Everyone experiences low self-confidence in some aspect of life or at some time. Self-confidence is certainly an issue that presents itself again and again in coaching sessions. At work in particular, from junior to senior people, the challenge of improving and sustaining self-confidence is widespread.
Let’s take a closer look at what self-confidence is. For me, it has its roots in self-esteem – the knowledge or feeling that deep down we are ok, and that we feel happy with ourselves. And it draws on self-knowledge – an understanding of who we are, how we behave and what we believe.
What are the signs of self-confidence, how do we recognise it in others? Very often we see it in their body – they are relaxed, they move easily, they stand tall and make eye contact. Self-confident people often just get on and do things, they don’t boast about their achievements or need praise – they are, as we say, calmly self-confident. They take calculated risks, they are happy to acknowledge their mistakes or short-comings, they are willing to express and stand by their views, but equally willing to listen to others. Their mood is self-determined, they tend not to overreact to others.
The opposite of self-confidence is self-doubt, destructive self-questioning, an inner voice that says ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I’m not good enough’. Some of its outward manifestations are social awkwardness, avoidance of risks, self-deprecation, and lack of eye contact.
And a word about competence. Competence is not the same as confidence – you can be good at something (competent) without feeling confident about your skills, and vice versa, you can be over confident (confident without having the competence).
Self-confidence is learned, it’s nurtured, not something we are born with. Therefore, it follows that self-confidence can be developed and improved. Also, if we have confidence in one area of our lives, it doesn’t follow that we have it in all areas – even if we have high self-esteem (a deep feeling of being ok) we can still have low self-confidence is some areas.
So, how do we improve self-confidence? There are various techniques and tips, here are some.
I do a lot of presentation skills training and encounter people who find it hard to stand in front of an audience. I teach them a very simple technique that helps them feel less nervous, more relaxed and in control, and more self-confident. It’s based on the idea that low self-confidence manifests itself in the body (shaky legs, tense shoulders, nervous twitches etc.), and if you can control your body you can raise confidence and reduce nerves. I encourage people to start a presentation and regularly return to an upright standing position, with feet slightly apart, weight evenly distributed over both feet, shoulders slightly back, head up, and facing their audience. They start with their arms by their side or hands clasped in from of them, but as they speak they allow themselves to talk with their hands in a natural way.
This posture allows us to be very stable and grounded, and it feels relaxed. Remarkably, when you adopt it your brain follows your body – it realises that the body is calm, it then thinks everything must be ok, turns down the ‘panic button’ and softens the voice that is repeating ‘I’m going to fail’. There’s a sitting version of this posture, backside squarely on the seat, with hands together on the table.
Another widely practiced technique is ‘fake it till you make it’ in which you act as if you are confident in a particular situation. In doing this you experience what it feels like to be confident and start to build the habit. After a while, acting that way becomes more natural and you gain some of the self-confidence you’ve been faking.
There are many variations of this technique, including basing your behaviour, posture, voice etc., on someone who exhibits self-confidence (this is often called ‘modelling’), or simply dressing in a way that makes you feel good (makes you feel, fashionable, or important, or powerful etc.).
Because low self-esteem is caused by negative thoughts, you can counter it by having positive thoughts. Instead of imagining things going wrong, you can spend time imaging what it will be like when things go well, and instead of focusing on the things you can’t do, you can remind yourself of the things you can. In a similar vein, some people find it useful and confidence building to keep an achievement log – they write down all the things they can do, have done etc.
If you ask a group of people to name the situations where they are most likely to feel a lack of self-confidence, most or many will say job interviews and public speaking. Preparing and rehearsing for these and similar situations is a great way of bolstering confidence. Anticipate the interview questions, prepare your answers and know what you want to say in your talk, rehearse and embed it so that it flows without thought.
The ‘anticipate and prepare’ technique works just as well for formal and informal meetings. And you can take the technique further by familiarising yourself with the room and planning where you are going to sit. If you are nervous about speaking up in a meeting, make sure you say something early on, don’t sit there in silence because your fear is likely to grow – once you’ve made the first contribution the others will come more easily.
Let me be specific about what I mean when I say rehearse. I don’t mean run through your answers to questions or the presentation in your head, rehearsing should duplicate the real situation as much as possible. So speak you’re your prepared answers, say your presentation out loud (with any visual aids), and even better, do it in front of a friendly audience. Also, don’t do it once, do it several times until you have perfected and internalised what you want to say. Be prepared, it will quieten your nerves and that doubting voice.
Lastly, take small steps, tackle one thing at a time. After every step reflect on what you’ve achieved, write it down, and congratulate yourself. Improving self-confidence isn’t easy, it often involves changing the habits of a life-time, but it is possible – remember, small steps and believe that you can do it.
Walk tall, be calmly confident.