I want to start this post out by stating that I am not a licensed mental health professional, and the advice I’m about to give is not a substitute for real therapy and mental health management. They are only strategies I’ve learned along the way and tried to implement in my daily life.

I think sometimes we all struggle with confidence and self-image. When you like yourself, you’re more able to present your genuine self, and other people will like you more. You’ll be more willing to be daring, to take risks, to innovate, and to speak up about your ideas. You’ll be a more effective and persuasive communicator, and better at building relationships and community.

But how do we get through those times when we don’t feel the best about ourselves?

This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. In fact, I still struggle with it. But I’ve implemented these strategies in my life and I’ve seen some success with them.

This is not a panacea, and it’s not easy. They’re work, and they take practice. But I think they’re worth it.

State Your Feelings as Feelings

When we’re struggling with negative thoughts, whether they’re about ourselves or about something in the external world, it helps to express those thoughts and feelings. But when we state them as fact, we are more likely to believe them. This is an apparent paradox that I struggled with a lot.

But a good friend said to me once that while your feelings are real, they may not be true

This was a statement that I thought about for days, and the more I thought about it, the more it changed the way I look at myself and at the world. And slowly, I started stating my feelings as feelings, and not as fact. For example, after making a mistake, I would not think I’m so stupid, but instead, I feel so stupid. The first is a statement on reality, and the second is an expression of feeling.

The cult of positivity exhorts us to avoid all negative self talk, but the negative feelings we have need to be talked about. This strategy allows me to explore and express negative thoughts without risking further embedding them in my mind.

Practice Mindfulness

I don’t necessarily mean meditation, though that’s a good way to practice. What I mean is redirecting your attention to what’s in front of you.

That’s difficult in this culture. It’s difficult when you’ve got long term goals to move toward and a dozen tasks needing your attention and “multitasking” is an assumed skill.

Multitasking is not really a thing. What looks like multitasking is really task switching, and it can actually lead to a reduction in work performance, feelings of overwhelm, and wondering why everyone else can handle things that you struggle with.

This is a simple concept. Note, without judgement, when you find yourself thinking about the future, or about a task other than the one that’s in front of you, note it, without judgement, and consciously shift your focus back to what’s in front of you. 

Despite its simplicity, this takes practice and work. You will find yourself worrying about other things many, many times in a day, and this experience can be very frustrating. Resisting the urge to judge these moments negatively has been one of the hardest aspects of the practice for me, but it’s also very important.

Celebrate Small Successes

While we all have larger goals to work toward, it’s important to acknowledge your small successes, your milestones. While many of us will beat ourselves up over every little failure, we will ignore the little moments of triumph; moments that can offset our mistakes in our internal landscape and help keep us more balanced, confident, and focused.

We must not let these little triumphs go unnoticed.

We should be able to take pride and enjoyment in as many pieces of our work as possible. Seeing each success as a thing to be celebrated generates more pride in yourself. Even successes that are only steps in a larger process can be celebrated.

These celebrations can take many forms, but they can be as simple as sitting back for just a moment and feeling good about what you’ve done. 

Instead of saving your pride for when you’ve finished the manuscript, take a moment to feel pride about the thousand words you wrote today. It’ll leave you more likely to sit down and write more tomorrow.

Compare Yourself to Yourself

Comparing yourself to your peers not only can result in you feeling badly about yourself, it can kindle feelings of jealousy and negativity toward your peers; impairing working relationships, collaborations, even friendships. When you do this, you’re only working with a limited set of information, and often we draw the wrong conclusions from this information.

Everyone has their struggles. When you compare yourself to your peers, you are ignoring their struggles, the piece of information we most often lack when making these comparisons. 

The best way to benchmark your performance is to compare yourself to yourself. Making forward progress in your craft or profession is always forward progress. Mistakes are always lessons to be learned that give you insight into what you’re doing. Comparing yourself to yourself gives you vital information on your own performance, and areas in which you need to focus and improve.

Comparing yourself to others doesn’t give that insight, because you don’t know where or how that person is struggling (we’re all struggling sometimes, somewhere). You can’t make the same judgments because you don’t have all the information. You’ll get a lot more benefit through introspection and striving to improve beyond your own past performance.

Understand Mistakes as Practice

Did you know that it takes the average smoker between 8 and 14 quit attempts to stop smoking?

The good news about this is that each quit attempt makes the smoker more likely to quit.

Because those quit attempts are practice.

When you regard your mistakes as practice, this opens the door to learn from them; to collect information necessary to improving performance on your next attempt. 

Mistakes are inevitable. What leads to success is examining and learning from those mistakes. Doing this requires one to regard those mistakes dispassionately, without judgement.

