How to set aside your fear and boost your internal confidence

Alex Honnold was recently in the news for being the first climber to ever free solo Yosemite’s El Capitan. If you’re not familiar with free soloing, it’s climbing without ropes. Alex had a bag of chalk, sticky soled shoes, and his climbing prowess to keep him on the rock.

Photograph by Jimmy Chin, National Geographic

I coached Alex last year on a presentation he was giving, but speaking in public is far from the scariest part of his job. When asked how he handles the danger he faces when he climbs, Alex replied that thinking about the fear while he’s climbing isn’t helpful, so he sets his fear aside.

Unfortunately, not all of us are wired like Alex Honnold. And when we have to take on our equivalent task of climbing El Capitan — like speaking up in a meeting, going to a job interview, or giving a big presentation — we’re not always so calm in the face of fear.

Recently, I’ve had a string of communication clients I’ve coached who are deathly afraid of speaking in front of others — even if it’s just in a meeting. These are highly qualified, highly capable people, but their lack of confidence has affected the opportunities they pursue.

Hearing about their lack of confidence made me realize how important it is not just to appear confident externally, but to actually be confident internally. So, here are some tips on how to improve your internal confidence for anything from your next big presentation to speaking up at a meeting.

Before your event, focus on the message you want to share, rather than the reaction of the people who will be watching. For example, if you have a job interview, think about what qualifications you have for the job and how they fulfill the position, rather than obsessing over how the interviewers will react. Coincidentally, when you focus on your message, your audience is often more receptive, because you’ve considered how the message is relevant to them.

The day of your event, arrive early. For instance, if you’re nervous about a meeting you’re attending — maybe with a new group of people you haven’t worked with before — arriving early eliminates the additional stress that comes from running late and it lets you speak informally with others. These early connections help when it comes time to speak up, as it feels like you already have some allies and are interacting with friends.

If you get nervous while you’re speaking, find the person who is smiling at you and nodding. There’s always one in every crowd.

After your event, reflect on your performance and then let go of your mistakes. Brett Ledbetter, a leadership expert, interviewed basketball coaches and found a common thread that successful coaches focus on the process, rather than the result.

This TEDx talk is a great reminder of how to focus on the process and keep building our internal confidence.

The process is in your control, but the result often is not. Keeping this in mind, analyze what went well and what you can improve in your process. But then let it go.

I used to spend many sleepless nights obsessing over how I answered a student’s question in class and the things I wished I’d said. What would have been more effective is to practice a better response for next time, email the student supplementary material if necessary, but then let it go.

Many of us aim for perfection, but perfection is not an achievable standard. There’s always something you can improve in your communication and performance.

Overall, if we want to raise our internal confidence, we need to start speaking to ourselves more kindly. Last week, one of my students finished her presentation in class and immediately upon finishing said “That was awful. I can’t believe how horrible I did.” First of all, she’d actually done a great job, but second, she would have never spoken to another person that way. We need to use the voice and logic we apply to others on ourselves.

Because confidence can be slippery. You can feel confident one moment and it falls from your grasp a second later with even a minor setback. To cultivate enduring and strong internal confidence, we need to speak to ourselves more kindly, remember to focus on our message, look to the smiling people, and after some self-reflection, let go of our mistakes.

With these things in mind, we can begin to set aside the fear that is hindering our performance and instead focus on climbing our version of El Capitan.

Photograph by Jimmy Chin, National Geographic