Have you ever said to yourself, “I don’t feel confident, so I couldn’t possibly…" [insert desired goal here]. Not many of us are taught how confidence truly works. We get it backwards: We believe we have to wait until we feel confident before we can act confidently.
In my new book, The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem, I show you the truth about self-confidence: what it is, where it come from, and how to master the rules of the confidence game. The book is based on evidence-based therapies, meaning they’ve been shown in rigorous research studies to work. Let’s look at each one and show how it relates to self-confidence.
Here’s one principle of CBT in action: Imagine you’re walking down the street and you see someone on the other side walking toward you. You get a little closer and recognize the person as someone you know from your Zumba class. You look up, smile, wave, and shout “Hi!” The other person keeps walking and doesn’t acknowledge you. There are many ways you could interpret this situation.
What would you say to yourself?
- A. She must not like me. I’m such a loser.
- B. She must not have seen me.
- C. She’s so stuck up. I can’t believe she didn’t say hi.
Now, imagine how you’d feel in each case:
- If you thought to yourself, “She must not like me,” you’d likely feel sad, embarrassed, or something along those lines.
- If you thought to yourself, “She must not have seen me,” you’d likely feel pretty neutral, or maybe simply a little disappointed.
- If you answered C, you might feel angry.
Notice that the event is the same. The only thing that has changed is your interpretation of the situation, or what you’re saying to yourself. The principle behind CBT is that self-talk matters.
So what does this have to do with confidence? Low self-confidence is often based on unhelpful or untrue interpretations of a situation. If you believe your classmate didn’t wave at you because you’re a loser, you’re much less likely to risk saying hi or starting a conversation with her in the future. That’s why CBT, a set of methods to identify such thoughts and reframe them, is often so useful in building self-assurance.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT, pronounced “act," was developed in 1986 by Steven C. Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada. Hayes took a somewhat controversial view, in terms of mainstream psychology at the time, that suffering is an inevitable and essential part of being human. He argued that accepting this suffering, rather than running from it, was a more effective way to build a meaningful life.
He also took a different view of thoughts than his CBT colleagues. Recall that in CBT you aim to notice your negative thoughts so that you can replace them with more helpful ones. ACT doesn’t place as much emphasis on the content of your thoughts. At the heart of ACT is the idea that you can learn to live with even unpleasant thoughts, as long as you don’t give them power over your actions.
ACT teaches you not to avoid worry, fear, or doubt, because negative feelings are just a natural part of life. Struggling against your anxiety can often make it worse.
When you find yourself thinking, “I can’t do this,” or “This is going to be a disaster,” you can learn to notice the thought and let it pass without deciding it’s the gospel truth. Detaching from your negative thoughts helps prevent rumination, which is linked to anxiety and depression, and lessens the urge to run from discomfort by indulging in harmful behaviors such as binge-drinking or overeating.
You may not be able to evict your inner critic from your mind, but you can learn to tune out its relentless negativity and move forward—or “act”—with confidence.
Exposure therapy sometimes falls under the umbrella of CBT, as it is a behavioral therapy aimed at helping people overcome anxiety and fear. This type of therapy helps people identify thoughts and situations that trigger the most fear and then gently exposes sufferers to them. It’s been shown to help people overcome spider phobias to stage fright—and it can help you develop confidence, too.
Don’t worry: You don’t have to dive into the deep end. Research shows that being forced to face a big fear all at once only leaves you traumatized, swearing you’ll never try again. Exposure therapy is more like dipping your toes in the water. You start with a tiny first step that scares you just a little bit, getting used to the fear and realizing you’re capable of handling it. Then you build up gradually to bigger and bigger steps, until you’re finally swimming in the pool.
Some exposure therapy is done in real life. For example, I took a client who was afraid of heights to a nearby building for several sessions, working our way up the floors until she was comfortable standing close to a railing many stories up. Other times, imagining the situation is enough to practice grappling with the fear.
The key is repetition: You can’t try facing your fear once and then wait a year and try again. Here’s an example of how Kurt, who feels he doesn’t have the confidence to attend networking events in his industry, might use exposure therapy to overcome that fear.
- Week 1: Go to a networking event with someone he already knows and stay just 30 minutes.
- Week 2: Go to an event with someone he knows and introduce himself to at least one new person.
- Week 3: Go to an event with someone he knows and introduce himself to three new people.
- Week 4: Go to an event by himself, greet everyone he’s met before, and introduce himself to three new people.
- Week 5: Go to an event by himself, introduce himself to five new people, and follow up with one of them via email the next day to set up a one-on-one coffee meeting.
The final type of approach I draw from is that of mindfulness-based therapies. Adding mindfulness into the mix of cognitive and behavioral approaches has gained wide acceptance and popularity over the past decade.
Learning mindfulness exercises can help bring your anxiety levels down so you can face your biggest confidence challenges. One of the simplest ways to start: Focus on your breath. Notice the rhythm and sensation of your breathing. If you’re like 99.9 percent of people, your mind will stray. You’ll start thinking about your to-do list, wondering if you’re doing this right, thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch ... that is completely normal and does not mean you’re not doing it properly.
When you notice that your mind has strayed, gently bring your focus back to the breath. The key is to be gentle. You don’t think, “I’m so bad at this.” Just think, “Oh, my mind's wandering. That’s OK. I’ll just return my attention to the breath.”
After a few minutes of practice, you’ll likely find that you’re a little calmer and less distracted.
One benefit of mindfulness is that it’s a helpful way of disconnecting from the onslaught of negativity from your inner critic by reconnecting with the world around you. Although our minds will always tend to draw us into worries and what-ifs, it’s possible to train yourself to come back to Earth when you find yourself getting sucked into a ruminative spiral.
Although the types of therapies I've described have some differences, they complement each other nicely. Therapists often combine strategies from these various approaches, which is what I've done in The Self-Confidence Workbook.
Adapted from The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem. Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Markway and Celia Ampel.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.