From vision to action: how to beat a lack of self-belief

My friend has a failure to follow through. He is full of ideas. Catch him on the right day and you’ll be blown away by what a happy, vibrant, and creative person he is – always leading the conversation, always ready with an idea for taking things forward. Every now and again, he’ll astound me with a new idea for a book, a project, or a business initiative. The next week I’ll ask him how things are going. He’ll be cagey. ‘Oh, ok’. Time drags on and the great idea drops from view. It is a continuing cycle: ideas proliferate but plans go nowhere.

My friend is a visionary thinker. But he continually fails to follow through on his ideas.

I was talking to another friend about Philosophy for Change. This person is empowered individual, the CEO of a successful tech company. He brought into focus what the problem is: a question of self-belief. The gist of his insight was as follows:

‘What if someone doesn’t believe in themselves? What if they’ve been told from day one: ‘You’re no good’. They may be brimming over with ideas. But when it comes to applying these ideas and realizing them, they don’t have the courage for it. It is not that they don’t believe in their ideas. They don’t believe in themselves, and thus they don’t believe they can achieve these ideas’.

It is a genuine problem. Plenty of people have the capacity to think and dream. Without a robust sense of self-worth, however, these dreams tend to remain dreams. We know where we want to go. We just don’t believe that we have the resources to get us there.

How do you overcome a paralyzing lack of self-belief? The solution may seem straightforward: you need to change the way you think about yourself. If your beliefs about your worth or ability are holding you back, the obvious thing is to correct these beliefs, and to find positive, self-affirming, beliefs to replace them. But are bad beliefs really the cause of the problem? When one says: ‘I believe I am no good’, one is not just stating a fact about the world, one is expressing a mental state – a state that derives from a swathe of feelings linked to painful, and deeply embedded memories and experiences. Positive self-actualization can help you feel better about yourself in the short term. But it is a bit like polishing a surface without cleaning it first. We spread the grime around. Sooner or later, the dirt is back and we are at stage one again.

In the final analysis, a lack of self-belief is not caused by bad beliefs – it is caused by the negative reprocessing of past experience. The first step towards addressing this problem is to see the problem as a process. Lack of self-belief is the product of a continuing process of negative visioning. To correct the self-conception, we need to change the way that we envision life and being.

What is visioning? We associate visioning with thought leaders and innovators. In fact, we all develop visions of the future on a daily basis. The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) conceived visioning as a matter of recollection and projection. We draw on memories of the past to create a mental map of the future, which we use to orient our activity as we travel through the present. We are visioning as we stumble from bed early in the morning, working on ‘auto pilot’, guided by memories of how to proceed. We are visioning as we fall into bed, exhausted by the day, subliminally preparing ourselves for the morning to come.

Visioning is not necessarily a conscious process. Mostly we recycle experiences without thinking about it – projecting them forth subconsciously to form an implicit horizon of anticipation and expectation.

The important point is that the kinds of experiences we recycle determine the way that we experience the future. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a life of positive experiences, you’ll feel strong and confident as a result. If you’ve suffered a life of disempowering experiences, you’ll most likely look into the future and see the same traps and barriers that you’ve encountered before waiting to trip you up.

This is how we participate in creating a negative conception of our person. Lack of self-belief is created by the habitual recycling of disempowering memories. To overcome a lack of self-belief, we need to target the cycle of negative reprocessing that creates this self-perception. We need to burrow down into the way that we draw on the past to create the future. We need to transform our process of visioning.

This is not easy, but it is possible. Ultimately, there is no necessary reason why you or I should reach into the past in such and such a way, seize on this or that memory in our storehouse of experiences and project it forward to create a vision of the future. The fact is, however, that we do do this in a certain way. To beat a lack of self-belief, we need to take charge of the process. We need to shift the way that we draw on the past to anticipate the future. Everyone’s life experience offers them some examples of personal achievement and empowerment. Why not recycle these memories instead of the disempowering ones? What could possibly prevent you from doing so?

The short answer is trauma. If one has suffered a traumatic experience, it can be extremely difficult to shift one’s recollection of the past and refocus on one’s achievements. In such cases, one is best seeking professional help to overcome the negative conditioning.

In less extreme cases, change can be achieved through positive visioning. Positive visioning involves rummaging about in the past, taking what you consider to be most empowering and projecting it into the future.

Here are three techniques you can use to help you cultivate a positive view of life and being. Practicing these techniques helps you refocus the way that you draw on the past to create a sense of the future. The aim is to cultivate a positive and optimistic perception of the future by drawing on the recollection of successes of the past.

Technique 1: Recall empowering experiences. Identify five experiences you’ve had that have heightened your sense of capacity and potential. Jot them down in note form on a sheet of paper. Now imagine the kinds of contexts that would enable you to enjoy similar experiences today or tomorrow. How might you engage with your tasks and colleagues so as to reactivate these empowering experiences?

Technique 2: Apply unique skills. Think of some things that you do well, perhaps better than other people. Record these activities on a sheet of paper. Now imagine some contexts that would enable you to apply these talents and skills. Can you identify a common situation that you could use to practice your powers? Go make use of it! Apply your unique skills at every opportunity. The more you do this, the more you add to your storehouse of empowering memories, and the easier it becomes to project a positive vision of the future.

Technique 3: Cultivate Damascus road experiences. Think of the process of negative visioning as a matter of laying down a path through time. All of us are on a journey through time, and we all play a certain role in creating the route we take. We create this path through recollection and projection. By drawing on memories of the past, we cast a visionary timeline into the future and follow it to the horizon.

Imagine yourself on this singular path through time. Now think of some alternative paths that you could create by reprocessing empowering experiences instead of disempowering ones. Recall your most empowering experiences. Consider your unique talents and how you could creatively apply them. Put these paths together to make a crossroads of sorts. Imagine that you are standing at the nexus of these paths in time, trying to decide which way to go. Should you press on with the route that you were treading or should you take the road less travelled?

Whatever you decide, you should cherish this moment of decision and sustain it for as long as you can. You are enjoying a moment outside of time, just off the beaten path of life. It is here that the truly creative experiences in life take place.


  1. Thanks – good advice.

    “Self-efficacy” is a useful concept, as well. It’s the idea of developing competence, and gaining a confidence in one’s competence as a result. (At least that’s a key part of self-efficacy.)

  2. Another factor is habits – starting with small habits and entrenching them has a huge impact on our effectiveness, our ability to get things done.

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