The woman at the bar who’s the life of the party and makes everyone laugh. The student sitting next to you in algebra, whose hand shoots up whenever the professor asks a tough question. Your colleague who had the gall to push for a raise (and got it) when you were too afraid to ask. You may think that these people are just naturally self-confident. Could you ever be the same?
The answer is yes. You can become more assertive and have a stronger belief in yourself. I spoke with coaches and therapists to get their top tips. So if you’re ready to learn how to build self-confidence, keep reading.
This is a question I often ask myself because the two are related, intertwined even. But, there is a difference.
As Dr. Nancy Irwin describes it: “Self-esteem, which is really valuing the self, is a platform upon which self-confidence rests. One can certainly value the self even when they are not feeling confident.”
If you constantly doubt that you can handle certain situations or rise to life’s challenges, you’ll benefit from learning how to build self-confidence.
Because self-confidence lies in your belief in your abilities, developing self-confidence is all about finding and creating evidence that you can do something—whether that’s asking someone out at a date, managing a team at work or socializing at a party where you don’t know anyone.
The key to developing self-confidence, then, is to keep trying at the thing you want to be confident at. (I know that may not be what you want to hear!) Start small and build your way up. Oh, and don’t be discouraged when you’re not good at it the first few times.
While you’re doing this, I encourage you to adopt a growth mindset about confidence. Rather than seeing it as an inherent trait that you’re either born with or not, see it as a muscle anyone can strengthen through exercise.
So if you want to build your confidence muscle, what can you do? Let’s go over some exercises.
To find exercises that build self-confidence, I asked various therapists and coaches what they use with their own clients. Here’s what I found:
If self-confidence is about your abilities, it’s important to know what your abilities are. Executive coach Inna Post, Ph.D., has a two-step process she walks her clients through.
Step 1: Write down a list of your strengths. “Nobody is great at everything,” Post says. “Lebron James cannot swim as well as Michael Phelps. The same goes for your traits. You have your strong points, so stress them. If you understand and use your strengths, you’ll be happier and more likely to improve.”
Step 2: Use those strengths to help build confidence in other areas. The idea here is to find an environment where you feel comfortable enough to attempt building confidence in an area you’re not so great at.
For example, Post had one painfully shy client who struggled during job interviews. However, this same client had a passion for working out, which she was good at, and often received compliments from classmates at the gym.
Leveraging that area of excellence, Post had her client build confidence in her ability to talk to strangers by striking up conversations with people at the gym.
“By practicing talking to strangers in an environment where she felt secure in her performance, she used her strength to help her build a skill she didn’t have,” Post explains. “Now, the young woman whose voice was barely audible when she started working with me is a client-facing manager at a startup.”
Have you noticed that leaving sticky notes on your bathroom mirror that say “You’re beautiful” or repeating ”I am strong” over and over doesn’t help you? That’s because positive affirmations don’t work for everyone.
“While positive affirmations are beneficial for people with high self-esteem, they can make people with low-self esteem feel worse rather than better,” says Irena O’Brien, Ph.D., founder and director of The Neuroscience School. “That’s because, for such people, the brain doesn’t have evidence for the affirmation and won’t believe it.”
Instead, O’Brien recommends using a “directed abstraction” technique, where you identify the broader implications of a success and how your qualities contributed to it.
To do this, O’Brien says, simply fill in the blanks: “___________ went well today because I am _________.” So that might be, “The dinner party went well today because I am good at planning events.” Or it might be, “My tennis match went well today because I am constantly practicing.”
Why does it work? “The first part of the sentence is evidence for the second part, and the brain will believe it,” explains O’Brien.
If you can't seem to silence that inner critic whenever you’re about to take a chance on something, this might be the confidence-building exercise for you.
“We all have an inner voice,” says Sandy Demopoulos, LCSW. “I have asked people to identify it and name it.”
Whether you decide to call it “my perpetrator,” “the judge” or even just “Larry,” naming your inner critic helps you separate it from your true self and realize that you don’t have to listen to it anymore.
“It may have been successful in the past,” she says, “but those coping skills are no longer needed. Using them now is like trying to wear old clothes that they outgrew. No longer fit and out-of-date.”
A lack of self-confidence is often an obstacle to the very things you want in life. To overcome this, try the “reflect and project” exercise recommended by career and life coach Alexa Doman.
First, identify something you’re nervous about and want to build confidence in, such as making a career change. Then, write down the things you think you need in order to feel more confident in that area. So let’s say you want to make a transition from being a marketing manager at a tech startup to founding your own marketing consultancy. Maybe you think that you need more business skills or more client-facing interactions first.
Next, you reflect on your previous experience and try to identify areas that prove you already meet the criteria you listed in the previous step. Maybe you remember that you were always the first to come up with bold new ideas for ventures at your startup—an important entrepreneurial skill! Perhaps you remember the times that you were the liaison between your startup and its clients, which will help you when you start your own consultancy. Soon, you will see that you already have many of the skills you thought you lacked.
Then, after you reflect, you project what you've learned. For example, you might update your resume or use different words when describing yourself. One of Doman’s clients did this by feeling confident enough to add the word “expert” to their LinkedIn bio.
And the winner of the most creative name for a confidence-boosting exercise goes to board-certified wellness coach Savio P. Clemente. I bet it caught your eye, didn't it?
