When most people think of the word confidence, they associate it with a lack of fear or self-doubt.
They look on in wonder, for example, at that confident coworker who seems to just speak their mind without a care in the world for what other people think.
And while it’s true that confident people often feel less anxious than the rest of us, there’s a deeper truth to confidence that we often miss:
Confidence isn’t the absence of fear. It’s the belief that you’ll be okay despite your fear.
In other words, confident people haven’t figured out how to eliminate fear entirely—they’ve changed their relationship to it.
They see fear and uncertainty as uncomfortable but not dangerous. And as a result, they’re able to act alongside their fear instead of being paralyzed by it.
A happy implication of this is that anyone can learn to become more confident.
In my work as a psychologist, I help many people who struggle with low self-esteem, chronic anxiety, and low self-confidence to change their relationship to fear. And as a result, their confidence rises—sometimes dramatically so!
The secret sauce to becoming more confident and learning to live with your fear is to build better habits. What follows are four habits confident people practice regularly that keep them confident in the face of fear and insecurity.
1. Accepting fear instead of running away from it
Confident people don’t lack fear—they just have a healthier relationship with it.
The biggest mistake I see with people trying to become more confident is that they try to eliminate or avoid fear altogether. But this is a dangerous game for several reasons.
Eliminating your fear is impossible. Your brain evolved a threat-detection system for a reason—keeping you alive. A side-effect of that threat-detection system is feeling fear.
For example: When you hear the rattle of a mama rattlesnake in the bushes next to the trail you’re hiking on, you’re threat-detection system kicks in quick—releasing adrenaline, increasing heart rate and muscle tone, narrowing your attentional focus, and of course, feeling afraid.
You might not like it, but this whole fear system is there for a very good reason—it helps keep you safe from genuine threats. Even if it were possible, getting rid of fear entirely would be foolish.
Fear can be useful. The second reason it’s dangerous to try and avoid or suppress your fear is that, even in situations that are not life-threatening, fear can be useful.
You’re not going to die if you flub the intro to your presentation in front of the whole company. But the fact that your fear system kicks into a gear a little bit during public speaking can be to your advantage.
When your fear system gets activated, your body releases adrenaline, which is a powerful performance enhancer, both physically and mentally. Everything from your attention and memory to your reaction times improve with a little adrenaline. Good performers from athletes to public speakers know this and harness fear to their advantage.
Avoiding fear creates anxiety. At the heart of every chronic anxiety issue is a simple process: When you try to eliminate or run away from fear, you teach your brain to be afraid of fear itself. In the long-run, this makes you chronically anxious.
If you immediately “attack” or “flee” from your fear anytime it comes up, your brain is understandably going to start thinking of fear itself as a threat and danger. This means it’s going to be increasingly on guard and hypervigilant to anything that might make you anxious or afraid. And if it finds something, it’s going to make you even more anxious!
Confident people don’t try to eliminate fear. They embrace it.
If you cultivate the willingness to accept your fear and get on with life despite feeling afraid, you send a powerful message to your brain: Fear is uncomfortable but not dangerous.
And when your brain really believes that, confidence is not far behind.
A simple way to build your confidence and cultivate a better relationship with fear is to practice naming it and acknowledging it. By simply telling yourself I am afraid and that’s okay you’re beginning the process of retraining your brain not to be afraid of fear itself. And the more it believes that to be true, the more confident you’re going to feel.
Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.
2. Communicating assertively
Confident people communicate their own needs honestly and respectfully.
On the other hand, people with low self-confidence routinely put aside their own wants and needs in favor of someone else’s:
- The adult woman who’s so afraid of upsetting her mother that she drops everything—even the needs of her own family—any time her mom asks her for something.
- The timid employee who says yes to every request anyone makes of him at work and ends up feeling chronically stressed out and anxious as a result.
- The passive spouse who never brings up their unhappiness in the marriage for fear of “rocking the boat” and making the other person angry.
If you’re constantly deferring your own wants and needs for those of other people, you’re going to constantly feel unworthy. And it’s awfully hard to feel confident in yourself if you don’t think you are worthy.
Confident people believe that their wants and needs are every bit as valid and important as other people’s and they act accordingly:
- They ask for what they want clearly and respectfully.
- They respect other people’s right to say yes or no just as they respect their own right to ask.
- They say no to what they don’t want and are willing to set and enforce boundaries with people.