When we allow these mistakes to damage our self-confidence, we hamper our own ability to learn from them, replacing “how can I succeed” with “why I can’t succeed.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, sometimes even leading us to give up on even trying. Sometimes, this attitude of judgment leads to a fear of failure so intense that it rules out success.

Now, I’m not much of a self-help person. I’m actually a self-help skeptic. And I’m not here to say “my life was a mess, but through this set of behaviors I’ve turned it all around.” I will say that my life has been a continuous iterative process, trying to figure out what works for me, and how I work, in ways that are more likely to lead me to success. 

I offer these strategies to you because if you struggle, like I do, with self-confidence, one or more of these might help.

Oh, Bernie Sanders. To some, a rumpled and benevolent socialist uncle. To others, a bumbling but harmless elder, out of touch with the times. To still others, a real danger to the status quo from which they benefit. But the Bernie Sanders campaign is employing a branding strategy, intentionally or not (I think it’s intentional), known as hostile branding.

Hostile branding is a strategy of aggressive differentiation, often targeting the personal identity of the target market. Part of the strategy is to explicitly exclude those not in the target market, engendering feelings of exclusivity, aspiration, and/or uniqueness in the target audience.

In this post I want to take a look at some of the elements of the hostile brand, and see how they relate to the Bernie Sanders campaign in both 2016 and 2020.

Love it or Leave it

Part of hostile brand strategy is to choose a brand personality and stick to it, proudly and unapologetically. Bernie appeals on camera looking rumpled and disheveled, consistently and without apology or self-consciousness. He makes the same appeals over and over again, without adjusting to feedback that he recieves from the electorate. There are no apologies, sincere or not; no backtracking. He maintains the identity of “democratic socialist” despite the fact that it is alienating and frightening to some.

This forces people to either get in line behind Sanders or not. This is a part of why Sanders is a polarizing political figure.

Cult-like appeal

The Love-it-or-leave-it strategy results in a kind of us-and-them mentality among Sanders’s most fervent supporters. You’re either with Bernie, or you’re an obstruction at best, an outright enemy at worst. I had a friend tell me during the 2016 campaign that if you didn’t support Bernie Sanders, “you’re basically Ann Coulter.”

Yeah, we’re not friends anymore.

This cult-like appeal is not an accident; it’s a strategy employed by the campaign. Sanders made himself into the leader of a movement (hence his political group, named Our Revolution), and that movement has revolutionary change at its heart. If you’re not embracing that revolutionary change, you’re one of Them.

This appeals to people of a certain identity; it reinforces that sense of identity and in fact rewards them for it with a sense of moral superiority.

Less is more

Sanders’s campaign is built on dreams. Aspirations. A vision of what America could be. There’s no real roadmap to those ends; he doesn’t talk about what he’ll do to implement these things with an actively oppositional Senate (and House, maybe. Who knows what the future holds).

I’m betting this is also not by accident.

Bernie Sanders is campaigning against the system, against the status quo, against the Democratic Party itself! Having plans to actually implement his agenda would involve the admission that he’d have to dirty his hands by working with The Enemy. An admission that instead of breaking the system, he would have to work from within it in order to produce the results he and his supporters want to see so very badly.

Moreover, it would be a tacit admission of the fact that their revolutionary movement could fail. Bernie paints every moment of his vision as all but inevitable; his supporters see it as a righteous revolution. Admitting that it could fail invites the chill of reality into that vision, and cools the fires of the passion he’s worked so hard to inspire.

Perceived authenticity

Bernie’s lack of polish, his unabashed connection to socialism, his gruff manner, all of it lies in stark contrast to his political contemporaries. He is, in fact, breaking the rules. And breaking the rules, appearing to be different than others in the competitive field, is courting both success and disaster. Sanders’s willingness to maintain this persona in the face of possible disaster is a marker of authenticity.

Other politicians’ apparent bending to these rules of political campaigning makes them feel inauthenitc; it implies that they are willing to change themselves to play the game. 

This contrast is a strong differentiator; Sanders, as far as his stans are concerned, is not just another politician. And his apparent authenticity leads his stans to believe that he’s someone they can trust. He won’t just sell them down the river like the last politician and the last one, back into the mists of history. Bernie, as far as they can tell, is the Real Deal.

The Risks of Hostile Branding

Much of hostile branding is based around the alienation of the outsider. Lululemon alienates women who are “not meant” to wear yoga pants (meaning women who don’t adhere to the white, thin, young vision held by western beauty standards). American Eagle (and several other “fast fashion” brands) differentiated themselves unapologetically by refusing to offer sizing above the “straight sizing” range, excluding a large group of people from their offerings.

