“Where does self-confidence come from?”
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
One of the most common complaints that people present to their therapist is: “I lack self-confidence!” It’s a notoriously vague presenting problem, though. It means different things to different people, and in different cases.
What is self-confidence? People often say they want to “feel more confident.” However, therapists know that there’s a marked tendency for their clients to confuse thoughts and feelings. I would suggest that self-confidence is a thought, or rather a belief, more specifically: a form of self-belief. It’s perhaps best defined as the belief that you can do something well, i.e., that something is within your power and ability. Perceived coping ability is called “secondary appraisal” because it is logically preceded by a “primary appraisal” concerning the difficulty of the demands being faced. The more primary (and less conscious) belief that a situation is highly threatening is often confused with belief in one’s ability to cope. In other words, people who feel they lack confidence are, at a deeper level, often over-estimating (catastrophising) how difficult or threatening the situation they face is.
Psychologists have a technical term for belief in coping ability: “self-efficacy.” Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of performing certain actions properly, regardless of whether or not they succeed in their ultimate goal. For example, I can be confident in my ability to deliver a good talk on a subject I’m familiar with, to exhibit the requisite skill and knowledge, but I might not be able to predict the outcome, i.e., how the audience will actually respond. (While it’s true that one can be “confident of getting things wrong”, the type of confidence people seek to boost in therapy is generally belief in their ability to do something well, i.e., self-confidence, or self-efficacy.)
Belief in yourself, in your ability to do certain things, tends to be accompanied by certain positive feelings. When someone says that he “feels confident”, I would rather say he is confident that he can do something, meaning he believes it is within his power, and he has positive feelings as a result. Viewing confidence as a type of belief, rather than a feeling, makes it easier to understand where it comes from and how to get more of it.
One of the leading authorities on “self-efficacy”, the psychologist Albert Bandura, carried out research which led him to conclude that the channels through which self-efficacy can be learned can be ranked in the following order,
- Performance. Proving to yourself in practice that you can do something, perhaps through repeated trial-and-error experiments.
- Observation. Seeing other people, similar to yourself, learning how to do something tends to generate confidence by leading you to believe that “if they can do it, so can I.”
- Persuasion. Someone else may be able to logically persuade you, by reviewing the evidence or using rhetoric, that you should believe in yourself and that you can do something, or you may manage, through reflection, to persuade yourself or “psych yourself up”.
- Relaxation. Feelings of nervous arousal, anxiety sensations such as tension, sweating, or heart racing, tend to undermine confidence and interfere with performance, causing stammering or distraction, etc., so learning to relax them away or to accept these feelings as normal and harmless can help restore confidence.
People, in my experience, tend to place most emphasis on the least effective methods of building confidence. They “try to relax and think positively”, but fail to seek out examples of others who have overcome similar problems or to face their own fears in practice. In other words, they focus more on relaxation and (self-)persuasion than on observation and performance. It’s good to start with the easier steps sometimes, and learn to relax and consider the evidence. However, ultimately, you’re most likely to overcome your fears and build confidence by testing things out in practice, repeatedly, and learning from personal experience. In cognitive therapy, we refer to this as carrying out “behavioural experiments”, testing your beliefs out in practice and proving to yourself that you can cope and nothing catastrophic tends to happen when you face your fears appropriately. This is often done in “graduated” steps and stages, beginning with easier challenges and working up to more difficult ones, to allow you the opportunity to build confidence in your ability to cope.
There’s no “magic ingredient” to building self-belief. There are “quick fixes” that will temporarily boost your confidence but unless they are followed by practical experience of achieving your goals, learning any relevant skills you’re lacking, and disconfirming catastrophic fears, they’ll be of little long-term benefit. Sooner or later you have to try your hand at things and prove to yourself that you deserve to be confident about certain things because you can do them in practice. However, building self-belief tends to be a circular process. Just as losing confidence can start a “vicious spiral”, as low self-belief undermines performance and vice versa, building confidence can craete a “virtuous spiral”, moving in the opposite direction. If I am confident that I can do something, I’m often likely to perform better in practice, and this further reinforces my self-confidence: success generates success.
As the Roman poet Virgil famously said, of a group of rowers who were performing well despite lacking strength: “They can because they believe they can!”