Once upon a time, someone believed I could be a mountaineer. And it changed my life. When you’re doing something that huge and scary for the first time, it’s hard to know how to believe in yourself. You almost need someone else to believe for you.
I remember standing next to my instructor looking up at my first couloir. It looked completely vertical, this thousand-foot wall of snow. “You can totally do this,” he kept telling me as sweat broke out on my forehead. “You’re gonna love it.” And he was right.
But you can’t always rely on other people for your courage and motivation.
Because in the outdoors — and in life — you will eventually run into naysayers and nonbelievers. Honestly, the better you get, the more of these you will have.
Here are just a few of the messages I’ve gotten about myself lately as I’ve moved into more high-altitude types of mountaineering:
- I’m too slow
- I should really start working out
- I’m too fat
- I need to sacrifice more and show more commitment
- I’m too cautious
- It’s all my fault the Z-haul fell apart
- If I don’t want to ascend 50 meters with a full pack on my third day ever of ice climbing, I’m a wuss
- Maybe I should just stick to summer fourteeners
So yeah, it’s been a brutal couple of months. But what I miss most is having that one person, who’s seen me in action, knows me well, and can tell me with conviction, “You got this, girl.”
And you know what? Sometimes in life, there’s no one in your corner. You just have to know how to believe in yourself — fiercely, unshakably, and passionately, even when the rest of the world writes you off.
And you can. Here’s how.
1. Don’t need or expect anyone else to believe
Our society romanticizes having a champion. We like to say that no one ever gets anywhere worthwhile without the help, inspiration, love, and support of others.
And those things certainly don’t hurt. I just interviewed a doctor who was the first member of his family to go to college. He rattled off dozens of people who’d helped and believed in him — teachers, profs, mentors, you name it.
But what I didn’t ask him about (because this was supposed to be a happy story) were the times when he had to go it alone. Because I’m willing to bet there were some black days when there was no one there to pick him up and dust him off when things got shitty.
Rugged self-reliance isn’t a heart-warming topic. It’s definitely not something we proclaim on Facebook or read about in Chicken Soup for the Soul.
But the unsexy truth is, anyone who’s ever gone after a big goal has faced times when they just had to slog on alone through the shit storm without much positive reinforcement.
So it’s nice when the people we care about and look up to affirm us. But it’s not necessary for us to move forward. It really isn’t.
The most important thing is knowing how to believe in yourself.
2. Know what’s really bothering you
It’s super easy to slide from hearing a few negative messages to questioning everything about yourself. So if others’ judgments have you wondering how to believe in yourself, it’s time to stop, sit, down, and get some perspective.
Some good questions to ask yourself:
- What are the messages you’re getting that hurt the most? Why?
- Whose doubting bothers you most? Why?
I think the hardest ones for me are judgments about my weight. No matter how small or well-intended, these totally hit my berserk button.
Why? Because I’ve always been insecure about it. I was one of those girls who had boobs and an ass at age eight. Even when I’m in fantastic shape with 16 percent body fat, I’m floating right at the very top of the “acceptable” BMI range.
I’ve spent my whole life hearing well-meaning comments about how I just need to “try harder” or “work out more.” Because clearly I must not work out as hard as a skinny chick, right? (Which, let me assure you, is absolute bullshit.)
So once you know what bothers you and why, challenge it. For example, I have to tell myself that being curvy has jack shit to do with skill, motivation, leadership, fitness, or anything else that matters.
In other words, don’t let other people’s inconsiderate statements and stupid beliefs become yours.
3. Reconnect with your burning desire
When you’re slogging through a rough patch without much encouragement and wondering how to believe in yourself, take a moment to remember why you’re doing this shit in the first place.
Take yourself back to a time when you were really living and breathing this passion of yours. What did it look like? Feel like? What dreams and desires did it stir up in you?
