Stop Trying to Build Your Confidence

When people first show up to therapy, they often say they want to feel more confident. I usually ask: More confident to do what?

Any number of things. Confident to start dating again. Confidence to push back against bad bosses. Confidence to tell their friends how they really feel. The specifics vary, but the idea is the same: “If I can find the confidence, only then can I do the hard stuff.”

competence begets confidence

competence begets confidence

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Usually, you just have to do the hard stuff.

“So if I do the hard stuff, then I’ll feel confident?”

Well, sort of. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do the hard stuff, you won’t really need to feel confident.

Think about it. When you know you can do something--when you have no doubt that you can do it--do you feel confident? Do you feel confident in your ability to ride a bike? Probably not. You just do it. You don’t need to feel anything.

But to get to that point, you probably had to go through some fear and anxiety. You probably felt nervous the first time you rode without training wheels. Maybe you even fell. If you had listened to those feelings of fear, and waited for them to subside, you never would have gotten on the bike. You’d still be scared of falling.

So, the feeling is not really important. What’s important is whether you get on the bike.

This might sound trivial, but it’s not. Because when you’re trapped in anxiety about something, you can get really hung up on trying to manage the feelings. You might try self-affirmations, breathing exercises, positive thinking, or whatever, trying to stir up positive vibes.

If that works for you, then great. But if it doesn’t, you should try the tried and true,Fake it ‘Til You Make It, Get Back in the Saddle, behavioral approach to confidence. Because that’s the approach that most often works.

And if you try that, here are some questions to ask yourself.

“If I did feel confident right now, what would I do?”  This is the million-dollar question for dealing with anxiety. The Golden Hypothetical. For this question to be useful, what you would do needs to be something that other people could actually see.

  • Not useful: “If I felt confident, I would feel better about my career prospects.”
  • Useful: “If I felt confident, I would send a resume to the company I want to work for”

"Can I accept the material consequences of failure?" I say material, as opposed to emotional, because people often get hung up on emotional consequences. Let’s say you’re thinking of starting a small business.

  • Not useful: “If I fail, I’ll feel even worse about myself, and I can’t accept that”
  • Useful: “If I fail, I’ll go broke, and I can’t accept that”

"Am I willing to experience whatever anxiety shows up? Be honest with yourself. If you’re going to do the difficult thing, are you willing to get uncomfortable. When you really get down to it, anxiety cannot hurt you. But you  have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort.

The bottom line here is that emotional reasoning--letting your feelings determine your actions--is often a trap.