Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Confidence: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

Self-confidence doesn't depend on public approval.

Can you have too much confidence?

When someone says: “He thinks well of himself,” it's not a compliment.  

But try to avoid over-confidence and you could end up with too little confidence.

Why is this so hard? Because we have inherited the brain that helped earlier mammals survive. Animals need social acceptance to keep their genes alive. Your genes are not your focus, but your brain releases happy chemicals in response to things that would promote your genes in the state of nature. Confidence promotes genes because it gets a mammal more food, more mating opportunity, and more protection for its young. 

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Your confidence may annoy your fellow mammal because they are trying to promote their unique individual essence just as you are promoting yours. Your confidence may get in their way. It doesn't necessarily mean you've done something wrong. 

When someone gets annoyed with you, your cortisol (the stress chemical) gets triggered. Cortisol evolved to warn an organism of an immediate emergency. Annoying your fellow mammal may be a real emergency in the state of nature. A chimpanzee can get a finger bitten off by its own troop-mate if it's too assertive. Cortisol warns it to back off before it's too late.

But a chimpanzee that backs off all the time will never get the rewards it needs to survive. So it keeps asserting. It lives with ups and downs instead of expecting to get it "just right."

You can't completely ignore the reactions of your fellow mammal (despite this dog's overt message). We are social animals and you can end up with a lot of cortisol if you don't take your fellow mammal into account. But you can't get a positive reaction from your fellow mammals all the time. You need the confidence to keep asserting your needs despite the ups and downs. Sometimes you will get the rewards you seek, and sometimes you will just barely avoid getting your fingers bitten off by a troop-mate.

A “just right” level of pride is no easy target. You may work hard to build confidence, only to hear someone say “She thinks well of herself!” Your mammal brain may turn on the emergency broadcast system in response.  But it will stop if you stop judging other people's confidence, and stop worrying about what they think of yours.You can give your inner mammal a well-deserved rest.

There's lots more about the ups and downs of our mammalian happy chemicals in my book Meet Your Happy Chemicals. And my new book, Beyond Cynical, shows how we can build a sense of personal agency whether those around us do so or not.

 A great movie about confidence is Romantics Anonymous. (Emotives Anonymous is the title in the original French, and refers to a real 12-step program.) The opening song of the movie is very clever.

I have confidence in sunshine. I have confidence in rain.
I have confidence that spring will come again.
Besides which you see, I have confidence in me.”

Your confidence level will never be “just right” from the perspective of everyone else in the world. If you expect to please everyone you will end up frustrated. Instead, you can focus on building your own confidence and let other people worry about theirs. When you accept other people’s mammalian quest for social rewards, you will accept your own, with all of its ups and downs. 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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