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Wellbeing confidence

11 May 2021 / Wellbeing Print

Yeah, baby!

Austin Powers’ ‘ring of confidence’ dispels fear, opens doors and powers his mojo. Fiona McKeever says that by exploring our personal strengths, we boost our confidence, thus allowing us to grab the opportunities that life presents

When you hear the word ‘confidence’, what impact does it have on you? Would you describe yourself as confident, or ascribe it to others? For many, being confident is a seemingly elusive quality – like Austin Powers, you either have it or you don’t! 

This static view can, however, hold people back in their professional lives. Beliefs about confidence can discourage a person from seeking and taking on new responsibilities or recognising and integrating accomplishments and achievements.

This can ultimately lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, professional stagnation, and unfulfillment. By exploring new practices and beliefs about a person’s strengths, qualities and experiences, professionals can enhance their confidence and participate in the opportunities for growth that are available to them.

I’ve lost my mojo!

The first thing to note is that it’s perfectly normal to have a dip in confidence or to have some self-doubt. Temporary dips in confidence often coincide with periods of work or career transition, such as moving from a trainee role to a newly qualified role; associate to partner; private practice to in-house.

A lack of ‘access’ to confidence is often quite common at a senior level when a person becomes responsible for larger and more complex teams and portfolios. New expectations and responsibilities can create feelings of fear of failure or inadequacy, even where the person was confident in their old role.

During the current pandemic, it is also perfectly natural to have a dip in confidence. The future feels less certain. You may have doubts about the direction of your career, or you feel that opportunities may no longer be available to you. 

Confidence tricks

Confidence is a dynamic state and can fluctuate from one context to another. Questioning one’s self-belief, in a particular time or context, may be appropriate and keep us safe. More concerning, however, is when feelings of doubt become permanent and pervasive. When your beliefs become rigid and fixed, it is much more difficult to believe yourself to be confident. Life or career challenges that you may ordinarily be able to face may become daunting.

A dictionary definition of confidence is “the belief that one can have faith in or rely on something” and “a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s abilities” [emphasis added].

Beliefs are at the heart of confidence. What you tell yourself – whether that is positive or negative – will affect your self-belief. Often we equate a belief with a truth. Appreciation is also core to confidence building. How often do you pause to acknowledge or appreciate your accomplishments?

The following four practices may help you think of confidence in a new way.

1. Regular positive stock-taking

How do you capture and celebrate achievements, small and large? Do you do it all? We tend to distort and delete our past achievements by focusing largely on areas where we could have been better. This means that, when faced with a tricky or new challenge or situation, we are not able to draw successful memories and analogies from which we can shore up our confidence.

In enhancing confidence, it is important to take stock regularly of our achievements and to integrate that knowledge as part of our professional identity. By paying attention to the strengths, qualities, and skills that we have deployed in a successful situation, we will much more easily access memories of being successful and competent if subsequently faced with self-doubt. In-the-moment, empowering memories can help neutralise the feelings of inadequacy or fear of failure.

There are many ways of stock-taking. It may be as simple as internally acknowledging the email from a client or colleague which says: “Thanks, well done. We couldn’t have done this without you.” You may also want to diary an ‘appointment with yourself’ every two months and spend some focused time on your accomplishments over the previous period. What is critical is that this time is focused and habitual.

In my experience, professionals tend to pay more attention to negative feedback than positive feedback, which can lead to a one-dimensional analysis of a situation. Positive stock-taking is not an invitation to ignore constructive feedback. Rather it is an invitation to have a more balanced perspective on events so that, in line with the dictionary definition, we learn to appreciate our abilities.

Finally, appreciating your achievements recognises the role of competence in enhancing confidence. Competence is often downplayed in favour of mantras such as ‘just do it’, or ‘fake it til you make it’.

Regularly review your increased competence. What knowledge have you increased in the last three months? What skills have you developed? What professional relationships have you deepened? What do you know now that you did not know before you worked on a matter? A reluctance to acknowledge one’s increasing competence can undermine efforts to build and enhance confidence.

