The Bust: There is no such thing as an ‘unconfident person’. Applying a very general, global adjective like ‘unconfident’ to ourselves is both inaccurate and destructive. It’s way too general, as well as feeling overwhelming and insurmountable. When thinking about confidence it’s important to be specific. It’s impossible to be under confident about everything.
For example, you may feel self-conscious and anxious when meeting new people but perfectly confident that you can tie your shoe laces or drive your car.
Be specific. Specifics we can deal with.
The Bust: Confidence isn’t just about positive thinking or having an exclusive window into next week’s events. Confident people don’t know the future any more than chronically anxious people. Instead, true confidence is about three things:
So, before speaking to an audience of 400, I relax with not knowing how friendly/receptive they are going to be, or whether I’ll be on my usual sparkling form (ha!). I have faith that I’ll remember what I’m going to say. I feel confident that, even if I don’t, or they turn out not to be the friendliest bunch, I’ll deal with it. And the fact that I’ll deal calmly with what might outwardly look like a ‘failure’ will be a success in its own right!
The Bust: So not true. You are not supposed to feel confident before you do something for the first time. But you can learn to relax with not knowing. This is more about maintaining an emotionally open-minded neutrality rather than a sense of certainty.
It’s later, after you’ve experienced dating, public speaking or meeting others many times while feeling relaxed, that confidence comes.
So the equation is: Comfortable neutrality + experience = CONFIDENCE
The Bust: A strange one! When we feel low in confidence in a specific situation, we tend to be focusing on our own feelings – but the whole idea of ‘confidence’ just vanishes when you’re really being confident.
Confident people don’t need to be monitoring their own feelings or thoughts because they’re directing their attention outwards – away from the self and onto the situation they’re experiencing. Actual confidence has more to do with forgetting yourself than with ‘positive self-talk’. A great actor or musician isn’t busy thinking to themselves: “I am so confident!” They’re totally focused and immersed in their performance.
I had a client who wanted to be confident for a work meeting. He came back the following week and said he had felt very confident. I asked him what it felt like. He said: “I don’t know. I didn’t even think about it!”
The Bust: Actually, true confidence has much more to do with being able to think creatively.
When you are truly confident you don’t have to always ‘be seen to be right’, because finding out the truth of a matter is more important than being a wise guy (or girl). Confidence is more about being able to admit to being in the wrong (if you are) but also able to put your case across strongly if need be when you do feel you’re right.
The Bust: Being positive and expecting the best is important, of course, but true confident is really about being able to see, and cope with, the shades of grey in life – looking beyond just black or white, positive or negative thinking.
Although the way we think is important, it’s not as vital as the way we feel. Thoughts don’t always produce feelings – sometimes it’s the other way about. This is why ‘positive thinking’ on its own so rarely works, because it’s the feelings which really make the difference.
Having said that, you do need to take the reins and learn to challenge overly negative thoughts and generally be flexible and creative in your own thinking.
For example, if you tend to think in all-or-nothing, black or white terms, you’ll find it helpful to switch to more comparative terms. So instead of thinking ‘success or failure’, look at comparative improvements, learning, feedback and so on.
The trouble with ‘positive thinking’ is that it is way too narrow and can lead to disappointment. There are degrees to positivity:
I once gave a lecture to a large audience. During the course of my talk, my PowerPoint presentation crashed, the PA system failed, the temperature in the hall rose uncomfortably and a row of ADHD adults became exceedingly distracted (and distracting). Despite all this, I deemed this talk a success. Why? Because, in spite of all that disaster I remained calm and was able (eventually) to get things back on track.
So, don’t be too narrow and all-or-nothing even in your positivity!
The Bust: This idea has spread like a paraffin-assisted wildfire during a record-breaking hot summer. Yes, we do need to live in the now sometimes, but if you only live in the now you miss out on the benefits of the wonderful human capacity to plan ahead and foresee consequences. If you have something coming up – such as a speech or a hot date – then you need to relax with not knowing exactly how it’s going to go, and feel that however it turns out you’ll deal comfortably with it. To give yourself the best possible chance it’s important to shape your expectations around how you’re going to feel rather than around what’s going to happen (which you can’t possibly know!). This is what is known as positive mental rehearsal.
When someone fluffs it during their speech or stutters when asking for a date, and says afterwards: “I knew that was going to happen!” what they really mean is that they had already built an expectation that they would falter (and also think in negative black or white terms about that faltering – see Myth 6).
Expectation is very powerful, as we know from the placebo response.
Practice rehearsing ahead of time what you want to be like in a specific situation. Self-hypnosis is a powerful way of doing this (and, by the way, that’s how I overcame my own fear of public speaking and spiders!).
The Bust: Well, sometimes! But if we look at Myth 7 we can see that people who have specific confidence issues have as much trouble relaxing with their imagined futures as they do dealing with their actual past. But, of course, this may in part be due to past conditioning.
For instance, when I myself was at school, anyone who spoke in class (sometimes even the teacher) was laughed and jeered at by the other boys. This wasn’t a great platform from which to launch a career as a public speaker. I certainly did have to deal with the unpleasant past to create a better future.
But sometimes there’s no particular ‘reason’ why people get anxious in certain situations and looking endlessly for a cause may be fruitless. If you know of a particular event, or series of events, that impacted upon the way you feel in specific times, then you can use the following exercise to overcome it:
This exercise will neutralize any negative associations you’ve built up from past experience and prevent them from ‘firing up’ when you meet similar situations in the present.
The Bust: ‘Control freaks’ and ‘perfectionists’ tend to run into social and emotional difficulties. Why? They tend to be too black or white in their expectations. Such a self-imposed tyranny is extremely successful.
Humour is vital to real confidence. Being able to not take yourself too seriously is a great capacity.
People who can laugh at themselves also tend to be relaxed about life’s little upsets. We like people like that because we sense that they have some humility (a word which shares a root with ‘humour’), and that they’re flexible in their approach to life.
Self-importance and perfectionism trip people up and make them tense. In their heads they think things like: “If it’s not absolutely right, it’s a total disaster!” or “If I’m not 100% perfect then I’m a complete failure!”
Relaxing about yourself and being prepared (and willing) to not always do so well can actually help you:
People who can laugh at themselves are not afraid to try. In fact, when you learn to laugh at yourself, even if things do sometimes go wrong (as long as it’s not life threatening!) you can even enjoy it. Mix with people who are confident and who have a sense of humour – a good way to acquire positive traits is to associate with people who have those traits.
The Bust: Genes for this or that are always being hyped in the media. It seems like such a simple explanation for things, and we love a simple explanation. But the media hype rarely leads to anything concrete.
Despite this, there is some truth in the claim that people are naturally more or less confident in different situations, in the sense that people are naturally endowed with different levels of talent for most things. So some people may naturally find it easier to be confident. But everyone can learn to be more confident.
Our level of confidence is also affected by our mood – the neurotransmitter serotonin, in particular, can affect social confidence.
What all this means is that there’s no fixed ‘confidence caste system’. You’re not inescapably destined to be forever shy, nervous or fearful in certain areas of your life. Confidence is learnable and of that I’m 100% confident, because I see people gaining in confidence all the time.
We can be confident the world is round because we can circumnavigate it. Before we knew for sure it was round, certain scientists were confident that they could find out whether it was or not.
So, open-mindedness is a part of being confident. Confidence is a combination of open-mindedness and willingness to have a go and then gaining experience from these attempts.
Yes, we all come into the world with certain natural endowments, but we’re also ‘learning machines’. Your mind is infinitely adaptable. Right now, you can do a million and one things at one time you had no idea you’d ever be able to do.