Like happiness, confidence is one of those things you can’t really get directly.
You can’t just try to be confident any more than you can try to be happy. In fact, sometimes this direct approach to seeking confidence can backfire: You’re so worried about being more confident, that you make yourself anxious and insecure—the opposite of confident!
What if we need a completely different approach to building confidence? What if becoming more confident is about what you should do less of rather than more of?
As a psychologist and therapist, I work with people every day who have serious issues with low confidence and poor self-esteem. This gives me a relatively unique insight into the world of confidence and how it works: I get to see very specific patterns and habits that cause people to lose confidence and feel insecure.
When people work to overcome things like anxiety and low self-esteem, a happy side-effect is that they end up becoming far more confident in nearly all areas of their lives.
What follows are 5 things confident people don’t do. If you can identify these habits in your own life and work to eliminate them, I think you’ll find that confidence has a way of showing up on its own.
1. Asking for reassurance.
When you’re worried or afraid, nothing could be more natural than wanting reassurance that everything is going to be okay:
- You’re worried about your son being safe on his road trip back to college, so you text him and his friends every hour asking if everything’s okay.
- You’re anxious that you’re wife’s upset at you for something because she looks tense and irritable, so you ask her repeatedly if everything’s okay and if you’ve done something wrong.
- You’re worried about blowing the big interview tomorrow so you spend the evening before calling friends and family members asking for tips and reassurances that it will go alright.
And it works! Sort of…
When we feel anxious, ask for reassurance, and then get it, we temporarily feel relieved of our anxiety and fears. Like a fast-acting pain medication, reassurance is great at alleviating emotional pain and doubt in the short term. But just like all pain medication, reassurance is a Band-Aid that treats the symptoms, not the cause.
Maybe you get relief for a few hours, a few minutes… maybe just a few short seconds and then, inevitably, the fear and worry and insecurity are back, usually stronger than ever.
And that’s the big problem with reassurance-seeking: While it sometimes feels good in the short-term, it makes your anxiety and insecurity worse in the long-term.
Here’s how it works:
- When you’re worried about something—an upcoming performance, what other people think of you, whether someone is safe, etc.—you feel anxious, which is an uncomfortable feeling.
- And while extremely uncomfortable—painful, even—anxiety is not dangerous. It can’t hurt you, no matter how intense. But by seeking reassurance, you’re telling your brain that the feeling of anxiety is dangerous and needs to be eliminated. Or else something bad will surely happen.
- So even though reassurance-seeking often makes you feel a little better now, in the long term, it’s only intensifying your anxiety and low confidence because it’s training your brain to be afraid of being afraid.
- Which means, the next time something worries you, you’re going to feel even more anxiety and lack of confidence. Which means you’re going to want that reassurance even more.
- Cue the vicious cycle…
The solution to this dilemma of reassurance-seeking and continually worse confidence is in a very subtle distinction when it comes to fear: Just because something feels scary doesn’t mean it is dangerous.
If you want to be more confident, you must train your brain to believe that feeling anxious is uncomfortable but not dangerous. That it’s something you can handle. But your brain’s never going to believe you can handle your fear and insecurities if you’re always running to other people to get reassurance.
The next time you feel anxious, validate that feeling as scary and uncomfortable but remind yourself that simply being afraid isn’t dangerous. Show you’re brain that you can tolerate feeling afraid without resorting to reassurance-seeking, and it will reward you with confidence in the future.
2. Ruminating on past mistakes.
Rumination is a form of thinking where we repeatedly review and replay previous mistakes or negative events in the past even though doing so has no real benefit but does have the side-effect feeling bad about yourself:
- Laying in bed replaying the mistake you made at your presentation at work for hours.
- Thinking over and over about that conversation between you and your husband when he said you were being overly-critical and you thought he was being insensitive.
- Brooding about the mistakes you made as a father when your children were young.
But if rumination is so unhelpful and only makes us feel bad about ourselves and saps us of confidence, why do we do it? Why does it feel so compulsive?
