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Some people just seem to breeze through life, don’t they? They are poised and eloquent, unfazed by life’s challenges, and exhibit an enviable ease in their demeanor in almost any situation. What’s their secret?
It’s life’s super enabler, self-confidence!
Self-confidence is what turns thoughts into judgements about what we are capable of achieving and then transforms those judgements into action, and results!
It would be easy to believe that confidence is something you’re either born with or not, and that that is the end of the story. Yes, some people are naturally more confident than others but that doesn’t mean that confidence is not a skill that can be learnt. In fact it is, and it can be, and I’m going to share seven key ways to do just that.
1 Know Your Strengths
Everybody has something they’re good at - really! At times though, we may feel so dejected that we struggle to bring anything to mind. Don’t worry we’ve all been there! The truth is we all have distinctive strengths and values. Unfortunately many of us suffer from strength blindness: We literally don’t know what we’re good at!
Enter the helpful folks from the Values In Action Institute (VIA), which is the leading organization in the US for the study of character strengths. They’ve put together an online survey to help anyone identify what their strengths are and all you need to do is invest just 15 minutes to answer their questions honestly and, ta-dah!, your strength blindness will be cured!
Take the survey here
It just makes sense to make the most of our strengths. We all draw confidence and comfort from the foundation of our strengths, and associated accomplishments. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore our weaker areas, but by first capitalizing on what comes easiest, we see success there first and can build on that.
When we’re focusing on what we’ve already mastered and feel comfortable with we’re in our comfort zone. When we look to build our confidence we need to move beyond where we have already experienced success. We use this foundation to propel ourselves beyond the borders of that comfort zone. To do that requires adopting a “growth mindset”.
2 Embrace The Growth Mindset
World-renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered the groundbreaking power of mindset and was the first to coin the phrases and made the distinction between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset”. In her best-selling book, “Mindset”, she explains in depth how a growth mindset can enable anyone, from a child to a CEO, to flourish and thrive, regardless of circumstances.
In essence those with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are fixed. They are either talented in some area or they are not. They define themselves, and others, rigidly. Experiencing failure is excruciating and often fixed mindset folk, instead of seeing failure as an indication of a learning opportunity, will instead look to assign blame, make excuses, or seek out and focus on others who performed worse than themselves. This is all to protect their self-esteem and their vision of themselves as talented in whatever area. Trying new things is dangerous territory for the fixed mindset individual, so invested are they in their self-image as talented and competent. The fixed mindset is always in fear of being unmasked and exposed as a fraud and as a result they often dedicate more resources to protecting their egos than to learning. They attach their self-worth to the image they project as talented or competent.
In contrast a growth mindset individual believes that they can develop talent and competence in any area. Failure is not defining of the individual and does not evoke shame or a rush to blame but rather is an indication that more effort and/or a different strategy is needed to accomplish a goal. Dweck notes in her book that one of the most remarkable things that she has learnt from her research is that when individuals develop a growth mindset (and she is adamant that anyone can develop a growth mindset) they don’t always need confidence.
People with a growth mindset don’t avoid the challenge of things they aren’t able to do, indeed they sometimes plunge into something because they’re not good at it. Mozart worked for over 10 years before he produced any of the music we know and admire him for today. Darwin’s “The Origin of The Species” book took years of teamwork in the field, countless discussions with colleagues, several preliminary drafts, and half a lifetime of dedication before it was complete. This is the growth mindset in action.
Most people are a mixture of fixed and growth mindset with dominance in one or the other. To unleash your growth mindset there are a number of concrete steps anyone can take.
Audit your inner narrative -
When you encounter an obstacle or stumble in your pursuit of a goal what do you say to yourself? A fixed mindset will frame the narrative in deep judgement - “This means I’m a loser.” “This means I’m a better person than she is.” “This means I’m a bad wife.” “This means I’m a crap mother”. When you hear yourself doing this intervene and edit. “This means I’m a loser” can become “This didn’t work out the way I wanted this time so I’ll put in more effort and consider a different strategy and try again”. You begin to give yourself a route to success rather than cutting yourself off at the knees and becoming paralyzed by a setback.
Understand that the brain can change -
Dweck and her team developed an online resource called Brainology . It’s aimed at middle school children, but I think of value to all of us, and it explains how the brain builds new pathways in learning. Just understanding that your brain really can change, and that there is a pathway to growth and change, can be transformational.
