It is part of being human to lack self-confidence sometimes.
Frankly, you probably wouldn’t be a very a pleasant person to be with if you never had doubts about yourself or your capabilities.
It is important to recognise this, so that you can make the connection between yourself and those people you see striding through life, exuding confidence and succeeding in everything they do.
Because, those people doubt themselves too.
But what they don’t do is allow their doubts to overwhelm them or stop them taking the steps they need to take in order to make the progress they want to make.
And, because they push past their fear, they build their capabilities and they get some success. As a result, they gain in confidence and then they are able to achieve more and more.
It’s the classic virtuous circle.
Of course, all of this makes objective good sense. But if you are a person who lacks self-confidence, just knowing this is not necessarily going to help you.
What you need is this:
- some practical steps you can take to help you learn how to build self-confidence, and
- an explanation that will convince you that these steps will work for you.
And the second point is important because what follows, and what you need, is a systematic approach backed by research, not the usual vacuuous exhortations to think positively and fake it till you make.
So let’s look at the issue of self-confidence from an evidence based, solution focused perspective.
It is actually not very helpful to think of self-confidence as some kind of all-encompassing personality trait that you either have or you don’t have, especially when you feel challenged by the lack of it.
Instead, it is much more effective if you recognise that self-confidence is something you can build piece by piece, by developing your self-belief in relation to particular areas of your life. This is what psychologist call self-efficacy – having confidence in your ability to achieve specific outcomes or to succeed in specific tasks.
If you think about it, there are probably areas of your life in which you already have self-efficacy. These are the things you do without thinking: aspects of your job perhaps, parenting, looking after pets, playing sport or engaging in hobbies.
So, when you are looking to build self-efficacy in specific aspects of your life, it is important that you take the time to reflect on the strengths and skills you bring to the things that you already do well. Because these are the resources you can draw on to help you to build your confidence in the other areas you are targeting.
For example, you might feel that lack of confidence affects you when you have to speak up in group situations, in meetings, or when you need to make formal presentations publicly. Yet you may also spend all day comfortably and successfully fielding phone calls and answering tricky queries from customers or colleagues.
The fact that you can handle the calls shows you that you already have the basic resources – the communication skills, the problem solving abilities and the quick wits – to be able to handle public speaking.
Knowing you already have a lot of what it takes to do the thing that you fear, can be a real boost for you. So, an important part of building self-efficacy in a certain area is recognising and reminding yourself of the relevant skills that you already possess.
Likewise, you should also reflect on the times when you have succeeded in doing what you now feel uncertain about. Although they might not come immediately to mind, there probably are times when you’ve overcome your fears in this way. The trouble is, most of us have a natural tendency to forget what we have achieved in the past and focus all our emotions on what we fear we can’t do now.
So, even if you’ve only spoken in public a few times before or done so quite briefly, it is critical that you bring these achievements to front of mind and give yourself sufficient credit for them, because they represent firm evidence that you are capable of doing the very thing you fear.
These experiences are what Albert Bandura, the psychologist who developed self-efficacy theory, calls mastery experiences and research shows that by drawing on our mastery experiences we can boost self-efficacy in relation to new challenges we face.
Other ways to build self-efficacy, according Bandura, include:
- Using vicarious experiences – This is about paying attention to the successes of people who are similar to you and using their successes as a model to help you believe that you can succeed too.
- Social persuasion – this means getting positive feedback from others you trust that tells you that you are capable. It is important that you buy in to what you are being told and that you don’t allow your natural instinct for self-criticism to undermine it.
- Building positive emotional stability – This involves trying to stay positive in the moment, and managing the stress that you will naturally feel (see the section on ‘managing your thinking’ below).
You can also build your self-efficacy in relation to a certain activity by setting some goals in connection with what you want to achieve.
However, it is important that you set the right kinds of goals.
To continue the public speaking example, if you lack confidence about speaking up in meetings, it won’t help you much if you just set yourself the goal of doing a TED talk in 6 months time. It’s fine to have that as a long term objective, but you need to set yourself some smaller goals to drive your progress along the way.