Most hostile brands see that there’s room to prosper within their chosen target market. The risk of alienating all others is factored into the brand’s strategy.

However, this can go two different ways: the hostile brand becomes aspirational for those it excludes, or the alienated become actively hostile to the brand, taking action against it, up to and including direct action, like calling for boycotts.

Because of this, if you’re running a branding campaign that relies on capturing the imagination of a large part of the population, you could end up shooting yourself in the foot by using hostile branding.

I’m not saying this can never be successful in politics; Donald Trump successfully employed hostile branding in much the same way Sanders did. The reason he succeeded is that he employed it while targeting a portion of the population that holds outsized economic and political power in the United States; white people.

Sanders cannot win with democrats this way, so it makes his use of this campaign strategy more complicated.

Hostile Branding and Populism

Populism is defined as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

It’s easy to see how populism and hostile branding go hand in hand. You find your enemy, your status quo, your establishment, your elites, and you position yourself in opposition to them. 

However, as mentioned above, you must find a target audience that is large enough to drive your brand to success. It is difficult to later incorporate those who have been alienated by your brand.

The problem is, many of the “establishment democrats” that Sanders explicitly positions himself against have done good things, and/or represent ideas that resonate with the electorate. I had someone tell me that Sanders supporting  Stacey Abrams is a line in the sand because of her connections with the finance industry.

Stacey Abrams represents a lot of things. She’s the first black female major party gubernatorial nominee in the United States. She was the first black woman to give a response to the state of the union address. And since her loss to Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race, she’s dedicated her time to addressing racial inequity in voting rights.

Sanders is not his supporters, and did not come out in opposition to Abrams because of her ties to the finance industry, but Abrams is an establishment democrat, a member of the party. There are other examples of beloved establishment figures, and Sanders treads a delicate line when positioning himself against “party elites.”

Hostile Branding and National Politics

Regardless of your political inclinations, it’s easy to see why the democratic party is necessarily a big tent. It’s a more diverse party than the Republican party, and different groups within the party have different legislative and policy priorities.

The question is, can Bernie’s target market carry him to victory in the general election while he alienates the rest of the party?

I’m not so sure. People assume that his message of economic socialism will resonate with people, but the culinary union in Nevada vocally opposed Sanders during the primary, because they feared his healthcare plan would put their dearly fought for health benefits at risk. Sanders did not do well with southern black voters, despite his change in strategy from 2016 (which appears to mostly be not complaining about “identity politics” anymore), but he may be losing support from white middle america as a result of easing his stance on immigration.

It’s a delicate balance. Donald Trump could use racism to unite the largely white republican party. Given the democrats’ relative diversity, how can Sanders unite the party that he’s campaigning against?

He won’t do it by pretending that those other concerns don’t exist, that’s for sure.

 

Let’s get started with this: this post is not about buying stocks or saving for retirement.

This is also not about “self care” or being able to “treat yo’self.”

This is about investing in your future success. You’ll see more about that below.

During my adult life, I spend a lot of time being very poor. I was even homeless for a time. This kind of stress leaves its marks on you; one example is that I find it very difficult to spend money. It causes feelings of stress and anxiety, and the magnitude of those feelings increases along with the amount of money I’m being asked to spend.

I cried in the car on the way home with my first brand new television, for example.

I save boxes for abnormal amounts of time in case a personal financial disaster occurs and I have to take whatever new thing I’ve purchased back.

I’ve been working on getting better about this, but I still have a hard time making a clothes buying decision, for example. I will patch clothes and wear them until they’re rags, putting off replacing them as long as possible.

This is a problem when it comes to self investment.

Let’s talk about school.

I originally went to college as a teenager, using my college savings from my childhood. I was in a fine arts program, intending to transfer to a University arts program. When the money ran out, I dropped out. 

I resisted going back to school to complete my education because of the enormous price tag. It wasn’t until, unemployed after the Great Recession, my resources ran out that I filed my first FAFSA and entertained the idea of going back to school. 

I was able to do my first two years on grants alone, and I had to take out loans for the last two years of undergrad and for my MBA tuition.

The loans still make me incredibly anxious, even though I believe that this money is the smartest money I’ve ever spent on myself. I have learned and grown through my academic career in ways I do not think would have been possible on my own. Those loans represent an investment I’ve made in myself; new skills learned, new talents developed, new environments explored. Those funds represent me becoming a new and better person, and while having spent those thousands of dollars fills me with dread, I don’t actually regret it.

Now, you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to invest in yourself.. There are small ways you can invest in yourself every day.

Here are some questions I ask myself when I consider investing in myself:

Will I Learn a New Skill?

