "van life" and "digital nomad" are probably familiar to you. They hint at young, bronzed, good looking couples living "their best life" and touring the world in a camper van. Seemingly successful entrepreneurs "smashing it" and "hustling" to fly to exotic cities around the world. Healthy, toned women adopting impressive yoga moves on a beautiful beach somewhere — a stunning blogger striking a pose in the latest styles.

These people might look like they've got it all figured out, but the reality is often very different.

I grew up in a sleepy town surrounded by farmers' fields. When I wanted to go out and play, I'd call on Gareth and Nick next door and Leon and Noel in the other cul-de-sac. We were like the Goonies. Cycling around together, playing football, climbing trees, building dens – it was great. It was enough. We weren't aware of the wider world. Our small town was "home", and we were happy. We didn't compare ourselves to anyone or wonder if the grass was greener elsewhere. It just didn't matter. We lived in the moment, embraced the present and were quite content with our lives.

When did we start to want more? Was it when the Internet came along and exposed us to everything? Did Facebook play a big part when it felt like everyone was having such a great time, all the time? Has Instagram only made things worse? Are all these podcasts about business and four-hour workweeks making us feel inadequate? Have the subliminal messages in advertising been encouraging us to be entrepreneurs, city dwellers, world explorers, always pushing on? Is that capitalism's sole purpose – to encourage us to consume continually?

All I know is that when we "unplug" and stop exposing ourselves to all the content from social media or advertising, we're a lot happier. When we ignore the brainwashing rhetoric, we're more present. We don't feel inadequate, ugly, wobbly or boring. We're not continually hankering after clothes or makeup to make ourselves feel better. We're just living and accepting that perfection does not exist.

It's almost like taking the red pill and stepping out of The Matrix. Once you realise that no one has it perfect, that everyone suffers, you can feel the weight lifting from your shoulders. You can get back that feeling from childhood when all that mattered was right now.

Stop buying "stuff" you don't need and get your money in order

When I quit alcohol in January, I turned to clothes shopping to get my dopamine fix. Browsing websites on cold, winter evenings and adding things to my cart made me (temporarily) happy until I received my credit card bill and realised that all this stuff was causing stress.

It's an easy trap to fall into. We think shiny, new things will help lift our mood but we're just keeping ourselves on a treadmill – one that keeps us running when all we want to do is relax. Where was I getting my urge to shop from? Yep, Instagram. Bloggers sharing their capsule wardrobes pushed me to buy the same things. The problem is you can never keep up!

When I'm living a frugal existence, I'm happier. When I have savings in the bank, and I know, in my heart, that I've had a good month, I feel relaxed. I feel in control. And I'm proud of myself for not adding to any waste, reducing my carbon footprint and making use of the stuff I've already got. It's a great feeling, not spending any money.

And while I'm on the subject of "stuff" – when was the last time you had a good spring clean? I've had four since Christmas. It's so liberating – selling things on eBay, donating stuff to charity shops or giving clothes to my incredibly lean and gorgeous trendy mother.

By tidying and sorting, you end up with a more organised home. And you know what they say, tidy home, tidy mind! Read KonMari's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for some inspiration.

Limit your exposure to negativity

Yes, I'm talking about the news. Media. Twitter – anything that involves negativity. But what about being engaged in current affairs, I hear you say? As a journalist/writer, whatever you want to call it, I spent many years starting each day with the Today programme on Radio4. I felt it was my duty. Then I'd go to work, often feeling down, with no idea why.

Until I read this article by Rolf Dobelli that said the news was bad for us, and giving up reading it will make us happier. An interesting concept and one I adopted. I'm not entirely out of the loop. I catch up now and again. It's just that most mornings begin with some Cuban salsa music or something equally cheery and a little dance around the kitchen.

Speaking of Twitter, I have a love/hate relationship with the platform. It used to be far cheerier, back in the day. Now, it can feel quite toxic. But with many great friendships on there, it remains my favourite social media channel.

To have a healthy relationship with Twitter, I do two things. First, I limit myself to the platform via the desktop during working hours.

Secondly, if there's someone who raises my anxiety, it could be anyone at all. A ranter. A complainer. Someone who shares negative things. I mute them. I purposefully remove them from my feed, and I never need to worry about them again. Plus by "muting" them, they'll never know – it's a double win. I don't get anxious, worrying about unfollowing someone or blocking them. I just innocently mute toxic or negative people to keep Twitter full of lighthearted, genuine and happy updates.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone

I'm not one for public speaking. Who is? But this year, I decided it was high time that I put myself out there and shared my story. Standing on stage, talking about myself and my work, was terrifying but liberating. Once I relaxed and realised everyone was on my side, I found I was pretty good at it. And, dare I say it, I even enjoyed it. I felt proud of myself. My confidence improved. I also thought: what next?

