Trusting yourself isn’t always easy. It’s more like excellent advice that people give, but no one really teaches. You might not even think about it until you’re dealing with major decisions (like ending a relationship or buying a home), when trusting yourself becomes essential. You can ask all of the right questions, weigh the pros and cons, talk to your friends, and check your horoscope (twice). But eventually you need to muster the confidence to rely on your decision-making abilities. This final leap of faith, where you believe you can make a good choice, is where trusting yourself really helps.
Still, the conventional advice to simply trust yourself can “feel inauthentic,” Martin Ford, P.h.D., professor of education at the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University and co-author of Motivating Self and Others, tells SELF. This is especially true if you’ve learned cultural norms that make trusting yourself feel downright wrong. For instance, Black women are often encouraged not to appear angry, which can lead to ignoring our feelings and doubting our perspectives. There is significant research that suggests women’s pain is minimized in the health care setting, and if you’ve spent most of your life having your discomfort ignored, it can feel extreme to trust your own body. Single people might swallow the cultural message that being in a partnership is better than being alone, making it hard to trust yourself when red flags appear. In short: There are lots of examples where life encourages us to doubt ourselves.
Beyond external messages, trusting yourself can be scary because it often involves an unknowable future, Dr. Ford explains. Even though you might use the past to inform your decision-making, there is still trust involved when embracing the unknown. And if you haven’t built strong self-trust muscles (i.e., a soothing voice that says you’re capable of making good choices), self-doubt can cloud your judgment. Still, I’m here with a bit of good news: You can cultivate self-trust the same way you would learn to rely on a friend by learning about yourself and finding ways to earn your own trust.
“Sometimes people lack a basic understanding of who they are and what’s really important to them,” Dr. Ford explains. If answering an existential question like Who am I? is stressful (same), Dr. Ford suggests figuring out your core personal values. (He recommends an assessment tool he co-authored called the Assessment of Personal Goals.) Knowing that safety, social responsibility, and freedom are your most important values can help you measure decisions (like taking a job overseas) against them. Even more, understanding your quirks—like why large groups make you sweat or you struggle to find the right words in high-pressure situations—can help you brainstorm solutions. Understanding your needs and limitations equips you with the intel to support yourself, which could make it easier to trust your judgment.
Often, we know ourselves pretty well, but we don’t trust that fact because we’ve disappointed ourselves too many times. If you have a laundry list of regrets or bad decisions under your belt, it’s crucial to begin the process of letting them go and forgiving yourself. “Write down all of the mistakes you can think of over the past few months,” Dr. Ford suggests. “Are you overgeneralizing from a couple of bad recent decisions, or is this an enduring pattern across many different situations?” Sometimes cringe-worthy blunders can seem way more impactful than they actually are, he explains. Seeing them written down can help you remember that you make good decisions way more often than the bad choices that live rent-free in your mind.
“Another pattern that can lead to a loss of self-trust is a tendency to make good decisions but not stick to them,” Dr. Ford says. And this is where earning back your trust over time can help. When I think of how I’ve grown, it has been partly through the low-stakes ways I show up for myself. I’ve written about them: I make plans, meditate, recite affirmations, and go to therapy. I celebrate myself (and others), I try to rest when I need to. These small habits—some of them silly—have had a cumulative effect. I’ve learned that I’m the best person to keep myself safe and healthy. This doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. It just means that, in the lifelong love affair between me, myself, and I—I have the confidence necessary to (eventually) figure things out.
If you’re struggling to trust yourself because you have broken promises in the past, create small commitments to yourself (and keep them). It doesn’t matter where you start, but making one low-stakes promise to yourself (like, I will cook lunch on Wednesday) might help you think of yourself as someone you can rely on. “If you can mentally see yourself making good judgments in circumstances where you previously weren’t at your best, that can help restore self-trust,” Dr. Ford says. And if you can keep tiny self-promises, in the same way strangers eventually become friends, you might find that you can rely on yourself a little more.