How I came to rethink what it means to be confident
Many people who know me think of me as confident.
I can see why: it’s in how I talk, the way I socialise, maybe even what I wear. Underneath all that, though, those who get a bit closer quickly learn that I’m actually wracked with self-doubt and uncertainty and can tend to a very negative self-talk. But most people don’t see that, or even want to believe it if I point it out.
I get it. Like many people, I used to think of celebrities and other visibly successful people as undoubtedly confident. I mean, they have to be, right? Or how else do they engage their audience and the wider public as often and as assuredly as they do? Sure, they talk in interviews about their struggles with confidence, but I used to interpret that as them just trying to be relatable to the rest of us normies.
Over the last few years, I’ve been seeing it all differently, and that all began with making a shift.
When people tell you who you are…
Maya Angelou famously said, “When people show you who they are, believe them”. Well, my first shift was slightly different: it was learning to believe when people I respect told me how they saw me, and especially the good stuff.
Consider how we respond when people say things about us. We tend to be sceptical when people compliment us, but we’re quick to believe criticisms. Even as simple a compliment as, “Your jumper is nice!” gets a response like, “Aw, this old thing? I’ve had it for years!” We usually mean it as a bit of faux modesty, sure, but over time our scepticism can seep in, and we start to believe it. Even with more serious things like doubting people who love us when they describe us as beautiful, or smart, or confident.
I’ve been trying a different approach in the last couple years, one rooted in trust. I wrote a bit about that in my essay on therapists as mirrors for our minds, but it comes down to this:
It makes no logical sense to respect people’s judgment only to discount it when they say complimentary things about me.
And the corollary: It makes no sense to take seriously the opinions (especially negative) of people whose judgment I don’t respect to begin with.
(It sounds simple and obvious when it’s all laid out, doesn’t it? Well, you try telling that to my brain in the middle of processing a criticism or compliment. Articulating it has helped entrench it as a habit of thought.)
And in thinking of it that way, I came to think differently about what it means to be confident…
My new view of confidence
Given my new take on things, I was obliged to consider that if people saw me as confident, maybe they were right. Except, there was the way I felt: my uncertainty, anxieties, feelings of insecurity—the things I considered true and real, even if they weren’t obvious to these well-meaning people. And then a new question started to take shape…
What if confidence wasn’t really about how I feel?
If that sounds silly to you, I’m with you—that was precisely my initial reaction. Of course, confidence is how you feel—why else do we talk about “feeling confident”!
I hear you, but—just stay with me here—what if there’s a larger way to see it beyond the emotional aspect? The key for me here was that people repeatedly saw me as confident when I felt fear instead of self-assurance, and I was obviously doing the same to others.
So if we were all seeing each other as confident when we didn’t feel anything of the sort, might it be worth considering a different view of confidence?
And thus I came to this:
“Confident” is how people see us when we act decisively, however we’re feeling.
As it turns out, shifting my view on confidence in this way has proved useful.
Confidence as others’ perception rather than my emotion
There’s at least 3 benefits to thinking of confidence differently, as a way of engaging with the world rather than a way I feel:
It matches up with actual experience. Seeing confidence as external perception feels more fitting with my experience (and yours too, I’m willing to bet) of being told we appear confident when we’re actually feeling terrible. It also fits better with hearing people who seem confident say they aren’t. Whatever we’re feeling, so long as we act, we get perceived as confident.
It takes us out of ourselves. The shift in how I see confidence itself became an ongoing reminder that the way I see myself will often be different from how others see me—which is something we all know but quickly forget. You know how you have a slightly swollen infected eye but can’t stop thinking about how painful it is? And then it’s easy to feel like that’s all people see when they look at you—but then no one notices, and even when you ask they have to look closely? Similarly, shifting how I thought about confidence helps me remember that people only see what I do, not how I feel, which makes it even more vital that I act, even when I don’t feel up to it. Which leads up to the next benefit…
It’s incredibly practical. If confidence is the way decisive action is perceived, then all I need to do is get to where I can act decisively. Occasionally, I’m lucky, I feel good, and it’s easy to act. But other times, I’m feeling a bit rubbish, and I want to crawl into my shell because I’m sure everyone can see through me, and they’ll wonder what I’m even doing here. In those lower moments, I remind myself that decisive acting is just what “confidence” looks like, and if I can get out of my head enough to just act, I might once again surprise myself how well I come off!
The irony of it all is, seeing confidence this way has actually helped me feel more confident. I think that’s due to both the freedom of getting out of my head (and my own way) and the satisfaction from seeing the effects of taking action. What seems the long way round surprisingly ends up being the quickest. (Or, to paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth: what we most desire sometimes remains out of reach because we hold on too tight.) But I think another benefit of this shift was it helped reduce what I think of as ego pressure: the more I acted, whatever I was feeling, the less pressure I felt with each individual action.
Now when people tell me they think I’m confident, I still talk about how I actually feel inside, but for a different reason. I do it to highlight that it’s not a way I feel, it’s a way I act, but also to remind myself that confidence does not, after all, mutually exclude doubt. Because, as it turns out, we have a name for the kind of confidence that has no room for doubt: “overconfidence.”
Your turn: what hacks have you found helpful to manage challenges to your confidence?