A Simple Guide to Confidence

Where self-limiting beliefs come from and how to eradicate them

Confidence is critical. It’s an essential ingredient of happiness, an unequivocal component of success and the one thing that stands between us and the person we wish to become.

Whatever we hope to achieve in our lives, be it a promotion or self-mastery, it all comes back to the same question. How confident are we in our abilities?

Without self-assurance, we become too attached to our own dignity, anxious in any situation that might threaten it. And so we avoid any situation in which we might face embarrassment — which is, frankly, almost every situation.

We decide against applying for our dream job because we think we’ll be rejected. We shy away from making the first move in new relationships. We keep our mouths closed instead of voicing our opinion. Above all, we suppress our desire to be free. To be ourselves.

It follows, therefore, that it is in all of our best interests to become more confident in our abilities. But how?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

To quote The School of Life,

‘At the heart of our under-confidence is a skewed picture of how dignified it is normal for a person to be.’

The problem is that we’re too busy telling ourselves stories. We’re so lost in our own heads and our thoughts and emotions that our view of reality becomes grossly distorted.

Picture yourself in a board room meeting amongst several of your colleagues. After listening quietly for twenty minutes, your boss turns to you and asks, ‘What do you think?’

Suddenly, you’re spiraling downwards into self-conscious anxiety, too afraid to open your mouth to voice your opinion. You stutter, stammer, stumble upon your words and resort to saying something you don’t really mean just to fill the silence and get yourself out of the spotlight.

The problem? You’re telling yourself a story — that everybody is listening to you, scrutinizing you and thinks you’re talking complete nonsense. Your mind overflows with ideas about what should and shouldn’t be and you’re left incapable of truly being yourself.

On the flip side, imagine being in a room full of young children teaching them basic math skills. Chances are, you’re pretty relaxed. You aren’t hyper-aware of their perception of you, and you aren’t so self-conscious that you can’t even formulate a coherent sentence.

Your stories are entirely different. In scenario B, you feel competent. Superior. Grounded. In your head, you’re not worried or anxious but confident in your own abilities. And in scenario A, you’re a total mess.

Start noticing when you’re telling yourself stories. It’s those stories that dictate the way you act, and when they’re negative, your ability to be true to yourself is compromised.

Where Our Low Confidence Originates

I remember being a young child at school and delivering my first presentation to the class. I was standing with a group of my friends and it was my turn to speak.

Before long, I started to become aware that all eyes were on me. Everybody in the room would notice if I messed up. The nerves kicked in. I stuttered. Stammered. Stumbled upon a couple of words. A few giggles came from the back of the room, humored by my embarrassment which only grew worse. My breathing quickened and my knees started to shake and I sat back down feeling ashamed and humiliated.

As a result, I spent the next fifteen years of my life deeply afraid of public speaking. It all started in that classroom.

Psychology teaches us that most of our fears begin this way. We experience something traumatic and latch those emotions onto a particular situation or object, like flying, socializing or big hairy spiders.

Whether we can remember such occasions or not, these fears persist until we convince our brain otherwise. In theory, we’ll go on being afraid for as long as we continue to avoid the phobic object in question.

Confronting Irrational Fear

Low confidence is, in essence, a phobia. It’s a phobia that takes many forms depending upon the situation we find ourselves in, examples of which include:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of embarrassment
  • Fear of disappointing loved ones
  • Fear loneliness

Whatever guise it takes, all of these fears come back to the same essential fear: that we, for whatever reason, are not good enough — good enough to deserve praise, acceptance, success or partnership.

And, as we’ve already confirmed, the only way to dissolve fear is to confront it. In doing so, we rewire our neural circuitry, retraining our brain and teaching it that that which we have learned to fear is, in fact, not worthy of our anxiety.

My phobia of public speaking lasted for many years. For each year that I avoided talking to audiences, my anxieties only intensified until I couldn’t take it any longer.

Since starting secondary school at thirteen years old, I’d wanted to become the leader of my house team by the time I reached my final year in education. Being a house leader which would involve speaking to large crowds of students and hosting the annual competitions that took place between each house.

At thirteen, I was nowhere near confident ‘enough’ to become an ambassador for my house, but I reasoned that once I reached eighteen I’d be ready. Each year that passed, I was surprised that I wasn’t becoming increasingly more confident. Despite my hopes, nothing seemed to be changing.

Alas, I still didn’t feel ready when the time finally came for me to apply to join the house team. I was just the same as I was back in my first year, just older and a little taller. I was disappointed that, after all of those years, that long-awaited self-esteem had never arrived. And that’s when it hit me.

No matter how much you hope, pray and wait patiently, you’ll never feel confident enough to do the things that scare you. You gain confidence after you face that which you’re afraid of; after you put yourself in a position in which you might be rejected, humiliated, lonely or fail — but never before.

Every single time you confront your fear, you gain a little more courage to do so again in the future. When you face your phobias again and again, you gradually start to realize that there’s no need to be afraid. This isn’t a life-or-death situation, and you can handle a little embarrassment or rejection from time to time.

To make that realization, however, there’s a hurdle to overcome. You have to put yourself in some pretty uncomfortable situations. You have to become well-acquainted with fear.

The Three-Second Rule of Facing Fears

Each time you confront your self-limiting beliefs, you stand to be humiliated. You’re not practicing avoiding rejection, rather, not worrying so much about what other people think of you. The risk of trying and failing removes the sting from the tail of embarrassment.

Actually confronting our fears, however, is easier said than done. Since I was thirteen, I’ve been making a conscious effort to just about everything that scares me (although I’m yet to bathe in dinner-plate-sized tarantulas.)

I talk to strangers all of the time and have put myself in some pretty embarrassing situations, like lying down on the floor in a supermarket full of people.

From my experiences, I’ve found that doing scary things usually comes down to one thing: the three-second rule.

The moment that you consider doing something frightful, you start doubting yourself. Your brain almost immediately starts firing off excuses and reasons why you absolutely shouldn’t face your phobia.

After around three seconds, if you haven’t done the scary thing, you’re probably not going to do it. By that point, your mind has already convinced you that the prospect of humiliation is so devastatingly awful that you’d better run away while you can.

The trick, therefore, is to face your fear within that three-second window. Let me provide some examples of scary situations that, when confronted, can work to improve confidence:

  • Talking to cashiers: One of my favorite ways to practice confidence-building is to talk to cashiers. You’re never going to see them again. Ask them how their day is, tell them you like their hair — anything. Just talk. If it scares you, do it.
  • Speaking up in meetings: Board-room meetings are pretty frightening environments at the best of times, especially if you’re a new employee. So decide on what you’re going to say, count to three and then stick your hand right up in the air and say it. It doesn’t matter if you mess up. You’re still a winner because you faced your fear.
  • Lie down on the floor in public: This one’s a little more extreme. During the week that I was planning on applying to join my school’s house team and commit to public speaking on a weekly basis, I spent an entire day going to different supermarkets and bus stops and just lying down on the ground. Till H. Groß delivered a great TED Talk on what he calls ‘Comfort Zone Challenges,’ and lying down in public was one of them. If you want to gain self-confidence quickly, watch that, go out into the streets and lie down on the floor. It’ll be terrifying, but only for a few minutes, after which you’ll realize that nobody really cares that much.

Of course, there are plenty of ways in which you can confront your fear of rejection — these are just three that I’ve practiced a lot.

It’s crucial that you remember one thing: it doesn’t matter if you mess up, if you get nervous or if you face crippling embarrassment. What matters is that you just go ahead and face the thing that’s holding you back.

Then, and only then, can you start building true and long-lasting confidence in your own abilities.