“Ghostbuster Gremlin Fight” is the name Clemente gives to his favorite way of taming the inner critic.
“My visual is that scene in the cult classic movie, The Ghostbusters,” he explains. “My gremlin is literally zapped and then trapped in a mechanical box before it has even a chance to speak and wreak havoc.”
Of course, you can choose any movie or visual you like. “Since you can never truly defeat your inner critic,” Clemente says, “the key is not allowing it to zap your energy to the point of creating all kinds of damage to your heart, head, and gut.”
Another visualization exercise you can do to boost your self-confidence is this one recommended by rapid transformational therapy practitioner Carina Yeap. It’s actually very similar to a tactic I used in high school cross country to build my confidence as a new runner.
“Visualise the situation that is causing anxiety or feelings of nervousness,” Yeap says. “During the visualization process, think of the possible things that might go wrong and how you will manage it and see yourself managing it well.”
In my case, before the race started, I would picture myself running the course. I would anticipate negative things, like side stitches, running out of breath or being passed by a competitor. Then, I would think of ways I would work through those obstacles, such as practicing certain breathing exercises and stretching techniques.
“Then think of all the possible things that might go so much better than you think it would,” Yeap says. “While envisioning it, include words people will say to you, what you will see, hear, feel and experience and increase the intensity of those feelings tenfold, really be immersed in the visualisation exercise.”
Before my races, I would anticipate the finish line, how it would feel to sprint toward it with my coach and friends cheering me on. Doing this type of visualization before something as challenging as a 3.1-mile race helped me because, that way, nothing caught me off guard. I even accepted the pain that would come with it. So when the pain did come, I was ready to handle it.
Yeap recommends repeating this exercise day and night. “Repetition will increase the familiarity of the scenario and build your confidence in the situation you feel lack of confidence in.”
“Confidence comes from a solid foundational block of fidelity to one's values,” explains licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin. “From that position, there is less comparison to others, an embrace of individual self-expression, and freedom, as you are operating from something that is bigger than the ego.”
To boost their confidence, Dr. Irwin helps her clients connect with their core values, which might be creativity, love of sport or humor.
She believes a lack of self-confidence stems from an addiction to approval. And with the performing artists she works with, getting in touch with their values can help them break that addiction.
“When they get in touch with their values, it is just a matter of time before they are able to let go of performing to get approval,” she says. “They are, again, operating from a place that is bigger than the ego. This is self-actualization.”
Jonathan Jordan is a San Francisco-based trainer and wellness coach with some perhaps surprising advice on gaining confidence in yourself—don’t focus on yourself.
“During a period of my life when I felt low and hated myself, someone smart told me, ‘If you want self-esteem, you need to do esteemable acts.’ Sometimes a lack of self-confidence comes from a life built around self-centeredness. We spend all our energy focused on ourselves and our own situation. Looking outside yourself and finding simple ways to help others is a powerful way to boost your own confidence.”
Jordan gives the following ideas for ways you can serve others:
This is advice that Jordan has truly taken to heart. At the start of the pandemic, he used his group fitness following to raise over $10,000 for dozens of charities, giving a boost to his students’, and his own, physical and mental health.
If you aren’t able to communicate what’s okay and what’s not okay with you, your self-confidence will falter. Maybe you’ve been taught that saying no or speaking up isn’t acceptable; that’s common for many clients of Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker in Towson, Maryland.
To help overcome this, Perlin likes to teach her clients to say “little nos.”
“Say no to things that don't matter and offer alternatives,” she suggests. “This way, you develop a tolerance for your own uncertainty.”
For example, Perlin says you might try something like, "No, I don't want Chinese takeout tonight, but are you willing to try Mexican or Greek takeout?” or “I don't want to go to X movie, but I am more than willing to go see Y or Z movie."
“This exercise requires you to do something and learn that you are more capable than you think,” she says.
There are many causes of a lack of confidence, and it can get quite complicated. Three common causes, though, are:
Because confidence is tied to our abilities, if we fail at something and have a negative perception of failure, it can really hurt our confidence. For example, if you’ve always wanted to surf, and the first time you try to get on a board, you fall flat on your face, you may lose confidence, especially when it comes to surfing or even trying new things.
Being told you’re not good enough
Unfortunately, many of us, at some point in our lives, were told by someone that we’re not good enough. They might not have used those exact words, but the message we perceived was the same: We don’t have what it takes.
Maybe it was when you were misbehaving as a kid, and your mom said, out of exasperation, “Why can’t you behave like your sister?” Or maybe it was when you decided to become a nurse, and a friend insensitively asked, “Why not become a doctor?” Even if people don’t say the words “you’re not good enough,” we can often internalize their messaging as proof that we’re insufficient.
Not realizing your own strengths
“From my experience with clients, self-confidence is caused by not seeing the true reality of the abilities and strengths that people already have,” says Doman. “People look at others and make comparisons that other people have things that they don't have. However, with a little time and space, people can see that they have the strength and skills to get more of what they need in order to obtain their objectives.”
As you can see, self-confidence isn’t a trait limited only to certain people (thank goodness!). By practicing the exercises described above, you can develop a stronger belief in yourself and your abilities. A more confident you is coming soon.
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