Make concrete plans -
When you’re in transition and building your growth mindset for the first time you need to get very specific about the actions you will take when you are learning. So for example if you have received feedback on a piece of work - think your beautiful manuscript covered in red ink and corrections - plan in detail when, where, and how you are going to address those corrections and re-do your manuscript. You need to not only make a growth mindset plan but also visualize in a very concrete way how you are going to carry it out. This insulates you from falling into the fixed mindset response of judgement and resistance.
Ask for help -
Often it’s not simply a case of “try again and try harder”, but rather try something different and make sure you’ve researched that something different. The fixed mindset doesn’t want to expose itself as unskilled and in need of help so will often cut off its nose to spite its face. You need to ditch that tendency and look outward to uncover the most efficient pathway to your goal. That may mean asking for feedback, for input, or researching resources. All effort is not created equal. Make sure your effort is effective.
3 Redefine Failure
Failing can feel painful, especially if we’ve really invested a lot in the enterprise. However it isn’t all defining. If we’re afraid to fail life will be very small indeed. How do we become more if we’re afraid to seem less?
The best way to get comfortable with failure is to do it a lot. Take Crystal Langhorne of the Washington Mystics women’s basketball team. In her first year with the team she hardly played at all and at the end of that first season she was questioning whether basketball was even right for her anymore. She had a choice; she could define herself as a failure and quit, or she could acknowledge her disappointing start and take action to address it. She chose the latter and decided to practice more, a whole heap more! She did hours of shooting every day after practice and she also realized that she had to completely remake her shooting style, which she did.
The next season when Crystal returned she was named most improved player in the league and she’s been voted an all-star player ever since. We need to embrace failure as forward progress and acknowledge, as Crystal demonstrated, that confidence is built through action!
4 Banish Perfectionism
This falls under the umbrella of the fixed mindset from number two above. Perfectionism says “I can’t unless I’m perfect” and it’s the enemy of action which is the seed of confidence. Women in particular seem to suffer from the curse of perfectionism.
The I.T. company Hewlett-Packard, concerned about the gender imbalance in their top management, conducted a study to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. The report uncovered the perils of perfectionism. The report authors found that women applied for promotions only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications necessary for the job. The men? They were happy to apply once they believed they met 60% of the job requirements. Essentially the women felt confident to apply only when they were perfect for the job, or practically perfect.
Perfectionism is an action inhibitor and without taking action we can’t grow our confidence muscle. If you suffer from perfectionism you’ll have backed away from challenges and opportunities all your life because you held a belief that you weren’t good enough to meet your self-imposed stratospheric standards. I came across this message in the form of an eastern saying which I’ll paraphrase;
This is the price of perfectionism and it is always far too high.
No-one masters anything if they enslave themselves to perfectionism. Progress, and ultimately mastery, not only invite but require failure. So if you’ve had a life-long love/hate affair with perfectionism it’s time to realize the faux friend it truly is, and let it go. Your best ally to aid you in this break-up is self-compassion.
5 Practice Self-Compassion
Self compassion is an ally and enabler of self-confidence. Self-compassion requires us to be kinder to ourselves and instructs us to treat ourselves as we would a dear and beloved friend. If your dear friend came to you after a crushing defeat would you say, “See I told you you shouldn’t have bothered. You’re just not good enough and never will be - loser!” ? No, of course you wouldn’t, and that’s the point. Once you commit to practice self-compassion you also commit to switch off the negative self-talk.
“Most people believe that they need to criticize themselves in order to find motivation to reach their goals. In fact, when you constantly criticize yourself you become depressed and depression is not a motivational mindset” -
Kristin Neff is a professor at the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas who focuses on the study of self- compassion. Self-compassion, Neff explains, offers us the possibility of accepting that it’s okay to be average sometimes. In a world that constantly exalts high achievers and success, it can seem that being anything but a “winner” is to be frowned upon, shameful even. Personally I still hold the memory of my mother returning from her parent teacher meetings for myself and my two sisters when we were just in elementary school and being charged with being “average”- a label my 3rd Grade teacher decided was appropriate. My sisters had both received excellent and gifted-themed feedback from their teachers. My mother told me, in no uncertain terms, that none of her children were “average” and that I’d better pull my socks up, and quickly!
