Think back to who you were at age 5. What were you like? What were your favorite things? What would your 5-year-old self tell you now? Remembering who you ARE before somebody told you otherwise keeps you focused on your true self. Be the person your 5-year-old self would be proud of.
Starting something new is scary. Learning to believe in yourself can be a critical precursor to starting a new initiative. Why is it so important to learn to believe in yourself? How can someone work on gaining these skills? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders, authors, writers, coaches, medical professionals, teachers, to share empowering insights about “How To Learn To Believe In Yourself.” As a part of this series we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stevie Pena.
Dr. Stevie Peña is a highly experienced mental health counselor with over 15 years of expertise in the field. She specializes in relationship development, both in personal and professional settings, leveraging her background as an Air Force officer to bring complex ideas into real-world practice. Her direct approach and open style make her a sought-after expert in leadership training programs for hospitals and local organizations.
Dr. Stevie’s qualifications include a Ph.D. in business psychology, as well as dual master’s degrees in management and counseling psychology. Throughout her career, she has helped families navigate substance abuse and provided crisis response to organizations experiencing loss. Additionally, she volunteers her free time to support local elementary schools.
Based in South Florida, Dr. Stevie provides training and support throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. Her approach helps individuals build confidence in navigating various relationships and empowers them to achieve their full potential. With her extensive experience and expertise, Dr. Stevie is a trusted resource for individuals and organizations seeking to improve their personal and professional relationships.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was a scientist from the moment I could remember, taking things apart and putting them back together. What fascinated me most was a desire to understand people, namely myself and the two people who raised me. From an early age, I understood that I was different — I spent most of my time playing by myself, creating blueprints of my future home, or taking apart our appliances. I thought other kids my age didn’t make sense, and I judged them often by their inappropriate and childlike behaviors. Lacking the emotional expressiveness my family valued, I was led to believe that something was wrong with me. That I was mean, as my parents repeatedly told me. To cope, I spent a great deal of time learning about people and how to successfully interact with them. And when I wasn’t studying people and journaling my findings, I was creating art.
This combination of art and social science kept me occupied and out of the house, escaping my abusive father and emotionally unstable mother. Still, I tried to make sense of my mother, who repeatedly triangulated me into becoming her therapist, and my father, who I would see being an amazing support and coach to his students, yet demonstrated a severe lack of daddy skills in his own home. Ever aiming to please them and grow out of the idea that I was mean for not putting other people’s feelings first, I overcompensated by ONLY listening to other people’s feelings. My true self retreated inward, only to be expressed through art — it was my escape. Publicly, my life was consumed by it, but privately my world was organized around three fundamental questions. Why are my parents the way they are? Why am I different? And how can I learn to make and keep friends? Thus my study of the human psyche continued, and the foundation for my career in counseling was established.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
It was a combination of my mom and great mentors who guided me to discover my passion.
Car rides to visit extended family were an opportunity for my mom to have 12 hours of undivided Stevie attention. And she used them to the full benefit. She regaled me with tales of her traumatic childhood, poor relationships between family friends, the history and current state of her marriage, and the plight of the human race. My scientific mind eagerly accepted all the provided data and analyzed it to find cause, effect, and solutions. It seemed so easy! I was convinced these problems were solvable and ready to share my knowledge. Despite my excitement to help those around me, I discovered that people didn’t want to hear how they contributed to their problems or how to fix them. Actually, people get pretty offended when offered unsolicited advice. Still, this training ground offered me the opportunity to practice my listening skills and my theories for how people were often complicit in their suffering, even if it wasn’t until many years later that I learned to deliver this tidbit with tact.
At age 25, I was earning a master’s degree while an officer in the Air Force. A professor introduced the class to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and my life changed. EVERYTHING made sense. For the first time, it was explained to me that people think differently, and that’s okay. That I was okay. I discovered that there is no one way of being that is more successful than another, the secret is using the right tools at the right time. I found such freedom in being able to recognize strengths and underdeveloped areas WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. I used this new formula to develop leadership training for my troops, communicate more effectively with my husband, and better understand how my worldview and experiences differed from others. I found a way to make people happy. And I was eager to share my magic. As a licensed counselor, my clinical training has gone beyond the MBTI. I now use an assortment of tools to help people, but the knowledge that tool provided inspired my career. It helped me accept who I am, and I want everyone to have that same opportunity.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made was thinking a doctoral degree in my field was a good idea. Let me explain.
