A reader wrote to me, complaining that he’s always treated dismissively at work.
He’d just started a new job. On his first day, he had made a mistake, and he felt that the boss had viewed him as a screwup ever since.
This particular error was a rather minor technical mistake anyone under the circumstances would be prone to make, not some terrible “HOW COULD YOU?!!” type of blunder.
But because being treated dismissively seems to be a pattern in his life, and because he is far from alone in sometimes making mistakes (since to be human is to “err”), I suspected the mistakes themselves were not the problem.
Chances are his underlying problem, leading to his being viewed as a screwup, or at least not very good at his job, is the messages he puts out about himself that reflect a lack of self-confidence.
Confidence that we project tends to read as ability, as competence, whereas a lack of confidence has the opposite effect. Interestingly, our confidence or lack of confidence may not be all that connected to how able we actually are.
That said, projecting confidence is deeply important in order to get respect from others in the workplace and beyond. You set a confident tone with the way you convey yourself, bodily and emotionally, that suggests people are wise to trust you and your abilities.
Confidence is “predictive”: It reflects our estimation, based on past successes in an area, that we’ll be successful in that area in the future.
I explain in my "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence," that there are three main elements of becoming confident and projecting confidence: Self-acceptance, self-compassion, and healthy self-assertiveness.
Self-acceptance: Self-acceptance is accepting yourself entirely, as a package deal, with good points and less good points. You simply decide to do this, to accept the whole of you, simply because you exist. Ironically, doing this makes it easier to get to changing the “needs improvement” stuff, which takes examining it (as opposed to aggressively ignoring it because you’re too horrified to look).
Self-compassion: Self-acceptance is helped along by self-compassion, basically being as kind to yourself as you’d be to some other person you care about. Kristin Neff, who researches self-compassion, has advised that we see our faults as things that connect us with other humans. (Again, all humans are fallible, and if you are human, wave to the rest of us screwups!)
Healthy self-assertiveness: This means speaking up and standing up for yourself. Essential to this is doing it in a timely way before you build up anger and resentment. This man who wrote me told me one of the errors he made in the workplace came from how his boss had started buying cheaper hardware, making one kind of plug hard to identify from another. He needs to make this clear to his boss—in a way that is not angry and blamey, but instead matter-of-fact: “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that Plug X and Plug Y now look so similar that we easily confuse them when we’re doing installations where there isn’t a lot of light.”
There’s one more element that’s needed for the process of developing more confidence, and no, it isn’t “fake it till you make it.” That advice is likely to backfire. Consider all the things you need to remember to “fake” to be confident: Stand up straight. Talk from your diaphragm. Don’t pick your fingers. Don’t fidget. Etc. Oh, and then remember what you meant to say and say it with vigor.
This fails to take into account that humans have only so much “working memory,” and we can’t remember a whole load of stuff at once. In fact, we experience what’s called “cognitive overload,” where all the stuff we’re supposed to remember overwhelms us, and we kind of fall apart. Worse than if we hadn’t tried at all.
I suggest training wheels to becoming confident of “impersonate your way to the new you.” This was a technique (role-playing) actually advised by a wise therapist, George A. Kelly in 1955. But before I knew that, when I was working on my own transformation (from wormy suck-up to confident), I came up with the idea to go out in the world and play the role of my confident boss, Kathy D.
This does something helpful: It gives you a whole package of a person to act out. (You don’t have to collect and remember the small parts.) It’s kind of fun. And it gives you a psychological airbag. If somebody’s rude to you while you act like Kathy D. in, say, asking for the correct change instead of the wrong change they gave you, they aren’t really being rude to you but rude to you playing the role of Kathy D.
Over time, through role-playing as this confident person, you’ll see that you aren’t chased out with a broom when you act with self-respect; in fact, people treat you better, and they often give you what you’re asking for. Seeing this, I shed my Kathy D. test persona and started behaving as the confident new me. And because we are the sum of what we do, I transformed into a person people treat with respect.
The cool thing about becoming confident being a “process” is that anyone can do it. This means no one is sentenced to a life of disrespect. They just have to refuse to accept it and do the work it takes to change.
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Alkon, Amy. Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. St. Martin's Griffin, 2018.
Neff, Kristin. "Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself." Self and identity 2, no. 2 (2003): 85-101.
Kelly, George. "Personal Construct Psychology." Nueva York: Norton (1955).