10 Myths About Confidence That Are Holding You Back

And 10 tips to help you overcome those harmful myths and succeed.

Posted Aug 22, 2018

SpeedKingz/Shutterstock
Source: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

There are surprising benefits to feeling self-confident. Confidence can help you succeed  in the workplace, in dating and mating, and in life in general. Self-confidence also generates positive inner feelings, including happiness, a more secure sense of self, and  a determination to persist in the face of hardships.   

But maybe you’ve tried various ways to feel more confident with no success. Or maybe you're not as self-confident as you would like. If either situation is true of you, you could probably benefit from challenging some of the prevailing myths about confidence. These myths, like pollution, are in the air; we often don’t realize how many toxins we are breathing in without our knowing it.

Here are 10 harmful self-confidence myths, along with suggestions about how to open the door to a more realistic and confident way of thinking.  

Myth 1: “When I’m confident, I won’t feel afraid or nervous anymore.”

Confidence does not mean the absence of fear, as Dr. Russ Harris points out in his thought-provoking book, The Confidence Gap. Life presents us with a variety of challenges, and “…when we face a genuine challenge where something important is at stake, the fight-or flight response will kick in.” That means anxiousness, nervousness, and excitement will be a normal part of confronting any new endeavor.

A more helpful mindset:

Remind yourself: "Feeling afraid or nervous is a normal reaction to taking a risk or trying something new." In fact, if you feel this way, it could be a clue that you are doing something that really matters to you. 

Myth 2: “Confidence: You either have it or you don’t.” 

While it’s true that a portion of confidence, maybe up to 50 percent, is lodged in your genes, there’s a lot you can do to strengthen the other 50 percent. For example, you can increase your "Confidence Quotient" by taking risks, trying new things, developing your skills, and in many other ways, listed here and here.

A more helpful mindset: 

Remind yourself that there is no such thing as absolute self-assurance. Expect your feelings of confidence to fluctuate with your daily experiences. Realize that no one is confident in every area of life.   

It is also normal to go through periods of self-doubt from time to time. If you do feel self-doubt, use it! PT blogger Alice Boyes notes that she needs periods of both self-doubt and self-confidence to do her best work, since self-doubt can be a stimulus to learning more and putting more energy into her work. 

Myth 3: “There is only one kind of confidence.”

When you think about a confident person, do you get an image of someone who is highly extroverted; assertive, maybe even a little pushy; a leadership type; and dominant? I would label this type of confidence “extrovert confidence.” But there is also an “introvert confidence.” While the introvert’s style is usually not showy, an introvert who has strong values, knows what she stands for, and is quietly confident can gain respect with her solid skills, caring communication, and more modest self-presentation. It doesn't matter whether your personality leans more toward the introvert side or toward the extrovert side; you can learn to be an effective and confident leader if that matters to you. (There are other alternatives to traditional confidence, including the approaches described more fully in this blog.)

A more helpful mindset: 

Tell yourself: “I can be confident in my own way.” The definition of confidence proposed by author Carolyn Webb — “how you feel when you are being your best self” — underlines this point.     

Myth 4: “I have to feel confident before I tackle the projects that are important to me.” 

This myth gets the situation exactly backward! As Russ Harris points out, “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.” In other words, the reality is: “Once I tackle the projects that are important to me, I will begin to feel confident.” “And once you have taken action, over and over, so that you have the skills to get the results you want — then you’ll start to notice the feelings of confidence,” says Harris.

A more helpful mindset:

Tell yourself, “I do not have to feel confident before I do what matters. When I do what matters, I will feel more confident.”   

Myth 5: “Only achieving great things will bring me the confidence that I desire.”

“Great things.” Yes, it would be wonderful to write that book, start your own business, or make a grand splash in some positive way. But you can also build confidence on a daily basis just from recognizing the small things that you do well, as I describe here in a blog about how to benefit from a “Daily Success Review.” For example, when you notice the small victories of your everyday life, from being kind to a friend or colleague to making progress on a list of phone calls to keeping your temper in a frustrating situation, you are adding to your confidence "savings bank." Withdraw from it as needed! 

The “great things” myth is just another version of, “Until I do such-and-such, I can’t feel confident.” Watch out!

A more helpful mindset:

Most of life does not involve winning the Nobel Prize, being first in sales, or breaking all the records in a sport. While these achievements are thrilling, they are rare events and won't ever happen to most of us. By contrast, if you focus on paying attention to your small successes, you will find happiness in the process of inching closer to your goals and acting on your values as you live your daily life.

Possible self-talk: "I can gain satisfaction and confidence from savoring my small successes."

Myth 6: “Criticism and negative feedback will destroy my confidence.”

The grain of truth: Certain types of sadistic and malevolent people take great joy in trying to devastate other people by overwhelming them with criticism. Avoid such people when you can.

More often, though, you can use the criticism and negative feedback of others to spur your personal and professional growth. You cannot improve at any skill without awareness of what you are doing wrong. Many colleagues will be glad to coach you towards a higher level of competence at work; your friends can give you invaluable relationship feedback. Even your most hurtful critics can play a role in your growth. Just follow the simple formula below. 

