An actionable roadmap to overcome lack of confidence

Whether it is making a presentation, talking to our boss, or socializing after work, some of us experience a serious lack of confidence or anxiety. We anticipate that we will fumble, make a mistake or do a really bad job. And when we are afraid of making a fool of ourselves, that anxiety itself makes us fumble.

Why do we lack confidence? And how can we address that?

This is what we will discuss in today’s newsletter.

So, under-confidence has to come from the lack of ability, right? No.

You would have noticed that some people are very confident talking about things they barely half-understand. On the other hand, some very knowledgeable people may appear hesitant or unsure. This lack of confidence can come from multiple sources, including upbringing and social conditioning, past experiences, personality, and biological factors. So confidence is not primarily about ability (though it can also be a small factor).

While we can’t change the underlying factors, using ideas from psychotherapy, we can bring about a distinctive change in our self-confidence levels. Here are some actionable suggestions to achieve that:

1. Gently challenge your inner critic: The next time you feel a lack of confidence, notice the thoughts in your head. What are you telling yourself? Sometimes, these thoughts are very subtle but if you pay attention, you can notice them. E.g., you may have thoughts like “I will fumble and they will think I am incompetent.”

Whatever those thoughts are, don’t judge them, don’t fight them – just write them down.

Once you have those thoughts written down, now we can evaluate whether they are 100% true, 100% false, or somewhere in between. You can ask yourself the following questions:

– How often have you faced such situations in the past? How often have your fears come true? (e.g., How often have you made a fool of yourself). Based on past data, how likely are you to do a bad job?

– If some situation in the past went badly, how is this situation different? Might it be that you are better prepared? Are there other positive factors?

– Even if you make a mistake (e.g., if you fumble during a presentation), what is the worst that could happen? How could you handle such a situation? Write these things down.

Now, once you have realized that you are overestimating the odds of making a mistake and underestimating your ability to cope with a mistake, let us revisit our original thoughts. Now, write down a better way to think about it. E.g., if the original thought was, “I will fumble and make a fool of myself), the new thought could be, “Almost 90% of my presentations have gone well. And even if there is a fumble, it is not that big a deal. In the worst case, I can just say ‘sorry about that’ and move on.”

2. Handle mistakes with self-compassion: We expect ourselves to be perfect. And we feel that without perfection, we won’t get anywhere in life. And that is just not true.

Take the example of Joe Biden, the US President. Often, Biden stammers or commits verbal gaffes. In fact, he has built a reputation for that. And yet, that has not prevented him from winning the toughest electoral battle in the US against a slate of very competent and articulate candidates.

So remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. And when you make a mistake, take it easy – show some self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes.

Another thing to remind yourself is that when you make a small mistake, you focus only on that mistake while everyone is looking at the whole performance. E.g., when I record videos, if I mispronounce a word, I feel that the video will be terrible to watch. And almost always, nobody else even notices that error.

3. Don’t compare with others: We are all different, with our own styles, approaches, and strengths. You don’t have to be like other people – you just have to be a good version of yourself.

To illustrate, take your top two movie actors. Imagine if one of them tried to be like the other – will they perform well? No, it would be a disaster.

When I was working in New York, I came across people from all nationalities and ethnicities, speaking with all kinds of accents. And yet, they were all successful in their own way. Had they tried to speak like others, they would have made a mess of it.

So stop being like the next guy. And he should stop trying to be like you!

4. Practice exposure to situations that create anxiety: When a situation creates fear or anxiety, often, it is involuntary. No matter how much you rationally understand that there is no danger, your mind still does not accept it – it is hardwired for fear.

Public speaking is a common example of that. Speaking before a big crowd is not dangerous but many of us would freeze or find it very uncomfortable.

In these situations, we have to expose ourselves to similar situations, where we can see for ourselves that there is no real danger. E.g., if you have to perform before a huge auditorium, first do it before a few friends. Then, try a bigger crowd, possibly with people you may not know fully well. As you do stretch yourself and perform before larger and more challenging settings, your mind will form new memories associating public performance with an enjoyable outcome. And gradually, your fear will decline.

This is based on the principle of ‘exposure therapy,’ which is one of the common treatments for anxiety.

5. Build competence: While competence is not the most common reason for under-confidence, it can still be quite valuable for building confidence. If you know that you are good at what you do, and you have practiced it enough, it will take care of many insecurities. After all, we can’t fake competence.

Once again, remember – everybody makes mistakes. People don’t expect us to be flawless machines. All they expect is a good effort.

Hope this is of help. Thank you for reading this.


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