At the time, I had just been granted my counseling license after earning two master’s degrees. I was practicing in the field that I’d always felt was my calling. I expected to be happy, but like for so many of us, in achieving those things, the goalpost only shifted. So, I thought, “If I just earned a doctorate, that would be it! I will finally feel accomplished.” So, I found a phenomenal Ph.D. in counseling program, in-person, and close to home. I applied and did all the ‘things’ an interested candidate would do: I set up meetings with faculty, skimmed the research interests of staff members, and dressed professionally for the in-person interview. It was a group interview, something for which my military training prepared me. But I wasn’t prepared to publicly discover my true disinterest in professional counseling. Sure, I loved psychology, and I loved working with my clients; therefore, counseling had to be my passion, right? Wrong. My head believed this program was the savior for my existential crisis, but my heart was screaming, ‘What are you thinking!’
I totally bombed that interview. And when I say bombed, I mean I reverted to my class clown antics in a professional group interview. I got the laughs, but the look of pure disappointment from one of the interviewers when he realized I was the anticipated Air Force Officer veteran applicant, is burned in my memory. I left the interview and laughed the entire hour’s drive home. But, that was the public humiliation I needed to remind me of the consequences of not living in alignment with my true self. And I did something about it.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am working on two exciting projects. The first is a series of videos about emotions and how they affect us in the workplace. It is such an important topic that we often overlook. I mean, we’re not supposed to have feelings at work, right? Well, tell that to your racing heart when your supervisor brings you in to discuss your performance. Despite what we have been taught, we feel all the time, and that’s okay! It’s what we do with the feelings that matter. So I explain how emotions happen, and how we can continue to be our confident selves, especially at work.
The second is my program to bring essential counseling skills to those who function as counselors in their careers without the title — namely stylists, nurses, and front office managers. My clinical training as a therapist equips me to manage people’s anger and hear traumatic tales while remaining compassionate and present, but not all people turn to professional counselors. Often the chair we sit and pour our troubles, relationship issues, and fears into is the salon seat or medical bed. This project is meant to share therapeutic tools with those who most use them, so stylists can continue their passion while limiting the burnout that comes from bearing others’ emotional stress.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to believe in yourself? Can you share a story or give some examples?
I was recently working with a gentleman who was struggling with motivation. He works as a personal trainer and ‘knows’ all the tips and tricks to get things done, but even that knowledge just wasn’t getting him to tackle his growing checklist. He was listening to the ‘experts’ who say, “have a consistent schedule,” “set time aside to do tasks,” and “wake up at the same time every day.” Listening to those experts left him feeling guilty that he couldn’t do it. But when he gave himself permission to work when he was motivated — which often was right before the deadline — he got things done! And they were quality products. And he enjoyed doing it. He was trying so hard to do the ‘right thing’ that he stopped believing in his right thing. By the end of our conversation, his motivation returned, and he was excited about his next steps.
There are so many ‘experts’ out there that give fabulous advice. There are a million ways of doing things, or perceiving, or being, that are shown to be successful. But when the ‘successful way’ is not true to who you are, you feel guilt, shame, and just plain bad. You are using someone else’s metric to measure your success. And that just doesn’t work.
What exactly does it mean to believe in yourself? Can I believe that I can be a great artist even though I’m not very talented? Can I believe I can be a gold medal Olympic even if I’m not athletic? Can you please explain what you mean?
I believe anyone can accomplish anything so long as they are willing to do what it takes. The challenge lies in what needs to be done to achieve those goals. It’s my belief that anyone can eventually develop the talent, but not everyone is willing to put in the necessary 10,000 hours of hard work. That’s where belief comes into play. Believing in yourself provides the passion and motivation to do the hard work required. When I am motivated by someone else, I am not fully invested, and I tend to do just enough to get by. But when what I’m working on is true to who I am, I WANT to get up early and study. I WANT to stay up late in my shared studio space to finish my painting. I WANT to call everyone I know to share my new project ideas.
Beyond fueling your passion, believing in yourself also saves you when you encounter the inevitable roadblocks. Being told ‘no’ sucks. Being denied funding can be devastating. That rejection will root out your true intentions because when you are being true to yourself — when you’re meant to do something — setbacks may slow you down, but they won’t stop you.
Was there a time when you did not believe in yourself? How did this impact your choices?
Despite a lifelong sense of self-belief, it took military boot camp for me to learn what it actually meant to not believe in myself. During obstacle training, I looked at the dangling rope in front of me with much skepticism, sure my arms were too weak to make the climb. Out loud, I said, “There’s no way.” For this admitted self-doubt, the master sergeant observing the course yelled at me. Of course, in my head, it wasn’t doubt; it was honesty. I reminded myself that my assessment was based on my pre-bootcamp capabilities. Reluctantly, I started to climb. I got pretty high, but I didn’t go to the top. I stopped myself before pushing that high.