You don't have to do a talk. You could find something else that you'd typically shy away from. How about going to see a movie on your own? Or jumping back on your bicycle? What about that book you've been promising to write? Even just attending a networking event when you'd rather stay in with Netflix – all these things that we'd rather avoid can open up new learning experiences and subsequently boost our confidence.

Sign up for a fitness challenge

The Great North Run in Manchester is something my friends participate in every year. I've never liked the idea of getting involved. All those people, standing on the sidelines. I'm a private person – I love to run alone. But this time, I thought I'd join them. Not only was I pushing myself out of my comfort zone (see above) and raising money for charity, I was doing something that would give me focus for several months leading up to the big event.

By having something to train for, it gave me the push I needed to go running. I lost weight, toned up and felt amazing. I boosted my endorphins and combatted stress. I dropped a dress size and bought some new clothes, giving me even more confidence. And because I was training, I was thinking about my nutrition, eating healthier and giving my immune system a good boost. It all adds up.

And then, when I ran that 10km, I felt even more amazing. The cheering crowds were hugely supportive. Near the finish line, I even heard one woman say, "Come on, Katy! You're making this look easy!" When I turned around to see who it was, her whole face was beaming. My eyes welled up at that moment, as I felt the entire love of Manchester overwhelm me. I'm signing up again for next year.

Learn something new

A month ago, I discovered an app for my smartphone called Anki, offering flashcard learning for any subject I like. As I run a creative magazine, it's probably expected of me that I know more about fine art than I dare to admit. So I thought I'll learn that.

Four weeks later and I can recognise a Max Ernst from a Francis Bacon. I know the difference between Sisley, Cassatt and Morisot. I can instantly spot a Praxiteles from a Canova sculpture. Ok, I'm showing off. But I'm proud of myself! I know so much more about art, and it's been such a boost to my confidence. If I'm not careful, my Roger Moore raised eyebrow will pop out, as I show off my newfound skills to friends.

If art isn't your thing, Anki has loads of other subjects: learn a language, brush up on geography (that's what I'm doing next) or master long poems. Go on, give it a whirl.

Give something back

Whether it's raising money for charity, helping out a friend or mentoring a graduate – being kind is good for you. From reducing stress and boosting mental wellbeing, it can even help you to live longer. Even better, it can boost confidence and give you a sense of purpose like nothing else.

Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley believe that kindness and related qualities like empathy, sympathy and compassion are a form of self-preservation – the survival of the kindest. It's a selfish act but one that has allowed our species to thrive. What generous action can you perform today to give yourself a lift?

Give yourself a big break (and others, too)

It used to be that we compared ourselves to a small pool of people; now we compare ourselves to the world. In this "always-on" age, it's easy to give yourself a hard time and think you're not good enough.

But that's just the thing: you are enough. You don't have to be continually striving forward. You don't necessarily have to get that promotion or build that agency if that's not for you. Where you are right now is enough — one step at a time, day by day. Just do your best with the time, energy and resources you have available to you.

Besides, no one will notice if you down tools for an afternoon or forget to post an Instagram update. They'll all be too busy worrying about themselves.

It also doesn't help that we're more exposed to criticism online. I mean, how do we feel when we read through the replies on a big design agency's tweet of a recent branding project? It's enough to make any of us depressed.

While the natural reaction is to shut ourselves away from the world, it's better to understand the bigger picture, i.e. to have compassion for ourselves and others. For example, most non-constructive criticism comes from a place of fear, anger or insecurity. It's about ego.

As humans, we're all flawed and prone to this behaviour. To combat it, keep in mind this fundamental truth. People don't mean any harm; they're generally just afraid that they 're not good enough.

Know that you are wonderful

The only other thing that has helped me is reminding myself that I'm great. I'm wonderful. I've got so much to give. And there are many things I can be proud of.

As Brits, we don't tend to pat ourselves on the back; we take a more self-deprecating or humble approach. Writing a professional Twitter bio is excruciating for us. But we should embrace our strengths. We should celebrate our wins, our achievements, our breakthroughs.

As humans, it's natural that we focus on our failures or mistakes (which are, in fact, valuable lessons), and the negative things people might have said.

Change your mindset by merely replacing every negative thought with a positive one, along with any lessons you might've learned. For example, "I messed up with the client's deadline" becomes "I've learned to manage expectations better and communicate with my clients in future".

Instead of replaying in your mind the negative things people say or do, focus on the good stuff: praise from a client, a kind act from a stranger or a supportive comment from a friend.

A little positive thinking, compassion and kindness every day can help.

When you've gone through a rough patch, what has helped you to gain back your confidence? Join the conversation on Twitter to share your tips, and I might add them to this article.


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