Thoughts on Confidence

Recently I saw a short video where someone was sharing their experience with self-confidence. Specifically, what it means to be confident and how one develops a stronger sense of confidence in oneself. Many of the insights resonated with me, some I did not entirely agree with. However, I found it useful that the video summarised that person’s experience regarding confidence in 8 specific observations and suggestions. Such structured overview helped me reflect on my own experience and clarify what I think about each of these points. In this article, I share with you the outcome.

But before we begin, what is confidence? As a philosophically-minded person, I always appreciate it when a discussion of a topic starts with defining the problem, instead of immediately jumping to solutions. As a human, I understand the appeal of quickly getting down to the business of solving the issue or answering the question. However, experience (and a lot of philosophy reading) has shown that investing time in defining and clarifying the problem at the outset really pays off. Sometimes, it turns out there is no problem at all… Other times, it contributes handsomely to the solution. 

In the video, self-confidence was defined as a characteristic of personality that allows you to assess your skills and abilities positively, and understand that they are enough to achieve meaningful goals and satisfaction in life. What I immediately liked about this definition is that it highlights the central role of your attitude towards your capacities. Also, for all my fellow perfectionists out there, note how it focuses on being enough to achieve meaningful goals, instead of cultivating the belief that you must be the best in order to be good enough. We all want to live meaningful, fulfilling lives, don’t we? It turns out that being perfect is not a prerequisite. A liberating idea, right? With that in mind, let’s proceed.

1. Self-confidence is a mindset that can be developed

The point here is that being confident is not an inborn part of your personality, which you are either lucky to have or not. While I agree with the general idea of this point, I think we should not throw genetics out of the picture completely. The nature vs nurture debate is old and ongoing, while the study of the hereditary influence on our personalities is still fairly recent. However, I agree that self-confidence as a mindset is highly dynamic and, therefore, subject to development during our lifetime. While I do not accept that anything about us, self-confidence included, depends entirely and exclusively on our isolated selves (simply because I don’t think our selves are isolated in this extreme way), I believe that we have more control over our mindsets than we often realise. If others can influence us, it follows that so can we. What I want to stress here is that, although we are not living our lives as separated islands, the influence flows in multiple directions. Including the stories we tell ourselves when no one is watching. Self-narratives are so important that some psychologists suggest that they are fundamental to our identities (identity as a narrative is a theory proposed by psychologist Dan P. McAdams based on his research).

2. All human beings are alike

This is not to deny our individuality but to stress that we all share in the basic human condition. Even the most confident person experiences fear, doubt, anxiety, stress, and many other things common to human existence. It is about the attitude that one develops, not about the lack of worry. This reminds me of courage. Years ago I used to think that brave people did not fear anything. I was very young back then. Now I have come to realise that courage is a type of mindset, an attitude that a person can develop to face fear. Fear itself does not go away. However, how someone reacts to it decides whether we call that person brave. That reaction has its roots in the mindset. The same goes for confidence.         

3. You can do it

If another human being can do something, then why not me? As is usual with such simple statements, life is more complex than that. It may very well be the case that someone can do something I cannot. For instance, lift a heavy object or play the piano at the age of 5. On an individual, particular level we all have our different skills and talents. The point, however, is not to overgeneralize. Just because I am not a piano virtuoso does not mean I cannot learn to play a musical instrument. Just because I cannot lift certain heavy objects myself does not mean I cannot organise to get them moved. And there are many, many things that we can do that we are not even aware of (yet). So, the way I see it, ‘you can do it’ is best understood in the context of the self-confidence definition mentioned earlier. You can find a way to achieve meaningful goals and satisfaction in life because you have adequate capacities for it. In this sense, having confidence in yourself means having trust that you will find a way.     

