The truth about how to be confident
If you are looking for information online about how to be confident, these are some of the suggested confidence building activities you’ll find:
- Be positive
- Banish negative thinking
- Smarten up and dress more stylishly
- Change your body language
- Don’t accept failure
- Don’t give up.
These are all great suggestions – for somebody who is in control of their thoughts, behaviours and emotions and has the self-awareness, energy, and drive to see the changes through.
Perfect for somebody with a fair bit of confidence, perhaps?
But if you lack confidence, then being positive, not giving up when you fail, and changing the way you look are some of the things you are likely to struggle with the most.
And if, for example, you do try to be more positive, but find yourself catastrophising at the first hint of a setback, your self-belief is going to hit the floor, which means these kinds of confidence building suggestions are really worse than useless.
Although, to be fair, the idea that you can be more confident if you act more positively is not entirely wrong. It’s just incomplete – and misleading as a result.
It’s like saying you can lose weight if you eat less.
Everybody knows you need to eat less to lose weight, the real question is, how can you do it in a healthy and sustainable way without feeling like you’re starving to death in the process.
Similarly, with building confidence, the question is how can you feel more positive about yourself and the things that you do on a consistent and lasting basis.
One way we can answer this question is by looking more closely at what confidence actually is.
What is confidence anyway?
Although we talk about being confident as if it is a general personality trait, like being an extravert or being shy, psychology has never really recognised confidence as a distinct aspect of personality or human behaviour.
What psychology has traditionally focused on is self-efficacy, which is the belief you have in your ability to carry out a specific task. Notably, self-efficacy is situation-specific, meaning your levels of self-efficacy vary according to the challenge you face.
So, for example, you might be totally comfortable making sales calls all day long, but a total wreck when it comes to asking somebody out for a date.
Or you might be completely cool with walking into a roomful of strangers at a party, but quiver at the thought of giving presentations at work.
The important point about self-efficacy is that it includes a judgement about your actual capacity to do a particular thing and gives rise to a certain level of belief based on that judgement.
Albert Bandura, the leading expert on self-efficacy, says that this is what sets it apart from confidence. Confidence, he says, is just a “catchword”, “a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty (of belief) is about”.
Yet, when we think about confidence, we do tend to think of it as a more generalised state of self-assurance.
A new approach to confidence
Interestingly enough, some 2015 research by Alex Stajkovic, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at Wisconsin School of Business, supports this notion and suggests that confidence can be conceptualised as a core construct that consists not just of general self efficacy, but of hope, optimism and resilience as well (Stajkovic et al, 2015).
This new research is particularly useful because because it gives us a way to break down confidence into its constituent parts.
As a result, it seems that we can probably build sustainable confidence by building our capacities in each of the different elements that go to make up the confidence core construct.
So, instead of relying on advice that in effect suggests that we can build confidence by being more confident, we have a way to go deeper and work on the things that are actually going to create the lasting conditions from which increased levels of general confidence may flow.
So let’s look at each element of confidence in turn.
Hope in this context is used in the way that the late Professor of Psychology Charles “Rick” Snyder defined it – the self-reinforcing combination of agency and pathways.
Here, ‘agency’ means a sense of personal capacity to act in pursuit of your goals. ‘Pathways’ are the various ways that you perceive are available to meet your goals (Snyder et al., 1991, pp.570–571).
What this means is that to be hopeful, you need to know what you want to do, you need to be determined to do it, and you need to be satisfied that there are one or more ways that you can reach your goals.
As we have seen, self-efficacy is all about belief in your ability to meet the challenges you are faced with.
Your perceived self-efficacy determines your behavioural choices and your emotional responses. If you have higher levels of belief you are likely to take on more challenging tasks and make greater effort to complete them.
If you have serious doubts about your abilities you are likely to slacken your efforts or give up, although research suggests that some doubt can actually spur you on to extra effort.
There is plenty of evidence linking higher self-efficacy to higher performance in many different contexts, including sport, work performance and academic study.
In one sense, optimism is a general positive expectation regarding the outcome of future events. But a person’s disposition towards optimism or pessimism can also be revealed by the characteristic way that they explain events.
Thus, those who typically explain negative experiences as due to causes that are temporary, specific and external to themselves have an optimistic explanatory style (Seligman, 2006), e.g. “I failed my exam because on this occasion (temporary) the paper (external) focused on particularly obscure material (specific)”.
Those who consider that negative events arise from causes that are permanent, pervasive and internal have a pessimistic explanatory style, e.g. “I never (permanent) do well in exams because I am (internal) basically useless (pervasive)”.
Those with a habitually pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to give up in the face of negative events and are at risk of depression.
Resilience is the ability to cope successfully in the face of adversity, challenge, change and risk.
The resilient person is one who withstands pressure or who regains psychological equilibrium quickly when knocked back by events.
So resilience is all about bouncing back and not being overwhelmed by negative events or circumstances.
How to be confident
If we look at these various elements together we can see how increased levels of confidence are likely to flow from the combined effect of increases in each of them individually. It makes sense that we would feel more self assured if we increase our self-efficacy across various domains and ensure that we have clear goals that we are motivated to achieve and a good idea of the various ways by which we can achieve them.
Moreover, by avoiding self-blame and resisting any long term negative effects when inevitable setbacks occur, our chances of reaching our goals and expanding our self-belief are bound to be enhanced.
Next in this series on confidence I’ll cover some of the evidence based ways you can use to increase your levels of self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resilience.
Following this approach is likely to yield far better results for your confidence than following most of the purported confidence-building advice to be found online.
Confidence Building Training
Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (1st Vintage Books ed.)
Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Holleran, S. A., Irving, L. M., Sigmon, S. T., et al. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-difference measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570–585.
Stajkovic, A. D., Lee, D., Greenwald, J. M., & Raffiee, J. (2015). The role of trait core confidence higher-order construct in self-regulation of performance and attitudes: Evidence from four studies. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 128, 29-48.