Constantly comparing ourselves to others, constantly defining ourselves through the lens of the achievements of others, is destructive and self-defeating. There is always going to be someone better. Self-compassion recognizes the folly of self-comparison and instead drives confidence allowing us to take the very risks that build it. Rather than being an excuse for inaction, self-compassion wholeheartedly supports action, allowing us to try more and harder things and providing a cushion for failure.
Self-compassion connects us to the shared human experience and puts our imperfections and sufferings in the broad context of simply being human. Everyone at some point struggles, suffers, stumbles and fails. It is not an aberration. It is not insurmountable. It is merely, and undramatically, normal.
6 Start Small and Record Your Wins
Confidence occurs when the insidious self-perception that you aren’t or you can’t is confronted with stark evidence to the contrary. When we most need it however many of us struggle to bring to mind examples and evidence of our capabilities and competencies. The solution is, quite simply, to take the time to compile a record of our wins in preparation for such moments.
Journalist and author Katty Kay describes in her book, The Confidence Gap, a time in the White House when we was called to attend a high level briefing of Middle East experts. She felt like she was the only unqualified person in the room.
Small first steps are the building blocks, and recording them so they are consciously available as reference points to propel us to repeated effort and action, helps to build our confidence muscle.
Psychologist Zach Estes’ research work at the University of Milan in Italy underscores the critical importance of taking action, even the smallest step, to building confidence. Estes undertook a series of tests to investigate the disparity in confidence between men and women. Five hundred students were asked to reorganize a 3-D image on a computer screen and undertook a series of spatial reasoning puzzles. The results initially showed the women did markedly worse than the men but upon further examination Estes saw that this was because the women didn’t attempt many of the questions. They had simply failed to act when they lacked confidence in their capabilities.
When Estes re-did the tests, but this time telling the participants that they had to at least attempt every question, the women’s scores jumped and they did as well as the men. Confidence is built by action and small actions are the blocks that we build upon.
7 Train Your Plastic Brain
Many of us our familiar with the term “brain plasticity” in the context of the brain development of a newborn or young infant but what about the adult brain? Rebecca Elliott is a leading researcher in cognitive brain imaging at the University of Manchester in the U.K. Elliott’s research focus is resilience. She is fascinated by the ability of some people to withstand setbacks and to remain confident in the wake of disappointments or disaster. She believes that research will soon show that resilience, a quality so closely related to confidence, can be created.
Fairly simple brain training, or methods of thinking, she believes, can carve new pathways in our adult brains, pathways that encourage resilience or confident thinking, and that then become part of our hard-wiring. Although Elliott believes that one of the most effective techniques developed to help individuals create new thought patterns is cognitive behavioral therapy, it is meditation that has produced some of the most dramatic examples of change in the brain’s function and structure.
So perhaps cognitive behavioral therapy might be an area you wish to explore but meditation is something anyone can try with little to no cost. A number of studies using MRI technology have shown that after just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation practice the activity of the amygdala (often referred to as the fear or threat center of the brain) shows a marked decrease. One experiment undertaken recently, where the participants were highly stressed business people, even showed that the size of the amygdala actually shrank and remained smaller. The MRIs also showed more activity in the clam reasoning prefrontal cortex area of the brain.
There are many meditation apps you could try including Calm and Headspace both of which offer free versions. Deepak Chopra also offers a library of free guided meditations which you might find useful. I also highly recommend the book Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World which I used to connect to my practice. If you prefer to work within a group you could investigate if there is a local MeetUP group for meditation in your area. If you’re not familiar with MeetUP it’s resource for meeting people interested in just about anything in your locality. It’s a great way to discover new activities and meet new people and it’s typically free or very inexpensive. If there isn’t already an established group you can start a group yourself and others who are interested will contact you.
Confidence is life’s super enabler and it’s entirely possible for you to become from confident, regardless of your starting point. Anything worth attaining and achieving in life takes time, so be patient with yourself. Don’t be distracted by the pace of others. Life really is not a race and we only get to pass this way once. Give yourself the gift of the space and time you need to develop yourself and remember that humor and self-compassion are excellent companions on your journey.
Wishing you success and joy on your journey!
Enjoyed this post? Please let me know in the comments which of the seven tips you plan to try out first. If you’d like to receive my weekly blog posts straight to your inbox please subscribe to my e-mail list!
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