You also need to pay attention to the kind of goals you set. There is research that tells us that when a task is particularly challenging or unfamiliar, we make better goal progress when we focus on learning what we need to know in order to complete the task, than if we just focus on trying to completing the task.
Thus, it is better, at the outset, if you set yourself learning goals rather than performance goals. In other words, as you get started in building up your confidence, rather than setting yourself the goal of making a presentation to your team within the next month (a performance goal), set yourself the goal of learning some specific techniques that have been shown to help people present more confidently (learning goals).
Similarly, focus on process goals, such as mastering Powerpoint or preparing speaking notes in a way that is most effective for you, rather than outcome goals, such as receiving an average score of 4 out of 5 on the feedback form.
Carry out some ‘safe to fail experiments’. These means setting up some circumstances where you can safely practice doing what you are trying to build your confidence in. For example, try doing some short presentations in front of close friends or family. This way, you can try out the new techniques you are learning without the fear of feeling judged badly if they don’t work out at first. Build on what works, try different angles if things don’t work out. This is the essence of reaching your goals.
Competence and self-esteem
The upshot of this approach is that it allows you to build competence in the specific areas in which you are lacking confidence. As your competence increases, so does your self-efficacy in relation to the relevant tasks. This in turn boosts your overall sense of self-esteem.
This is important, because self-esteem is the counterpart to self-efficacy in the confidence puzzle.
Self-esteem grows when you increase the extent to which you believe yourself to be a competent and capable person, able to achieve the things that you set your mind on doing.
It therefore follows that as you increase your competence in various areas, your self esteem is boosted.
This increased self-belief then helps you as you try to build your competence and self-efficacy in other areas, with the effect that over time your general levels of self-confidence may rise.
Managing your thinking
You should be aware, however, that this process of confidence building takes time and requires a long term commitment to your goals.
Recognise also that not everything will be plain sailing. Sometimes you’ll have setbacks and sometimes you won’t progress at the rate you hoped. This is entirely to be expected – it’s what life is like.
The key to handling a lot of this is managing your thinking.
You’ll need to work hard to ensure that you don’t over-react to setbacks with the kind of thinking that undermines the progress you have made.
So, if your first presentation to your team includes a few stumbles and some fumbling with the powerpoint, you must not let yourself think that means you’ll never be any good at public speaking and that you might as well give up.
Instead, look objectively at how far you’ve come, listen carefully to any feedback you receive and don’t discount the positives because your negativity bias shines the spotlight on the mistakes you might have made.
In short, show yourself the kind of compassion that you would show towards somebody else who was trying to practice a new skill in public.
Give yourself credit for having the courage to push through your anxieties to try to improve your capabilities, your confidence and the quality of your life.
The wrap up
Increasing yourself confidence is a long term project but one that will repay you handsomely in terms of your overall well-being if you get started on it and see it through.
These are the key points to bear in mind:
- Look to increase yourself self-confidence in specific domains of your life, activity by activity or task by task.
- Recognise the existing skills, capabilities and experience you have that are relevant to the area you want to improve in. Reflect deeply on these, give yourself due credit for what you can do already.
- Set short term achievable goals that lead you to an overall objective.
- Set learning goals, especially early on, so that you can build up the relevant skill set.
- Recognise the extent to which your competence is increasing, notice the boost to your self-esteem
- Be deliberate in the way that you manage your responses to setbacks. Look at the objective evidence regarding what you have achieved and take full account of the positive feedback you receive.
- Treat yourself compassionately and give yourself credit for the courage you are showing.
To get the the free workbook that takes you through the steps involved in systematically building self-confidence in the way outlined in this post, click on the button below.
Self-efficacy: Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191 pdf here; Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American psychologist, 37(2), 122. pdf here.
Proximal and distal goals: Latham, G. P., & Seijts, G. H. (1999). The effects of proximal and distal goals on performance on a moderately complex task. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20(4), 421-429.
Learning and performance goals: Seijts, G. H., & Latham, G. P. (2005). Learning versus performance goals: When should each be used?. The Academy of Management Executive, 19(1), 124-131.
Negativity bias: Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of general psychology,5(4), 323. The pdf of this paper is available free at Rick Hanson’s website.