People commonly talk about low self-esteem, but less is said about fluctuating self-esteem. Many people (myself included!) flit between feeling reasonably self-confident and feeling anxious. Here are some practical, straightforward tips for coping with swings in your confidence.
Strong feelings aren't your enemy.
Strong emotions are one part of our evolved warning system. All emotions have a positive, productive reason for being part of our human repertoire. The system sometimes gets mis-calibrated (e.g., as in the case of panic attacks or depression). However, fundamentally your emotions exist to help and guide you.
Are your emotions a false alarm, a true alarm, or a mixture?
When people experience a sudden loss of confidence, sometimes there's a valid reason behind it. For example, you're nearing completion of a high stakes project, you're approaching a deadline and behind, or your venturing into a new realm.
We're largely designed to react to any kind of uncertainty or mixed signals with anxiety. Let's say you get feedback on an idea and nine reactions are at least mildly positive, and one is negative. That negative response is likely to rock you disproportionately. This is actually helpful overall, but not in every specific instance. We're designed to find signals of potential (physical or social) danger difficult to ignore.
When you experience a loss of confidence, try to roughly figure out if it is a complete false alarm, a true or justified alarm (e.g., a situation in which you become aware you're completely on the wrong track), or a mixture of these.
If you're charging ahead taking risks and then suddenly lose confidence, this could be a sign to slow down or make a small adjustment in your behavior.
Recognizing a "mixed" alarm can help stop you catastrophizing.
Often when I feel a sudden loss of confidence, it's a sign I need to prioritize better, or step back and see the big picture. It's usually an intuitive signal that sometimes what I'm doing isn't quite right. However sometimes I need to remind myself that it's not a sign I'm completely useless or that whatever I'm doing is destined to be a disaster!
Do something productive.
Peoples' responses to losing confidence usually fall into the broad categories of "freeze" (e.g., crying, avoiding), "flight" (e.g. denial of a problem, task switching), or "fight" (e.g. working harder, arguing, defensiveness). Which is your dominant style?
What you don't want to happen when you feel unconfident is to become completely frozen and paralyzed. Doing anything that's productive can help stop that from happening, even if it's driving to the store to run an errand you've been putting off.
There's a sweet spot where you can be productive to the extent you don't freeze, but not to the extent you're using other activities (productive or not) as a form of "flight" and distraction, or where you're overworking as a form of "fight" response to anxiety.
(This sweet spot isn't always 100 percent clear. If it doesn't feel clear to you, it's not you—it's the nature of the problem.)
Take steps to see the big picture.
Use your emotions as a signal to step back and see the big picture. Here are simple suggestions for doing that:
- Get feedback. If you're not sure you're on the right track, solicit opinions you value.
- Run some numbers. Numbers are a good way to see situations objectively.
- Take breaks and let your mind wander. For example, take a walk, shower, or drive.
Recognize that feeling unconfident can lead to positive outcomes (including great work, epiphanies, and strengthening social connections).
I'm not the only one who has observed that alternating between feeling confident and unconfident can lead to positive outcomes. (See this very interesting long-form article for another take on it.)
Here are some of positive actions that I personally find can rise out of feeling unconfident.
- Going back and finishing stuff I started and never finished.
- Instituting metrics/measurement to test if strategies are working, rather than continuing to feel unsure due to lack of measurement.
- Talking about feeling vulnerable and strengthening relationships through that sharing.
- Asking for critical feedback and ideas on work that's in progress.
- Positive procrastination. When I'm anxious, I'll sometimes do certain tasks in order to feel more in control. Often these are things that otherwise would never get done, like cleaning out my car.
- Positive types of checking. We naturally have an urge to check in response to anxiety. Subtypes of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder featuring compulsive checking reflect that this urge has gone into a state of unhelpful hyper-drive. In milder doses, this checking urge can be very productive. For example, prompting feedback seeking, or when you check-in with colleagues or business connections to make sure something you're worried about is on track.