I still look back on that day and kick myself. I didn’t recognize my failure to believe in my potential. It took getting yelled at and then failing the obstacle to recognize how I failed myself. I often reflect on this situation to remind myself to be curious instead of ‘realistic.’ I don’t always know the limits of my own capabilities, but I do know that believing I can’t makes it so.
At what point did you realize that in order to get to the next level, it would be necessary to build up your belief in yourself? Can you share the story with us?
I always knew I was a good counselor. Clients and peers praised my techniques, and I spent a lot of time and energy honing my skills. Despite my therapeutic skills, I often found myself engaged in professional disagreements with management. These conflicts made me question the effectiveness of the entire healthcare system. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, but something within the system prevented me. I knew that to make the impact I knew people deserved, I would have to do something different, which was scary. I questioned myself and my skills to see if something was wrong with me. But I could not ignore the voices of people who wanted help and were denied. Watching people’s struggle motivated me to believe in myself (yes, it took others to believe in me). I felt responsible to do something, which meant I had to do it alone. I had to believe in my skills and knowledge to make the impact I knew would benefit others. And I did.
What are your top 5 strategies that will help someone learn to believe in themselves? Please share a story or example for each.
1 . The phrase “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” was hanging on the wall in the bathroom at one of the facilities where I worked. It is so true! Remind yourself that it’s your job to be you because everyone is doing their job can kickstart you into believing you are special and worth your time and energy.
2 . Get to know your inner emotional landscape. We often move through our emotions quickly and get stuck in our heads. Keeping our feelings in without addressing them will enable them to take control, making room for doubt to creep in. Instead, taking the time to feel our feelings and saying the emotions out loud, allows you to process and let go. Then our heads are less clouded, and we can make the right decisions. I always find it helpful to remember that emotions are fleeting and not permanent. You are not your emotions. Feel the feelings, and let them go.
3 . Journal. Start by writing down “What do I truly want?” and watch what emerges. Your inner self is there, but they may not know how to reach out. Free writing (writing whatever arises without directing it) allows that voice to be heard. When you get stuck, try the prompt, “Why am I stuck?” and see what follows.
4 . Ask three of your close people what their favorite things are about you. Then see if you agree. Keep the things that make your heart sing, and let go of the stuff that doesn’t support your understanding of your own amazingness.
5 . Think back to who you were at age 5. What were you like? What were your favorite things? What would your 5-year-old self tell you now? Remembering who you ARE before somebody told you otherwise keeps you focused on your true self. Be the person your 5-year-old self would be proud of.
Conversely, how can one stop the negative stream of self-criticism that often accompanies us as we try to grow?
It always helps me to know the science behind things. Simply put, our brains are lazy. We don’t like the work, so anytime I want to grow or do something different, my brain is going to fight against it. So, when the voices come that scream, “No! Don’t do it! You will fail! You’re not smart! You’re going to embarrass yourself,” or whatever else the voices will say, I remind myself that it is because I’m on the right path! The easy things are the things I’m already doing. So the louder the negativity the closer I am to growing!
Are there any misconceptions about self-confidence and believing in oneself that you would like to dispel?
Yes! I am tired of people prefacing statements with “I am not conceited” before talking about their accomplishments. Own your worth! Say your truth. If someone takes it as conceitedness or cockiness, that’s on them! If you are that good, own it! That should be enough. Saying, “I’m the best sales consultant in my company,” or “People really trust me with their lives,” doesn’t make you a monster. It makes you good at your job.
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with imposter syndrome?
My training and education taught me that everyone feels like an imposter. I filed this information away, but when I later read that even Neil Gaiman feels like an imposter, I was sold. If such a talented and diverse writer is waiting for the world to realize he’s a fraud, then I guess everyone else is, too.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If we, the people, believed that everyone is a good person and has really good reasons to do the things they do, we would treat others with compassion and understanding. People who do bad things have good reasons. If they had different knowledge or options, they would choose differently. Everyone believes they are good people, and can trace the undercurrent of “good” in their actions and motivations. But when it comes to judging others, we believe they are bad people and are doing things for bad reasons. The truth is, we are all doing our best, and if we knew differently, we would do differently.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I would love to have coffee with Neale Godfrey. She shared part of her story with a group of women veterans, and I was amazed. She describes her experiences of injustice with acceptance and humor, and I want to know how she did it. Maybe I could soak up some of her inspiration and share it with others, as she did throughout her life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
All of my projects are available on my website at www.drsteviepena.com
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.