7 min read

Self-belief: what Ted and Taylor get wrong

Psychologist Roger Bretherton questions whether believing in ourselves is all it’s cracked up to be, despite what culture icons might say.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A man in a blue jumper holds a yellow sign reading 'believe'.
Ted and that sign.

Psychotherapists can be really irritating. You may not have noticed how irritating they are, but I have.  And that’s saying something. Because I am one - an irritating psychotherapist that is. In nearly two decades of practicing and training people to counsel, coach and generally therapize (I know that’s not really a word, but I can’t help irritating you by using it), I have curated an ever-growing list of the therapeutic practices by which I am most likely to be irritated.  

To my mind, the gold medal in the irritating therapist Olympics goes to a winsome and playful hypnotherapist called Stephen Gilligan. Some psychotherapists treat everything that comes out of their clients’ mouths as treasures to be prized, it clearly wasn’t the way Gilligan saw it. In fact, he developed a therapeutic strategy designed to confront any sense that it is possible to define ourselves simply. Every time a client made an ‘I am…’ statement, he would respond with a twinkling eye and a lilting voice, ‘Of course, you are [insert dramatic Pinteresque pause here], except when you’re not.’  

Consequently, the pantomime of therapy goes like this. You think you’re a failure? Of course, you are... except when you’re not. You think you’re a coward?  Of course, you are... except when you’re not. You think you’re a control freak? Of course, you are... except when you’re not. You think you’re always punctual? Of course, you are... except when you’re not. You think you’re disciplined? Of course, you are... except when you’re not. You think you’re accepting of everyone? Of course, you are... except when you’re not. You think this is all really irritating? Of course, it is... except… You’ve probably got the gist of it by now. 

But why would Gilligan, with all his charm and playfulness, risk infuriating his clients like this? Perhaps because he knows something important about human identity that most of us tend to forget. None of us can be summed up in a single sentence, and whenever we try, something grates against us. Any attempt to cram the complex fabric of our lives into the all-too-tiny suitcase of our self-definitions causes us pain. After all that’s what irritation is. It is the gnawing sense that something doesn’t quite fit.  

Psychologists note the difference between anger and irritation. When we are angry, we are usually angry at something. Someone or something has blocked our plans. We’re frustrated. It’s not right and we fight against it. There is a sense of indignation and injustice. But with irritation we’re not always sure what’s bothering us, and if we are sure what it is, we’re not sure it should bother us.  It’s the young couple whispering behind us in the cinema, the door that only closes with just the right pressure, the person who subtly insults us. Not quite enough to make us leap into action, but just enough to steal our attention. To be irritated is to be slightly annoyed that we are annoyed; to be annoyed while wondering whether we have any reason to be annoyed.

We are whole and perfect just as we are, and no can tell us otherwise. It is the gospel of self-belief, that lingers on the lips of cultural icons from Taylor Swift to Ted Lasso: believe in yourself.   

Stephen Gilligan was confronting his clients with the fact that we often wear our identities like this, like ill-fitting clothes that bulge or chafe in the places where the tailoring fails to match the way our lives really are. We can be described in many ways, but we cannot ultimately be contained in, reduced to, or summed up by any single concept. Some part of us always colours outside of the lines. The human equation always leaves a remainder.  

The idea that we are ultimately a glorious mystery, even to ourselves, is not a comfortable thing to live with. We would much rather come up with a bold simple label and stick ourselves to it. At least then we’re safe from uncertainty. At least then we’d be something. Most of us to some extent play this game, and the good news is that our culture offers us numerous ways to play it. The bad news is that none of them really work. 

Perhaps the most popular way to play the identity game is to believe that we already are everything we need to be. We are whole and perfect just as we are, and no can tell us otherwise. It is the gospel of self-belief, that lingers on the lips of cultural icons from Taylor Swift to Ted Lasso: believe in yourself.  You’d think that would be a good thing to believe, but it does run into problems, particularly when the rest of the world fails to hold the same opinion of us.  

If we believe ourselves to be wonderful in every respect it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that not all our colleagues, bosses, or friends regard us with the same breathless awe. At this point, many of us modify our view of ourselves to something more realistic. But if we are not prepared to do that, there are only a limited set of options by which to square the circle of knowing ourselves to be magnificent in a world that refuses to agree with us. We can attack the world in rage, we can flee from it in fear, we can hide from it in shame. A surprising number of people respond with paranoia. Which makes sense. If almost everyone you speak to seems intent on undermining your matchless brilliance, you could be forgiven for thinking the world was out to get you. None of these responses are good. 

Thankfully, in recent years, therapeutic psychology has issued a corrective to the shortcomings of the self-esteem movement. More nuanced practices of self-acceptance and self-compassion, recognise that it is part of being human to not always be as we would like to be, and we will certainly not always be treated as we think we should be treated. A simple grandiose belief in ourselves is too flimsy to endure the buffeting of real life. Self-belief is not enough. 

Accepting acceptance is a radical reorientation of the self because it doesn’t start with us 

Some psychologists have argued that the twentieth century should be named ‘The Century of the Self’, the historical period in which Self replaced other larger concerns, such as Country or God, as the ultimate reference point for good human living. The fact that so many of us unthinkingly endorse the need for self-belief, suggests it is a popular option in our current cultural menu of ways to live with ourselves. But it is difficult not conclude that the cultural currents in which we swim are somehow misaligned, or that we suffer from a widespread lack of imagination if the lynchpin of our aspirations doesn’t really deliver. It makes me wonder if we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. 

The Christian view of all this is that we as human beings, far from being selves to believe in, are the recipients of a radical kind of acceptance. We are not called upon to generate self-acceptance out of thin air. We have been divinely accepted at the deepest possible level, not because we are special or exceptional, but as a gift to us from a generous God. All we have to do is accept that acceptance. Which is harder than it sounds, because we’d rather believe we did it under our own steam.  

Accepting acceptance is a radical reorientation of the self because it doesn’t start with us. It starts with a God who is willing to do whatever it takes to close the distance between us and Him. If God wasn’t like this, if he was vindictive or didn’t care, or if he refused to come anywhere near us until we’d reached the required height of spiritual perfection, there would be absolutely nothing we could do about it. But as it stands, all our attempts to impress God are pretty much useless. There is little point frantically reeling in a god who is already closer to us than we are to ourselves. What’s the point of trying to justify our existence if our existence has already been justified. This is where Christianity begins, but not where it ends.  

Divine acceptance does something more. If self-belief asserts that we are what we are, and no-one can tell us any different; then divine acceptance takes us as we are but refuses to leave us there. Something happens to us when we know that we are known and loved right to our bones. We no longer fear being abandoned because of our flaws, and we start to harbour a growing hope that we may be able to overcome them. Our self-awareness improves, we see ourselves more clearly. We learn to live life dynamically, with nothing left prove, but a lot still to learn.  

1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 


How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.