4. Don’t blame others

As long as you do it, you are stuck. Why? Have another look at the definition of self-confidence. It is first and foremost an attitude. Your personal attitude towards your capabilities – that they are enough to achieve meaningful goals and satisfaction in life. If you keep focusing on how the external circumstances have deprived you of self-confidence, you are keeping yourself in a mindset that is directly opposite to the direction you want to move in. I fully agree with this point and I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of the blaming game. But the truth is, even if you are right and someone or something did in fact deny you the possibility to develop a healthy sense of confidence, dwelling on it and blaming them will only continue to hold you back. If we accept that self-confidence is a mindset, then we can take our current state (however challenging it may be) as a starting point and work on developing an attitude that will be more useful to us in achieving meaningful goals and satisfaction in life. I am not saying it is easy, just that it is possible.

5. Don’t make excuses

If you made a mistake, welcome to being a human. Admit it, apologise, learn from it, move on. In other words, own it. Making excuses does not help us become more self-confident and, to be honest, leaves a rather pitiful impression on others to whom we address our excuses. This one may be a hard pill to swallow but think about your experience on the receiving end. Have you ever relied on someone who failed to deliver and then made all sorts of excuses instead of simply owning their mistake and apologising? I’ve had such experiences. Hearing an unending torrent of excuses is tiresome and frustrating. Oftentimes, the only thing that is needed to make things better is to acknowledge the mistake and say sorry. I know I would respect such a person much more than one who comes up with the most creative excuses all because they are afraid of being less than perfect.

It’s strange how trying to be perfect sometimes just isn’t good enough.

If I can accept responsibility for my mistakes and still consider my capabilities to be sufficient for achieving meaningful goals (like owning my mistakes instead of being flawless – a very meaningful goal, I think), then I am much more likely to develop a robust and healthy sense of confidence in myself.

6. Don’t compare

I am conflicted about this one. On the one hand, I agree that it is not helpful to compare ourselves to others. Especially those others we see on our numerous screens and do not even know. What we see are carefully crafted images, illusions, and roles well played. We definitely should try to avoid comparing ourselves – living, breathing people – to images. On the other hand, I understand that we do it anyway. At least to some extent, even if we do not fully realise it. That is how social influence works, we affect each other and the collective impacts the individual. If that were not true, where would all the cultures, traditions, ideologies etc., come from? Perhaps this conflict between individual authenticity and social integration is part and parcel of human existence. All I can say is that, in my experience, you need to find a way to balance these equally important psychological needs – to be yourself and to be with others – such that it works for you. If you are able to develop a healthy confidence in yourself while pursuing this balancing act, I think it is a good sign you have found a way that works for you.   

7. Focus on the positive

Someone will always like and support you, someone will always be indifferent to you and, sometimes, you might even have enemies. Where will you focus your attention? The way I see it, this point highlights the importance of the people who surround us. At some point in life, we begin to have a say in the company we keep. Given how much society influences us, we need to be careful and selective about the close people in our lives, to the extent that it is reasonably possible, of course. It is not about surrounding yourself with friends who always agree with everything you say or do. These are false friends, in my view. Rather, it is important to find and focus your attention on people who genuinely wish you well, supporting and encouraging your growth. In simple words, avoid toxic relationships and build healthy ones. Words are simple, deeds are difficult, I know. But difficult isn’t impossible. 

8. Write down your achievements

This is a practical little tip. The idea is simple. Every day write down all your achievements, no matter how small. The bigger, long-term projects can be split into steps where each step is treated as a separate achievement that you can also write down. I have done this for my studies and at work but I haven’t developed a regular practice yet. Perhaps I will. From the experience I’ve had so far, it works. You feel more confident in your abilities if you have some proof to show yourself. If you are a to-do-lists person, you can add an extra layer of meaning to your lists by looking at all you have achieved at the end of the day. This provides you with real, empirical confirmation of the adequacy of your capacities to achieve meaningful goals. Since you have set those goals yourself, they will hopefully be meaningful to you. Even if it is a chore or a duty you do not particularly enjoy or see the point of, you can still use this as evidence supporting your quest to gradually develop a self-confident mindset. And if nothing else, there is a particular kind of satisfaction in ticking a task as done or noting a goal as achieved. 

keep exploring!                   

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