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite kind of self-investment, and perhaps the hardest for me to actually spend money on. The problem is, there are so many free learning resources available, especially in the internet age, that it gets difficult for me to spend money on it. But a lot of those resources are surface level only by design, in order to get you to pay for further curricula. And that’s when I have a hard time pulling the trigger.

But the fact is, there’s a depth of learning you’re eventually going to have to pay for to get results, unless you find yourself in the incredibly lucky position of having a friend who’s an expert who’s willing to teach you for free.

But look. Learning new things is always worth it. That doesn’t mean that all learning opportunities are worth it; some of them are garbage. For example, I have a hard time believing that writer’s conferences are worth the money they demand (there are reasons for this but that’s another blog post). 

But purchasing a course from Codecademy? Probably worth it. Many of the courses on Udemy? They’re also worth it (but you know, shop smart). Going back to school to complete your higher education? Almost definitely worth it. Adult Ed courses at your local community college? Definitely worth it.

If the skill you stand to learn is related to your professional field, all the better. But learning something you’re interested in is good too. It is not just personally fulfilling, but learning itself has benefits. You keep your mind more flexible, and make it easier to learn other things down the line. It may not make you smarter, exactly, but it does keep you from slowing down, and as an adult who returned to college, I can tell you that that’s important.

Will it Make my Life Easier?

This is the ultimate form of self-care for me (I know, I said it wasn’t about self-care, but keep reading). It may seem obvious, but making your life easier makes literally every other thing easier. We all have a limited about of mental energy to spend in a given period of time, and the mental energy you don’t put into vacuuming the rug every day because of your vacuum robot actually frees up personal resources to be redirected toward more important things.

And it’s not just doing those other things that makes things easier; it’s that you don’t have to worry about those things, too. Because that stress and worry uses up mental resources. Worrying about the fact that you haven’t had time to vacuum the rug, regardless of whether or not you actually vacuum the rug, costs you resources.  In fact, since the worry often lasts longer than the actual task itself, it may cost more resources than actually performing the task.

There’s this idea that we should feel guilty about outsourcing the menial tasks of keeping a life together, but here’s the thing; in prior ages, we had a member of the household specifically dedicated to performing these tasks. In the modern age, where many of us are a) single, or b) members of dual income households, we no longer have that option. If a meal delivery service, or a monthly visit from a housecleaning service, or a vacuum robot will make your life easier, relieve stress, and open up time for other things (like learning a new skill, perhaps?) then I say you should do it.

You still have to evaluate whether you can afford the expenditure, of course. I’m a poor grad student, and I cannot afford a vacuum robot. But man, when I re-enter the professional world and have the option to own a vacuum robot you know I’ll have one. I have a lot of things to do that are more important than vacuuming the rug. Don’t you?

Will it Make me Appear More Professional/Credible to my Peers?

Ah yes, appearances. So shallow and so unimportant, says the artist in me. Whose humanity is sufficiently represented by appearances? What kind of way is that to value human beings?

And yet.

I have always struggled with appearances as a concept. I have consistently been at odds with my appearance throughout my entire life, filled with despair that I didn’t look the way I thought I should. Not necessarily the way other people thought I should (though there’s plenty of that too), but also I never felt like I looked the way I felt. My appearances, though I would not have the words to express this until well into adulthood, never matched my identity.

And appearance is fundamental to identity. 

Investing in your appearance to confirm your identity is worthwhile because it improves happiness. Now, for some people that means clothes and manicures and hair appointments, and me, I’m honestly fine with patched jeans and graphic tees and Great Clips haircuts. But. These things will not make me appear credible to managers, recruiters, and clients. No, not even here in Bellingham, Washington.

So despite my lack of interest in blazers, after a long search process and a good online sale, I purchased myself a black blazer for job interviews, etc. I bought myself two knee length business skirts and a pair of slacks. I bought myself a blouse. I need some more blouses but like I mentioned above, I have a hard time spending money on these things. Most of these articles in fact still have the tags on them, even though the return period has passed.

This also relates to the first question; will a skill on my resume make me a more attractive hire? Will a PHP certification or a data analytics certification make me more attractive as a digital marketer? Almost certainly, even though there are managers out there responsible for similar hiring decisions that don’t even know what PHP is.

Having a certification on your resume, even if it’s only tangentially related to your field, also tells potential employers that you sought out, invested in, and completed an opportunity to learn a new skill, which says something about you.

So ask yourself the above three questions, and if your opportunity answers one or more of them, give it serious consideration. Of course, you still have to evaluate whether you can easily afford your options, and you may have to prioritize them and decide which will provide you the most value. But an investment in yourself is going to be the best money you ever spent.