Like reassurance-seeking, rumination does kind of work in a superficial sense.
See, rumination is a form of thinking very close to problem-solving, analysis, and reflection—all of which tend to be helpful and positive. So when we ruminate, we often feel as if we’re doing something constructive—we’re thinking about it, and thinking’s always good!
Not really. Even if a fact is true—you did make mistakes as a father, you did screw up a portion of your presentation—continuing to think about it isn’t necessarily helpful. This is the key distinction: Just because something is true doesn’t mean thinking more about it is helpful.
Even though rumination erodes our confidence and wellbeing in the long-run, we easily get addicted to it because it actually feels good in the very short-term. It makes us feel competent and proactive, which briefly alleviates the strong discomfort of helplessness.
When mistakes have been made, we can’t actually change them. Intellectually that may sound obvious, but experientially it’s a fact we avoid and deny like the plague because it feels so awful to acknowledge.
The key to undoing a habit of rumination and useless self-criticism is to realize what you’re getting out of it and how it’s not really worth it. Is the temporary relief of helplessness really worth the long-term blows to your confidence? Is that brief feeling of “I can figure this out!” really worth a night of terrible sleep and sluggishness the next day?
Learn to accept helplessness and uncertainty. We make mistakes. And often we can’t do anything about it. Such is life.
The best we can do is work to be better going forward. And one of the best ways to be better in the future is to improve our confidence and self-worth. So drop the habit of rumination and give yourself permission to live life going forward instead of keeping yourself a prisoner of the past.
3. Expecting too much of themselves.
Confident people are anti-perfectionists.
Despite the common belief that perfectionism is about being perfect (perfect grades, perfect home, perfect performance), perfectionism is really about feeling perfect.
See, perfectionists have a hard time tolerating the emotional impact of imperfection. Deep down, they believe that the only way to be truly lovable or useful or good is if they’re perfect. And when they inevitably fail to live up to the rather high standard of perfect, they feel bad. And in order to feel less bad about being less-than-perfect, they strive all the more to be perfect. Once again, cue the vicious cycle…
Perfectionism and the need to feel perfect are a setup for poor confidence and low self-esteem. It means that anytime you feel bad, you’re not doing things correctly and need to work harder.
Of course, what most confident people understand is that feeling perfect—or even feeling good—isn’t a requirement for anything. In fact, most of the best things in life don’t feel good, at least for a time:
- Being healthy and fit requires that we go through the discomfort of working out.
- Falling in love often ends in heartbreak.
- Creating a successful company usually means failing at 5 unsuccessful ones first.
In other words, confident people don’t expect that they can or should feel good all the time. And they’re okay with not feeling great. They’re also okay with not producing perfect results because they understand that good results only come through a string of not so good results.
If you want to be more confident, think of standards and expectations as a tool—something you should cultivate and use but not become a slave to.
Practice tolerating and welcoming imperfection, uncertainty, and failure. Just because these things feel bad doesn’t mean they are bad.
If you stop fighting imperfection and learn to embrace it, confidence will follow.
4. Worrying about things they can’t control.
Worry is the flip side of rumination. Just like rumination is unhelpful thinking about mistakes or bad things in the past, worry is unhelpful thinking about potential dangers in the future:
- Imagining telling your boss about the mistake you made and getting stuck going over and over various worst-case scenarios.
- Thinking about all the negative, critical things your friends might be thinking about you during the party.
- Obsessing over that strange pain in your leg, convincing yourself it’s cancer, and imagining how awful chemo is going to be.
We all know worry makes us feel awful—anxious and stressed in the short term, but also lacking in confidence and self-worth in the long-term. And yet, we keep doing it. Over and over and over again… Why?
The key to understanding worry is that, like rumination, in the very short-term it actually feels good! Worry gives us the illusion of control.