For me, with this high altitude mountaineering thing, I always think back to my first summer in Colorado. I was working as a backpacking guide, so I was out on the trail with groups five days a week. It was a pretty grueling work schedule. You had to be switched on and responsible for other people 24-7.
So we’d get back to basecamp on Friday and say goodbye to our clients Saturday morning. And then I’d turn around and go right back out for another hike. A big hike, like 20 miles.
People thought it was kind of weird. (True burning desires often strike others as bizarre.) But in that moment, I couldn’t have cared less. I just knew I wanted to be out there every second.
So now when I hear yet another inconsiderate remark or get yet another ranty email or get ditched on yet another training hike, I try to go back to that very pure place of love for the sport.
Because no matter how bad things get, I don’t think I can let that girl down.
4. Be pissed
There are lots of reasons we try to suppress anger. It’s not professional. It’s not ladylike. We worry that if we show just a little, we’ll spiral into a slobbering rage monster.
Well you know what? Feeling you anger can also show you how to believe in yourself. It can help us detect manipulation, prejudice, insincerity, and other icky things our conscious minds don’t want to see.
It can also give us a little kick in the ass when something needs to be said or a confrontation needs to happen.
And finally, it can be a source of motivation. Because you know what’s the best part of being written off by people? Proving them wrong. Living well, as they say, is the best revenge.
On the other hand, being deeply and endlessly pissed is no fun either. You can’t right all the wrongs in the world, and you can’t change all the jerks. So don’t be ashamed to let some stuff go. Be too busy chasing your burning desire to stop for negativity.
5. Get to know your biggest naysayer
If you feel like no one believes in you, be open to the idea you might be wrong.
When I was in college, I worked at a summer camp that was huge on community building. On the first day of staff training, the director had us look around and silently pick out a person who intimidated us. And then he gave us a mission: go out of your way to get to know that person.
So I totally did it (three years in a row, in fact). And I’m happy to report that in three out of three cases, my first impressions of the “intimidating” person were insanely off base.
One woman, in fact, turned out to be painfully shy. She was also very pretty and put together, which my brain instantly translated into “snotty.” This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I actually became quite good friends with another woman who came across as insanely bold and confident. (And in many ways, she was. But she’d also had a lot of struggles and naysayers in her life. It turns out that confidence was hard won.)
The moral of the story: never assume someone’s judging you or looking down on you until you really get to know them. First impressions often say more about ourselves than the other person.
6. Find yourself some goddamn believers
One of the great things about being an adult is that you have the privilege of moving on when something sucks. So if the people around you seriously don’t believe in you or support you, maybe it’s time to show them the deuces.
Granted, knowing when to piss off from a bad situation can be a bit of an art. Because as much as we dream otherwise, there’s no such thing as a perfect team, a magic workplace, or a flawless relationship.
Then again, most people err on the side of staying in bad situations too long. Human beings have an inherent cognitive bias toward the status quo. We’re evolved to consider what we could lose by rocking the boat more than the potential gains of tipping that sucker over.
Some things to think about as you ponder you escape:
- What’s my biggest fear about leaving? How realistic is it?
- What does staying cost me?
- Is there any payoff in waiting around? Is it worth it? Are there other ways I could get it?
- What’s the likelihood that things will improve?
- Can I do anything to help the situation?
Most people will only move on when the pain of staying outweighs the pain of taking action. But for those who do cut the cord, the reaction is very often, “Wow, I wish I’d done this earlier!”
7. Believe in someone
One of the great things about enduring others’ doubts is that it makes you a stronger, more compassionate person. So now that you know how to believe in yourself when no else will, why not shine a light for someone else?
Sure, we all need the mental toughness and self-reliance to make it through the lonely times. But it takes superhuman strength to sustain that for years while we work toward a long-term goal. Sooner or later, we all need a champion who believes in us.
Chances are, there’s someone out there right now who’s bravely making their way through a ton of negativity and chaos. You know how to believe in yourself. Go show them it can be done.