2. Managing the inner critic

Do you ever notice the running commentary that is going on in your head? That voice might be motivating (“you can do it”) or it might be negative (“you shouldn’t apply for that role; you’re not experienced enough”). Do you notice if you are linking your confidence or lack of self-belief to a label that you use to describe yourself? (“I’m not confident because I’m [insert class, sex, ethnicity, nationality, gender etc].”) 

If all the thoughts and beliefs in your head are negative or disempowering, it will affect how you feel, how you behave, and how others experience you. Often, these thoughts, beliefs and feelings are automatic, and may be triggered by a particular person or a specific environment, making confidence difficult to control.

As the definition of confidence indicates, belief is crucial. Noticing automatic thinking patterns and belief systems (the inner critic) and interrupting them in some way is a key aspect of enhancing one’s confidence.

A useful model to interrupt automatic responses is the ‘ABCDE model’ (see panel, below).

It works as follows: a trigger event happens (A), and your feelings, actions and behaviour can be observed (C). Unconsciously, certain beliefs (B) may be at play that are automatically leading to the observable behaviours. You break the pattern by noticing the automatic thoughts and beliefs, and attempt to generate alternative thoughts based on alternative perspectives or additional evidence (D). By generating alternative thoughts and beliefs, you are creating the conditions for new behaviours or a new response (E).

The following example illustrates. A colleague asks you to present in front of a new client on short notice. You are told that it is an important new relationship (A). You present nervously in front of the client, lacking the fluency you desire, and fluff the answers to some of the questions. This reinforces your self-doubt (C). Between (A) and (C), what may be at play is a belief (B) that you are not a strong presenter, and that to overcome your lack of confidence, you tend to overprepare.

Consider the following, where the scenario remains the same. A colleague asks you to present in front of a new client on short notice. You are told that it is an important new relationship (A). You pause and notice your belief that you are not a strong presenter, but you commit to generate additional, more empowering beliefs.You recognise that you have dismissed positive feedback on your previous presentations. You know the subject matter very well, and you have developed strategies for handling difficult questions. These thoughts make you feel more confident, generating excitement, agency, and you deliver a more accomplished presentation (E). This, in turn, increases your confidence.

The trigger event for each scenario is the same – the thoughts and beliefs are different, which contribute to different behaviours, outcomes, and enhanced confidence.

Finally, pay close attention to thoughts that start with ‘I can’t’, ‘It’s always like that around here’, and ‘I will never’. Words such as ‘always’ and ‘never’ suggest a rigidity in thinking that will unravel your attempts to break automatic response patterns.

3. Behaving as if…

In response to an admission of a lack of confidence, some people may offer the ‘fake it til you make it’ philosophy in response. Many people, including me, distance themselves from the phrase, as it can be interpreted as advocating fakery or trickery. The concept also triggers negative connotations associated with bravado and charisma.

A more appropriate approach would be to consider adapting the behaviours of a confident (not arrogant) person. If you think about the eye contact and posture of a confident person, could some of those behaviours be integrated into your own style? Are there clues to be found in the voice, pace, tone and choice of language of a confident person?

Adopting the behaviours or a confident person, in conjunction with the other practices mentioned, can have a role to play in enhancing your confidence.

4. Breathing patterns

If you find yourself needing an immediate dose of confidence, having some breathing techniques at your disposal is quite useful. Changing your breathing pattern in the moment will create some calm, which is necessary for the brain to respond constructively to a challenge. One simple, practical exercise is to breathe in for four counts, hold for seven counts, and breathe out for eight counts. Repeat this three times.

Breathing exercises are not a substitute for doing the work on stock-taking or managing your inner voice, but they can help in a moment of crisis or pressure.

Got my mojo working

I will end on a note of caution. These practices are not life-hacks or quick fixes. To be effective, you may have to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. You may have to let go of old, ingrained ways of thinking and belief systems. Existing patterns of behaviour and thinking may be more comfortable than the effort required by change.

Working on confidence is not a one-time-only practice. But have no doubt that commitment will lead to professional rewards and satisfaction.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Fiona McKeever
Fiona McKeever is a qualified lawyer, now working as an executive and leadership coach