When it’s time to make a decision, ask for what you want, express yourself, make a change, or meet new people, do you do so with confidence, or do doubts and uncertainty hamper you?
If you’re less than confident, you’re not alone. American culture floats a myth that success and confidence go together. But swagger and bold talk, or boasting about oneself, one’s work, marriage or any other traditional trappings of a happy life, do not always equal confidence on the inside.
Psychologist Dina Zeckhausen, Ph.D., suggests that confidence is a much more subtle feeling. She defines it as “a deep internal sense of okay-ness.” A confident person has no trouble accepting the statements, “I am worthy of love. I deserve to take up space on this planet,” she says.
Lack of confidence may find its roots in any number of sources: difficult early childhood experiences; being burned in love or at work; experiencing a “failure” we don’t know how to overcome, or a sudden life change we didn’t see coming such as losing a job, divorce or illness. Confidence is one of those qualities we think we know when we see it, but may not know how to get it for ourselves.
While confidence is a complex issue—you might feel confident in your work, but not in your relationship—there are steps you can take to get on the road toward feeling good about yourself. Zeckhausen breaks confidence down into two main categories:
- Confidence in self, i.e. worth.
- Confidence in your abilities.
When struggling, she says it’s helpful to identify which of the two is most prevalent, and to address that first. While it’s rare for her clients to come into therapy with the goal of becoming more confident, it is often a byproduct of working on other issues. Zeckhausen recommends undertaking “Small things that you can try today that may seem hard, but that will give you a sense of mastery and agency in your life. Confidence can be a natural byproduct of these simple acts.”
Mastery experiences are a great way to begin building confidence in one’s abilities, which can support the strengthening of self-worth, a concept defined by Albert Bandura, Professor of Social Science in Psychology / Emeritus at Stanford University, as “self-efficacy.”
Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. Bandura writes: “If people experience only easy successes, they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger from adversity.”
You begin to build that mastery by setting and achieving small goals in skill and relationship areas that matter to you. I can speak to this as a person who was raised to think of herself as gawky, clumsy and generally bad at sports, dance or any other physical activity. As a child, I tried both ballet and gymnastics, and when the going got hard, my parents simply let me quit. They didn’t recommend I persevere; there was no suggestion that I learn to improve. Thus, it wasn’t until my late 30s when the after-effects of having a baby sent me to find exercise I could stand that I discovered, quite by accident, I was far more athletic than I’d ever known.
A little bit of confidence built upon itself had surprising effects on other areas of my self-confidence. I found myself more willing to make eye contact with people I didn’t know, speak to strangers, and talk kindly to myself.
As one starts to work on areas of faltering self-confidence, you might find you need to reach out for support. Whether you have a therapist or not, a strong network of family or friends who can remind you of your worth can help you keep at your goals.
And, if you’re in the position of helping a friend or a child boost their confidence, Zeckhuasen suggests that it’s better not to try to do so through external praise or validation, but rather to walk them toward their own effort. “If you give compliments, make them specific,” she says. Rather than ‘you are an incredible human being’ say ‘I love the way you handled that uncomfortable situation. You are good at thinking on your feet.’”
When undertaking a journey to become more confident, remember that lasting change happens in increments, and nobody does it alone.