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What is confidence and do you get it?

September 25, 2019

People use the word ‘confidence’ a lot, often to describe how they feel about an upcoming event or challenge, or to express the way they feel about themselves. Most of us probably use it on a daily basis, almost without thinking about it. But what does it actually mean? Is it a feeling, or a set of thoughts, or a behaviour?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘confidence’ as “the quality of being certain of your abilities, or of having trust in people, plans, or the future”.

The fact that confidence is described as a ‘quality’ is interesting. This suggests it’s seen as a positive character attribute – something you’re born with, like natural leadership abilities or patience. Certainly, some people do seem to be born with more confidence than others. The good news is that this isn’t necessarily the end of the story: it is possible to develop and build up your confidence, much like you can with a skill like communication.
This is a good point to stop and explore what confidence means to you.

On a scale of 0-10, where 10 is ‘very confident’, how confident would you say you were as a person?

What does 0 look like, in terms of thoughts, feelings and behaviour? What does 10 look like? And where do you fit in – how do you typically think, feel and behave?

If you scored your confidence lower than a 5, think about how this affects your life. What impact does it have on what you do? And how about what you don’t do?

What that exercise probably highlighted is that confidence is a word we’ve come to associate with people who behave in a particular way. And here’s some more good news: behaviour can be learned, unlearned and changed.

But what about the feelings that underlie that behaviour?

Confidence is a trap for a lot of us. People often say “I’ll do it when I feel more confident”, or “I’m not a very confident person”. For a start, the more you believe that you’re not a confident person, the more it will impact what you do and don’t do.

How can you feel more confident? What’s the recipe? Sometimes it’s obvious. If you’re not a confident swimmer, you become more so through taking lessons, or by practicing, until your ability to swim and the feeling of confidence in that ability gets stronger.

But not everyone will feel they’re confident enough to sign up for lessons, or to get in the pool and start practicing. Sometimes we believe we need a base level of confidence in order to get up and take the first step. We’re tying ourselves up in knots here; trapping ourselves again with the word ‘confidence’. Perhaps in this context – lacking the confidence to do something difficult, new, daunting or challenging – it doesn’t mean what we think it does.

What’s really happening here is that we’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions which we don’t like. We’re hardwired as humans to avoid feeling discomfort, so our brain will do its best to steer us away from doing the thing that’s associated with those feelings. It’s trying to help us, but the effect is often to keep us from doing things we really want to do and would enjoy.

If we feel anxious at the thought of socialising or trying a new hobby, or – on a bigger scale – changing job, having children or moving to a new area, we might believe we just don’t have the confidence to do it. But what we’re really doing is listening to our brain, which is telling us to avoid the situation because it wants to keep us nice and comfortable.

The unintended consequences might be that we don’t end up with the close friendships we want, or we get stuck in our career, for example. In the longer term, if we don’t live our life in a way that’s meaningful to us we could end up with significant regrets.

If I could grant you one of these two wishes, which would you choose?

Number one: I could take away the feelings of anxiety in your life, but you wouldn’t have any of the things you want – whether that be good friends, creativity, love, achievements, or progress in your work.

Number two: I could offer you all of those meaningful things, but you’d still have feelings of anxiety.

It’s very powerful if we decide simply to feel those uncomfortable feelings, and move along anyway to do what’s important to us. Sometimes this will seem overwhelming. Why not try it? Next time you find yourself thinking “I don’t have the confidence to take this step”, acknowledge the feeling, and take it anyway – and see what happens. Who knows, after a while it might just become a habit.

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