On a primitive level, we believe that if we think hard enough and long enough and prepare ourselves for every possible negative outcome, things will be better—people we love will stay safe, disasters will be averted, etc. But more importantly, worry preoccupies our mind. It gives us something to do instead of simply feeling scared or helpless or unsure.
The problem is, the act of worry trains our brain to believe that those imaginary bad things are real and likely possibilities, which keeps us anxious and afraid in the long run. And when we’re constantly anxious and afraid, it’s awfully hard to be confident.
None of us like feeling out of control. But it’s a fundamental truth of reality that we can’t control everything—especially the two things most worriers obsess about: the future and other people.
The key to undoing the habit of worry, lowering your chronic anxiety, and building up your confidence is to become okay with lack of control.
If you can practice acknowledging and accepting how little control you actually have in your life, you’ll find your confidence will grow. And on top of that, you’ll have more energy and time to invest in the things you do actually have control over.
If you want to be confident, stop worrying about the life you don’t have and take responsibility for the life you do have.
5. Making decisions based on how they feel.
Confident people use values-based reasoning to make decisions, not emotion-based reasoning.
Imagine the following scenario most of us have found ourselves in some form or another:
Your alarm goes off, you roll over and see that the alarm reads “5:00 AM.” You glance outside, and while it’s still pretty dark, somehow you just know it’s cold out there—really cold. On the other hand, your bed is so toasty! Which brings you to a decision point: Should you get up and go for that run like you planned? Or hit snooze, roll over, and hopefully hit the gym after work?
After a few back and forths with yourself, you decide that it’s just too cold out there, pull your blankets a little closer to you chin, roll over, and promptly fall back asleep.
This is emotion-based reasoning. You’ve made a decision based primarily on how you feel, rather than what’s most important to you. Your value was to start exercising regularly to improve your health (and physique, of course!). Your feeling was anxiety over the discomfort of running in the cold and the relief of your warm toasty bed. Ultimately, you decided to stay in bed in order to avoid the discomfort of getting up early and going for a run.
Now, I’m not here to tell you that going for a run at 5:00 AM is good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or not. The point is that you made that decision and then chose to act otherwise. And that’s a problem for your confidence.
When we consistently act in a way that’s contrary to our own values, we erode our trust in ourselves—and along with it, our self-confidence.
Each time you say something’s important, then act contrary to that commitment, you teach your brain that you can’t be trusted and that you’re not reliable. And the biggest reason we all do this is because our feelings tell us something different.
See, our feelings and emotions tend to be oriented toward what feels good in the short-term: Avoiding pain, feeling pleasure, eliminating uncertainty, etc… Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these per se. The problem is, the pursuit of feeling good now often comes at the expense of doing good in the future:
- It’s hard to eat healthily, keep off weight, and lower your cholesterol if you constantly decide to pursue the pleasure of a second bowl of ice-cream (feelings).
- It’s hard to finally write that novel you’ve been dreaming about (value) if you consistently decide to avoid the anxiety of starting a book and choose the easy relief and cheap excitement of video games (feelings).
On the other hand, when we regularly follow-through on what we say is important to us, our brain trusts us more. Which means, the next time we’re faced with something difficult, your brain is likely to respond with confidence (Yeah, we got this!) as opposed to fear (I don’t know… Seems too tough.).
In short, if you want to build confidence, you need to change your relationship with your emotions. Try to see them as potentially useful messengers but never primary decision-makers.
Begin in small ways to consistently follow through on decisions you’ve committed to, each time knowing that you’re building trust in yourself. And when your brain really starts to trust that you’re the kind of person who goes after what’s really important—as opposed to what feels good or easy now—that’s when the confidence comes.
All You Need to Know
If you struggle with low self-confidence, a new strategy might be to approach it in reverse: rather than trying to do things that will add confidence or make you feel more confident, work on eliminating things that are killing your confidence.
Stop doing these 5 things and watch your confidence grow:
Asking for reassurance.
Ruminating on past mistakes.
Expecting too much of yourself.
Worrying about things you can’t control.
Making decisions based on how you feel.