How to grow in confidence
You can sense it when they walk into a room. The open posture, their expansive energy and the way they carry themselves so effortlessly in their own skin. They do their work with skill, resolution and purpose, without even breaking a sweat. With some, confidence can also be loud: speaking with charisma, clarity and infectious energy. They inspire us and compel us to follow. They are leaders. They are experts. They are gods.
But this is not entirely true. Much of what we think of as confidence, is simply skillful self-presentation. When rehearsed often enough, anyone can walk the walk and talk the talk of a confident person, while still shriveling away on the inside.
To cultivate true confidence, then, we need to explore not just its external, but also the internal qualities, and how you can expand this capacity from the inside out.
Reframe your definition of confidence
First up, some clarifications:
#1. Confidence is not reserved for the elite
You may feel like confidence is something you either have, or you don’t. You may have told yourself: “It’s just not me. I’m an introvert – I can’t change that about myself.” You may believe that only the accomplished and most experienced have the ability and right to be confident. You would be wrong. The truth is: confidence is an innate human quality, available to everyone, and it can be cultivated.
#2. You are confident already
How skilled are you at walking down the street? You may not have thought about it this way, but most of us are pretty good walkers (bar some exceptions). This example may sound ridiculous, but it’s critical to understanding confidence: before you can grow in confidence, you need to recognise what it feels like, how it behaves, talks and relates. Once you get a better sense of this, you can learn to cultivate it in other areas where you feel it’s lacking. If we take walking as an example, then, what are the qualities of walking ‘confidently’?
- There is a self-forgetfulness to the action. You are so skilled at walking – granted, you started when you were about 1 or 2 years old – that you don’t even think about it anymore.
- It often feels like nothing. This is the irony of confidence: in one sense, confidence is simply not feeling insecure. Sure, you may feel a sense of pride, joy and energy, but often, confidence doesn’t feel like anything. At its core, it is the state where you are so comfortable with what you’re doing or saying, that it feels unremarkably normal. Just like walking.
#3. It is centered on others
I like to make a distinction between confidence and arrogance. It’s not a lexical distinction, but a useful way to differentiate between them.
Confidence says : a “Yes, I can!”. It’s an outward-directed energy. The more confident you are, the more your thoughts revolve around the action you take, and the people involved. You tend to forget about yourself.
Arrogance says “Yes, I can!”, with the emphasis shifting from the action and the people, to oneself.
If you only work towards appearing confident, you risk becoming arrogant. There is nothing worse than arrogant incompetence.
#4. Confidence is a result, not an accomplishment
If you want to be a better speaker, you practice speaking. Over time, by speaking at different events and parties, you’ll get better. The same counts for running, swimming or playing the piano. You can become an accomplished pianist, but you can’t accomplish confidence.
You don’t get better at confidence by practicing it directly. It is an after-effect; a consequence; a result, and a result of doing a lot of other things well. In this sense, confidence is similar to improving your fitness, or sleeping better – you go about the work indirectly, and learn to trust that, over time, your confidence will grow.
Up-skill your skill
We get confident when we do something well. Sometimes we feel a lack of confidence, despite having incredible skill. Other times, though, our lack of confidence is justified. No one is confident of cycling the first time they get on a bike: your lack of confidence is simply a sign that you need more practice.
No surgeon is confident the first time they do an op. And we’re all the better for it. As your skill improves, your confidence will follow. When this doesn’t happen, though, we need to pay attention to the following:
Redirect your attention
Our internal experiences cannot be manufactured. They are complex recipes of thoughts, ideas, hormones, beliefs, relationships and physical states that produce a sense of joy, calm, happiness, connectedness or confidence. Although you can’t exactly manufacture these states, you can most definitely influence them.
One way, is to exercise your muscle of awareness and attention. Think about the times you ‘psyched yourself up’ before a match, or when you indulged in all those sad movies after a break-up. The experience of excitement and sadness was already there, but you intensified your experience by turning your full attention to it. You effectively turned the volume up of your experience, until it became the primary state of your being.
