Forget faking it ‘til you make it. Genuine, lasting confidence is within your reach, writes Diana Timmins.
Does a profound lack of confidence or fear of failure hold you back in life? While it may feel as though you’re the only one, rest assured, you’re not. Almost everyone has experienced being knocked off their perch when self-esteem runs out of puff – even the people you see as boisterous and gregarious.
And don’t think sportspeople and celebs get off lightly. Gold medal Olympic swimmer Susie O’Neill was so intimidated by the prospect of standing on the podium that instead of wanting victory, she feared it.
Even millionaire songstress Barbara Streisand was so plagued by self-doubt after forgetting her words at a 1967 performance, she took 27 years to summon the courage to perform publicly again. Abraham Lincoln was so fearful around women, he couldn’t eat at the same table as them.
In fact, far from being the exception, such social fears are to blame for most people’s failure to reach their full potential, according to psychologist and author of new book Be Confident, Anthony Gunn. “It’s similar to driving a four speed car in first gear in fear of going too fast,” he says.
If you can relate, it’s time to change your relationship with fear and take action. Simply thinking about what you want to achieve won’t reap the benefits, but taking that liberating leap of faith beyond the confines of your comfort zones will.
Executive coach and author of The Confidence Gap Dr Russ Harris, reveals a golden rule that reinforces why avoiding confronting situations can be counterproductive: the actions of confidence come first, while the feelings of confidence come later.
“This is a fundamental point that often gets missed, as people say, ‘when I feel confident, then I will do X, Y and Z’. It’s not natural to feel certain of performing well if you don’t at first have competence. The confidence cycle is to practise the skills, apply them effectively, assess the results and then modify as need be,” says Dr Harris.
Gunn agrees that actions speak louder than words when it comes to confidence, particularly considering the scientifically-proven concept of neuroplasticity. “Learning a new habit involves the brain developing neural pathways for that action. For example, writing your name with your non-dominant hand will initially feel awkward, but through practice new pathways develop and make it more comfortable.”
Feelings of discomfort are normal and natural when bridging these pathways to enhanced confidence, but try to work through them – or with them – as Gunn assures they will eventually subside.
Mind your mental chatter
According to Dr Harris, one of the biggest barricades that may prevent you from taking action and acquiring confidence is negative self-talk.
“The mind is like a reason-giving machine. As soon as you even think about stepping out of your comfort zone into a challenging situation of an uncertain outcome, the reason-giving machine is going to crank into action, giving all the reasons why you couldn’t or shouldn’t do it: too busy, not good enough, I’ll fail…” says Dr Harris.
The mind can be a talented multi-tasker; simultaneously munching and mulling over different obstacles, harsh negative self-judgements, comparisons with others, and predictions of what terrible things await you.
Rather than trying to shoot unhelpful thoughts down in flames, Harris and Gunn suggest changing your relationship with them so that when they show up they have less impact and influence over you. Mindfulness techniques, for example, offer productive methods to remain level-headed in the present moment rather than getting caught up with elevating thoughts of doom and gloom.
“Mindfulness practices are not relaxation techniques, but rather an opportunity to observe and let the feelings be as they are,” explains Dr Harris, who implements such practices widely as part of his Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) programs.
There are many mindfulness-based techniques, but the following exercise provides a helpful introduction:
- Sit erect with your feet pressed flat onto the floor – this will help you remain grounded, centred and focused.
- Close your eyes or fix your gaze comfortably upon a specific point.
- Take a moment to notice how you are sitting, and what you can hear, smell, taste and see. Notice what you are thinking, feeling and doing.
- Bring your attention to the breath: focus on completely emptying the lungs, and allow them to naturally fill back up in their own time and rhythm.
- Deeply observe the changes in your body as you breathe; for example, nostrils, rib cage, chest and abdomen.
- Notice feelings or reactions in the mind and body without trying to control or change them. Dr Harris suggests naming any feelings that may be particularly unpleasant: ‘Oh, there is boredom’ (or anxiety, frustration or impatience).
“The challenge in this exercise is keeping your awareness on the breath,” advises Dr Harris. “Unless you’re a seasoned meditator, your mind is going to tell you all sorts of stories to hook you and pull you out of the experience. Let your mind just chatter away like a radio in the background. Don’t try to turn that radio off as you will just make it louder; simply let it chatter away and keep your attention on the breath.”
Face the social fear factor
Have you ever felt so fearful in a social setting that in a mad moment of mind-freeze you couldn’t remember someone’s name seconds after being introduced? Or maybe you found yourself nervously mumbling and fumbling at the speed of light.
Perhaps you accidentally toppled yourself slightly beyond tipsy as you frantically tried to drink away the blushing, dizziness, racing heart and perspiration. Relax – social fear is completely normal.
The notion that a confident person suffers no social fear is a complete misnomer, as Gunn confirms the two go hand in hand. “Imagine social fear and social confidence are like hot and cold; related to one another, but at opposite ends of continuum. You can’t have one without the other – if you join a new group where there is nobody you know, expect to feel a degree of social fear.” says Gunn.
“Social fear is caused by being overly concerned with the risks associated with facing a social situation and prevents people from going new places, making new friends, starting conversations or expressing opinions. Alternatively, social confidence is what allows us to face these new social challenges and develop our potential.”
Gunn says the key to developing social confidence is respecting your social fear, and keeping it in balance rather than being overwhelmed by it.
This may become easier to manage by following Gunn’s five top social skills tips:
- Listening: Have a trusted support person speak to you for two minutes on any topic of their choice. At the end, ask them whether they felt heard and, if not, what you could’ve done differently.
- Speaking: Record yourself talking to your support person. Notice whether your speech displays signs of social-comfort behaviours like rapid or slow pace, monotone, swearing or jargon.
- Body language: Practise your handshake with your support person. Is it too soft or aggressively firm? Look for balance; a good handshake is comfortable yet firm.
- Self-disclosure: Say ‘hello’ to someone new and disclose a little about yourself. Begin with minor details and aim to share three to five tidbits in ten minutes.
- Empathy: Can you think of someone you might not entirely respect? Imagine if you were in their shoes, what would it feel like? What would the world look like through their eyes? Notice whether you have enhanced your compassion toward this person.