A more helpful mindset:

Decide to listen to criticism with an open mind. Then tell your critic: “Thank you. I’ll think about that.” Then do think about it. Could you benefit from doing something a different way? (A variety of other responses to criticism is listed here in #7.)

Myth 7: “Self-criticism will give me the confidence to reach my goals.”

We complain about those who criticize us. But what about that ruthless inner critic? Do you believe you will achieve more if you use a harsh inner voice? Self-talk like this may be the result of such a belief: “Come on, don’t be a baby”; “What's the matter with you?"; “You better work harder, or you will fail miserably”; “You are a discredit to your family"; etc. 

Not surprisingly, this nasty self-talk does nothing for a person’s confidence. According to Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, “Most people believe that they need to criticize themselves in order to find motivation to reach their goals. In fact, when you constantly criticize yourself, you become depressed, and depression is not a motivational mindset.”

A more helpful mindset:

If you want more confidence, drop the self-criticism and adopt a self-compassionate mindset. Self-compassion actually drives confidence, according to Neff. As summarized by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Confidence Code, self-compassion “is a safety net that actually enables us to try for more and even harder things. It increases motivation because it cushions failure.” 

To become more self-compassionate, recognize when you are being unduly harsh with yourself; realize that you are coping with challenging human problems, like everyone else. Practice talking to yourself with kind and encouraging words: "You did your best"; "You kept your temper in a trying situation"; "Next time you'll know what to do"; etc.

Myth 8: “I must be perfect before I can feel confident.”   

Who could possibly believe this myth? A lot of women, apparently, according to research cited by Kay and Shipman. For example, women at Hewlett-Packard applied for promotions only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications for the job, whereas men were comfortable applying when they met 60 percent of the job requirements.  

A more helpful mindset:

Perfection is impossible. Tell yourself: "I will strive for excellence, not perfection.” (If only my younger self had adopted this saying as a personal motto!)

Myth 9: “Failures and mistakes are disasters that will erode my confidence.”

This myth is itself a disaster. When you believe that failures and mistakes “prove” that you have no ability to do the job, you are likely to resist new challenges and stay in a  narrow comfort zone. Numerous studies by psychologist Carol Dweck and others show that people with a “fixed mindset” — the belief that intelligence, skills, and talent cannot be modified — are less likely to take risks and learn new things than those with a “growth mindset” — the belief that you can develop your intelligence, skills, and talents with education, practice, and persistence.

A more helpful mindset:

Tell yourself: “Failures and mistakes are a part of learning, not disasters. Everyone makes mistakes. Whether I succeed or fail, I can persist, learn from my actions, and get stronger.” We can also remind ourselves: “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Myth 10: “If I become too confident, I will turn into a selfish narcissist.”

If you are worried about this, I doubt you are at risk! In any event, pride in your strengths, skills, and contributions does not make you a self-involved blowhard. It’s true that a person with excessive narcissism, often called a “malignant narcissist,” can be manipulative, domineering, and even psychopathic. But as Dr. Craig Malkin points out in his fascinating book, Rethinking Narcissism, having too little narcissism can also be harmful: “The less people feel special, the more self-effacing they become until, at last, they have so little sense of self they feel worthless and impotent.” 

Even a dollop of over-confidence has its benefits. According to Malkin, “numerous studies have found that people who see themselves as better than average are happier, more sociable, and often more physically healthy than their humbler peers.”

A more helpful mindset:

Tell yourself: “The need to feel special is normal”; “I am entitled to respect and recognition for my hard work and achievements”; and “Talking about my accomplishments is not ‘shameless self-promotion' unless I overdo it!”

Extensions

Along these same lines, I was impressed with the definition of confidence offered by actor-writer Mindy Kaling (of The Mindy Project) in an interview in the New York Times. In her view, "confidence" is "a sense of entitlement." We often think of people who believe themselves to be "entitled" as selfish, snobbish, or overly self-important, but "entitled" can also mean "having rights," rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example. It can also mean working hard, accomplishing things, and insisting on reaping the rewards of your labors. As Kaling says, "entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something."

© Meg Selig, 2018.  All rights reserved. For permissions, contact the author here.

References

Boyes, A. (2018). The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life. New York: TarcherPerigee, p. 206 ff.

De Leon, C. “Don’t Quit Your Daydreams and Other Advice from Mindy Kaling’s Books,” NYT, 7.19.2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/books/mindy-kaling-memoirs.html

Harris, R. (2011). The Confidence Gap. Boulder, CO: Trumpeter Books. p. 23, 187.

Kay, K. and Shipman, Claire (2014). The Confidence Code. New York: HarperCollins, p. 21 ff, 44 ff.

Malkin, C. (2015). Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprisingly Good—About Feeling Special. NY: HarperCollins, p. 9 ff.

Webb, C. (2016). How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. New York: Seven Shift. p. 236 ff.

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