On Confidence: What It Really Means and How To Develop It
Personally, I have had a lifelong struggle with confidence. The feedback always seemed to cut both ways. When I started out in management consulting, I was emboldened with a desire to change the world and speak my mind. Apparently, and I’m literally quoting the review, the problem was I was usually right. But it wasn’t my job. That was for vice presidents and above to handle. I was a mere analyst. So they told me to act like one.
I did. I became obedient and quiet. And what do you know? I was promoted. Then a funny thing happened at my next performance review, they dinged me for not talking enough.
Women, in particular, are caught in a double bind when it comes to the confidence game in the office. A 2010 study from Rutgers University found that women in leadership positions are disproportionately judged negatively by men for feminine qualities (i.e., caring, inclusive) and negatively by other women for being not feminine enough (i.e., dismissive, condescending).
“Agentic women striving for leadership roles are perceived to be overly dominant, intimidating, and arrogant, and thus, ‘too powerful’ (for a woman). As a result, they are disliked and discriminated against, thereby paving the way for men to gain access to and maintain positions of power.”
-Phelan & Rudman, “Prejudice Toward Female Leaders”
Now Sheryl Sandberg may suggest that these are the exact fears that lead women to hold themselves back in their careers, but I would argue that this protectionism is a learned behavior.
Leaning in without looking around can have disastrous consequences. The forces of other people’s perceptions often defeat reality. And kill confidence fast.
I was dumbfounded when the same company that required my silence to be successful now demanded my voice again. A voice that I previously suppressed for their sake. I felt confused and a little betrayed.
Reflecting on it today, I realize my mistake was grounding my confidence in the company’s shifting approval instead of an inner state of being: capabilities, experiences, and positive states.
Willpower is a finite resource. The more you try to convince someone that you are capable, the less energy you have to actually be capable.
“Indeed, research shows that interacting with others and maintaining relationships can deplete willpower. In one demonstration of that effect, Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, and her colleagues found that people asked to convince a hostile audience that they were likable suffered more depletion than people who were simply asked to act naturally before the audience.”
-American Psychological Association
There you go: be yourself and be more confident. Which we all know is not as easy as it sounds. We are constantly barraged with negative states that we unconsciously allow to impact our day-to-day. Negative states are natural. When I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking: I don’t have coffee. I don’t have this chapter finished. I don’t have an idea for an article this week.
Keep in mind – negative or fear states are good things because they get us out of bed in the morning and get us moving. They drive short-term results quickly. They just aren’t sustainable without prescription medication in the long run.
A lack of confidence is a lack of positivity about your capability, future, and true self (which nothing outside of you can hurt). True confidence is being yourself with a heightened sense of possibility. A balanced state of negative and positive.
Here are three ways I practice developing more positivity:
Close your eyes and envision what confidence looks like to you. It could be a riff on the last time you felt confident. Maybe with better shoes. Or the climax in your favorite superhero movie. Try asking your friends what you’re good at for a boost. Then, meditate for 5-10 mins on this confidence with all your senses: what colors, sounds, feelings, or memories does this image bring up?
Identify an object or gesture (power posing anyone?) that reminds you of this image of confidence. For me, this is key to moving this image of confidence out of my head and into the physical world. For example, I have a small wooden human mannequin with arms uplifted that I can see from desk every day. It reminds me that my kind of confidence is flexible and proportional. A friend of mine uses one hand to grasp her opposite thumb. Associating these symbols and returning to them is helpful when your mind goes into overdrive in the other direction.
Take action! If you were confident, what would you do differently? Start practicing with little menial tasks. I remember when my cousin and I splurged on extra crispy fried chicken, only to return home with 10 pieces of original. I was inclined to accept what was given by mistake, but my cousin calmly disagreed and drove back to return the food – correcting the error and getting us two extra sides for the trouble. The results don’t matter. It is the act of you doing things that matter to you that will convince yourself that you are worthy.
And repeat. Remember confidence is a state of mind, not a goal. Achieving goals obviously helps, but true confidence is not dependent on external opinions. Because you already have it.
Lastly, expect trouble. Some people may call you arrogant. This is the risk of change, especially when your confidence defies the norms of your gender, race, or group. But my hope, by then, is that you will be too confident to care.