Confidence works the same way: we don’t generate it from nothing, or by strutting around with pompous bravado. Rather, we look within to find the seed of confidence already there. And then, we simply add the necessary sunlight and water, and trust that confidence will grow naturally.
For the next week, seek out areas in your life where you are confident, and bring it into your awareness. It can be something as simple as “I am confident I can make a good cup of tea”, or “I am confident that I can organise my files”. Focus your attention on the things you do comfortably, or that you do well. Write them somewhere visible, where you can be reminded of them. Try to make the list as long as possible, by asking others to tell you what they are confident about in you.
You’ll notice that, with an increased attention on what you can do comfortably, other things that you do well will come to mind. Often, our low confidence is not a result of our lacking abilities, but rather a lack of attention on what we are able to do.
Talk your inner critic down
We all have one: that incessant, nagging voice in our heads, telling us to do better. Or, even worse, shouting over our shoulder: “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!””NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”
Don’t get me wrong, the critic is an incredibly useful and important psychological function. Most of us picked it up when we were too tiny to understand the meaning of ‘good’, so our parents, teachers and angry aunts would point it out to us. They kindly educated our brains to create an internal process of self-correction, which – for the most part – keeps us out of trouble and protects us from danger, and do our best.
Unfortunately, though, this perfectionist/critic is often too loud, too scared and hypercritical. So how do you manage this voice?
Start a dialogue with your inner critic. It may seem strange, but it is a valid and incredibly useful psychological technique. Think of the inner critic as a person with an opinion. Like your mom, this critic sometimes has a useful opinion. But other times, just like your mom, you can simply smile and nod, and ignore it. How does this look?
As an example: I’m working on this article. My inner critic will have me edit it until the day I die. Literally. (The myriad of unpublished drafts is evidence of this.) In stead of giving him his way, I put a deadline on publication, decide that it is good enough, and act despite the inner protests. This way, I start creating a balance between the voice of the critic, and my voice.
I’ve never been a fan of self-affirmations. I just don’t like listening to the wispy chants of a female voice telling me how special, confident and beautiful I am. If anything, these affirmations will only make me nauseous, annoyed and critical.
However, there is a lot to be said for praising yourself: unlike generic, pre-recorded affirmations, self-praise is the capacity to give yourself valid credit for your accomplishments. It ties into the practice of attention and awareness, and helps you gain perspective on what you can and cannot do.
Most of our minds are wired to notice the negative, the problems and the ‘what can still improve’. We filter out anything that we’ve done well. This capacity makes us hard workers, but also makes us hard on ourselves.
If you cannot own and feel proud of your accomplishments, you can never grow in your confidence.
Some of us are naturally confident. It can be a combination of personality, upbringing, and our environment. One quality that naturally confident people have, is the ability to listen selectively.
Pete: “Jo, would you ever consider going out with me?”
Jo: “Only if we were the last people on earth, and human survival depended on it. Now leave me alone, Pete!”
Pete: “So, there’s a chance!”
This is the overly confident filter: it interprets all feedback as positive. Granted, there is a difference between delusional and confident, but there is also an important lesson here.
Whenever you get feedback from peers, managers or family, try to record the feedback accurately. If they allow you, make a voice-recording of what they said, or write it down. Then, go back and ask yourself: What is the most positive way I can reframe this, while being true to the facts?
You’ll be surprised how hard-wired your mind is to filter out the positives. You will also notice how the same feedback can have two entirely different interpretations, by simply changing the way you look at it.
Confidence is not bought on the street-corner: it is nurtured and grown through careful attention. In my experience, the main shift is to be kinder to your shortcomings, and more generous to your strengths. Be willing to step up and out, to talk about your skill, and to acknowledge what you cando. There is a lot more to be confident and proud of, than you realize.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. – Marianne Williamson.
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