Business Essentials

Ride the waves: confidence, why it fluctuates and how to get it back

Ride the waves: confidence, why it fluctuates and how to get it back

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Think back to a time when you were confident in your life. How did you feel? Strong? Capable? Happy? Dynamic? All of the above? Confidence is the secret sauce that makes everything easier.


Coming from the Latin word 'fidere', meaning ‘to trust’, confidence — as defined by Psychology Today — is ‘a belief or trust in oneself, the conviction that one has the ability to meet life's challenges and to succeed — and the willingness to act accordingly’. Benefits of confidence include increased openness, a willingness to try new things, improved performance at work and greater resilience. In contrast, lacking confidence can mean feeling unable to trust your own opinion or always thinking someone else’s opinions are better, being afraid to put your ideas forward or take on challenges, and being hard on yourself while being lenient with others for the same issues.


No wonder we all want to feel confident — and all the time. Yet, confidence is more a rolling wave than a straight line to a destination; and can wax and wane in response to so many factors. And for women, understanding the nuances of confidence is particularly important to be able to exercise it effectively at work; according to research, 79 percent of women regularly lack confidence in the workplace[1], something that can have powerful impacts on career growth, remuneration and leadership opportunities. The ability to be confident is important in myriad ways: leaders need to be able to bring their team with them, guide and empower them. It is also vital in being able to connect with people and build relationships, handle conflict effectively and reach for new opportunities that will drive careers and personal growth forward.


Even if you broadly resemble the archetypal ‘confident person’ (the feeling that you will be able to cope and succeed, whatever life throws at you), you will also inevitably encounter individual moments where your confidence dips — perhaps in the face of a new experience or unexpected curveball. At this point, employing the right mindset and tactics to get through the wobble — and understanding that your feelings and confidence levels are dynamic — can help you to have that broader sense of confidence in your own resilience.


Understanding specific areas in which you have confidence — and those that you don’t — can also be a great pathfinder to things you need to address to move forward. For example, you may feel confident about presenting ideas one-on-one, but lack confidence when presenting to a larger group. Or perhaps you feel confident in your work output, but not in asking for a pay rise or promotion. Pushing yourself regularly to step outside your comfort zone can lead to a reduction in stress or insecurity, while adding in vital feedback and knowledge about the best way to proceed.


Ultimately, the good news is that confidence is not innate; rather it is a volitional skill,

 — one that you can choose and build in yourself. The beliefs you hold about yourself have a powerful effect on your actions, and recent research into neural plasticity has increasingly shown that you can ‘rewire’ your brain in ways that affect your thoughts and behaviours at any point. With consistent effort and a bit of courage you can grow, maintain and repair your confidence in any area of life.






  • Myth: you’re either a confident person, or you’re not.  

Confidence is not something you are born with: it is the outcome of the thoughts you think and the actions you take, and therefore can be grown and developed. Importantly, it is not based on your actual ability to succeed at a task; rather your perception of and belief in your ability to succeed. Confidence can be temporarily affected by external factors such as how tired or run down you feel, and, of course, that number one confidence killer — stress. However, at its core, confidence is a muscle that can be built and maintained with sustained effort.


  • Myth: confidence grows in a linear fashion though experience and accolades

While external accolades can make you feel good, it is your own internal perceptions that have the greatest lasting impact on your confidence levels. To that end, experience and efforts to expand your comfort zone are essential for building internal confidence in your abilities. Understanding that confidence doesn’t grow in a linear fashion is crucial — depending on the experiences you have, the challenges you face and how you overcome them, it can be more akin to the tide coming in; with waves of increasing confidence and feedback moving back and forward up the sand, as overall confidence levels increase.


  • Myth: confidence is the same as self-esteem.

Yes, and no. While self-confidence is how confident you are in your ability or skills, self-esteem relates to how you feel about yourself, the value you place on and how accepting you are of yourself. It is possible to have confidence in areas of your life, yet still have low self-esteem. However, there is a correlation between feeling that you can trust yourself to succeed and increased self-esteem.


  • Myth: confident people have no insecurities and are confident all the time

Untrue. There will always be challenges and insecurities are a natural part of everyday life if you are growing and pushing forward. However, having self-doubt or feeling unsure does not mean that you do not trust the larger sense of your ability to cope and succeed — and approaching the situation with a growth mindset, using learning and feedback, will steadily grow your contextual confidence as well.


  • Myth: confident people are arrogant

Emerging research around the gender ‘confidence gap’ indicates that the lack of it in women is less likely to be driven by ability, and more likely to be guided by the perception that they will be penalised for being perceived as strident, confident and assertive — or even arrogant. As writer Stéphanie Thompson recently summarised in an article in the Atlantic[2]: ‘The problem isn’t that women aren’t confident but that confidence in women is not rewarded in the work world.’ In its broadest sense, though, confidence is a feeling of self-assurance that comes from an appreciation of your abilities or qualities. Arrogance, in opposition is characterised by having an exaggerated sense of your importance or abilities and comes from a position of needing to convince yourself and others of your abilities.






  • Act as if… Pretending you’re more confident than you actually feel at any given time can direct your mind in the right direction. But it’s not just about ‘faking it until you make it’. As confidence coach Jo Emerson notes, ‘Acting ‘as if’ means you consider what qualities you would like to embody as a confident version of you — your best self — and then start acting in ways that echo this. For example, you might think your best self would smile at everyone you meet, in which case this is what you need to practise until it becomes second nature’


  • Remember you’re unique. Comparing yourself to other people is a real confidence killer. There will always be someone doing better than you, earning more, being happier and so on (and the opposite will also be true). Which makes comparing where you are with someone else a losing game. If you find yourself falling into this trap, then a powerful way to shift your focus back to yourself is to practice gratitude. Studies have shown that taking time every day to list the things you’re grateful for — both in your life and in yourself — can improve mental health, increase happiness and even rewire your neural pathways.


  • Talk to yourself properly. A recent study[3] published in the European Journal of Social Psychology compared the impact on motivation and confidence of people who talked to themselves positively in the first person (‘I…’) and those who talked to themselves positively in the second person (‘You…’). It found that those who spoke to themselves in the second person reported higher levels of confidence with researchers suggesting that ‘you’ statements remind us of praise and encouragement from other people instead of just ourselves.


  • Practice affirmations. Science has proved that affirmations work! Brain imaging studies published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience[4] showed that practicing self-affirmations activates the brain’s self-processing and valuation cortex. These positive statements can then bolster or even restore self-competence by allowing individuals to reflect on sources of self-worth, such as core values as well as helping to maintain a positive self-view and sense of competence.


  • Get physical. Confidence in the body is largely a feedback loop: you breathe deeper, sit more openly and with assurance, maintain eye contact and stand strong with both feet on the ground when you feel this security. But you don’t have to wait to feel confident to display this — you can also use these physical cues to help yourself to help create the state too. A recent Ohio State University study[5] focused on the ability of body confidence to affect personal confidence and asked a group of students to complete tasks while sitting up straight or slumping. Those who sat up straight were found to be more likely to rate themselves for positive traits.







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