That’s easy for them…, you say, They’re already confident. I could ask for what I wanted if I felt as confident as they do!
The problem here is mistaking cause and effect. Yes, confident people have an easier time communicating assertively because they feel confident. But they only feel confident because they’re willing to be assertive even when it’s hard.
Nobody likes saying no and disappointing people. But confident people do it anyway if it’s the right thing to do. And when they see that things actually turn out okay in the long-run, it becomes a little bit easier to do the next time.
Confidence comes from doing the right thing even if it feels difficult in the moment.
If you want to feel more confident, practice being more assertive:
- Ask for what you want clearly and respectfully.
- Say no to what you don’t want.
- Set and enforce healthy boundaries.
If you respect yourself enough to communicate assertively, confidence won’t be far behind.
Assertiveness isn’t about building a good disguise. It’s about developing the courage to take the disguise off.
— Randy Paterson
3. Making decisions based on values, not feelings
Confident people build trust in themselves by prioritizing values over feelings.
The secret ingredient to feeling more confident is trust. But it’s a very specific form of trust: Confident people trust themselves to do the right thing no matter how they feel.
Let’s unpack that a little…
People who lack confidence are constantly putting aside what they really want and value because they’re afraid of how they’ll feel or how others will feel.
Here’s a simple example of how this works:
Your partner suggests watching a romantic comedy for the third night in a row. And even though you’d rather watch something else, you’re afraid they’ll be upset or annoyed if you say no. So, without much deliberation, you do what feels easier in the moment and say okay to the romantic comedy.
The problem is you’re teaching your own brain that what you want and value isn’t important. And it’s awfully hard to feel confident if you don’t believe your wants and needs are as important as other people’s.
Confidence comes from trusting yourself to act on your values instead of your feelings.
If you want to feel more confident, look for small ways to choose values over feelings:
- Do an extra two minutes on the treadmill even though you feel tired.
- Take out the trash even though it’s not technically your job.
- Read that report over one more time even though you’re sick of it and just want to be done with it.
We rightly admire and believe in people who are principled—people who put doing the right thing above what’s easy or expedient. These are our heroes.
Confident people know that the same thing applies to ourselves. They know that you can become the hero in your own life by sticking to your values even when they conflict with your feelings.
Get in the habit of choosing values over feelings and your self-respect and confidence will soar.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
— James Clear
4. Embracing self-compassion after mistakes
Confident people know that beating yourself up for mistakes is no way to succeed long-term.
In many ways, confidence is less about what you do and more about what you don’t do. And there’s no better example of this than how we respond to mistakes, setbacks, and failures.
A common pattern in people with low self-confidence is that they are overly-critical and judgmental with themselves when they do something wrong. They say things to themselves like:
- I knew I would screw this up. I never should have tried in the first place.
- I wish I wasn’t so anxious all time. People are never going to respect me if I’m always nervous.
- Ugh… I’m just the worst. It’s no wonder nobody likes me.
There are two major problems with responding like this after a setback:
- Negative self-talk is almost always unrealistic. It’s often overly black and white (“I wish I wasn’t so anxious all the time.”) or makes assumptions without real data (“People are never going to respect me…”).
- Negative self-talk makes us feel even worse about ourselves and makes it harder to act with confidence the next time. In other words, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Confident people understand that it’s simply unhelpful to beat yourself up when you’re already down. It doesn’t do any good and should be avoided at all costs. Because in addition to making yourself feel even worse, it erodes your confidence in the future.
When they make a mistake, confident people simply treat themselves the same way they would treat a good friend—with compassion.
Being compassionate with yourself after a setback or failure doesn’t mean you’re shirking responsibility. You can own up to your mistakes honestly and still be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
And when you do, not only will you feel a little better in the moment, but your odds of succeeding next time go up as well.
If you want to start feeling more confident, resist the urge to wallow in self-judgment after setbacks and treat yourself like you would treat a good friend—with compassion and understanding.
Falling off the wagon isn’t the problem. It’s the rolling around in the mud that gets you.
All you need to know
Becoming more confident doesn’t mean eliminating fear from your life, it means learning to live with your fear. Build the right habits and you can learn to speak and act with confidence no matter how you feel.
Accept your fear instead of running away from it.
Communicate your wants and needs assertively.
Make decisions based on values, not feelings.
Be compassionate with yourself after mistakes.