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What is Confidence?

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Today I will attempt to describe confidence in a new way that clearly shows you how to build your self-worth, no matter who you are or what troubles might be happening in your life.

I have been studying and researching the concept of self-confidence since around 2009. I have been coaching people on building confidence since 2013. This post brings together everything I’ve learned in that time.

I’ll start by reviewing the standard guidance from various schools of psychology and philosophy on how to build confidence, and I’ll separate the parts that are helpful from the parts that may actually harm your self-worth.

Prepare to feel resistant: I’ll be challenging some of the things you’ve been pressured to pursue all of your life, because they may be pointless and harmful to chase (e.g. happiness, approval and success).

We will try to identify elements of self-confidence that you can actually control, so you can know where to focus your efforts. We will also acknowledge the elements of confidence that are a waste of time to work on, because they are too difficult to control (e.g. trying to prevent negative thoughts from occurring).

CURRENT DEFINITION OF CONFIDENCE

I found that many researchers believe self-esteem is consistent over time[1], implying that there is little you can do to change it, like a personality trait. Yet we all know someone who was at one level of confidence in the past and is now clearly another. I’ll be writing this post with the firm belief that confidence can be increased, not just temporarily but permanently.

1) Confidence as Thoughts & Feelings

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s definition is representative of dictionary definitions and Wikipedia[2], so it’s fair to say his is the most commonly accepted meaning of self-confidence:

“[Confidence is] a belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task.”

Confidence is seen by many as a present (i.e. temporary) feeling of efficacy; a sense of certainty that you’ll do a task ‘well’[3]. This is represented by ‘positive’ thoughts and emotions, such as motivation, certainty, bravery, and most importantly, happiness (according to advocates of positive psychology[4]). This implies that confidence requires an absence of ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings, such as self-doubt, confusion, and fear.

Neuroscience also essentially describes confidence as good feelings, created by chemicals flowing through your central nervous system. Confidence is high levels of serotonin[5] and some dopamine[6] combined with low levels of cortisol and adrenaline (stress and fear). Again, the emphasis is on a temporary present emotional state, i.e. confidence is about having high serotonin levels right now. Building confidence is about trying to manage certain neurochemicals (e.g. using exercise or anti-depressants).

Some philosophy schools, like Buddhism, also define confidence or self-worth as present thoughts and emotions[7], and they focus on the process of ‘detaching’ from painful feelings to reduce any impact on your current level of confidence.

And many modern self-help companies and gurus also suggest that building confidence is about learning to control your thoughts and emotions – or “state” – through various processes, like visualisation or pumping yourself up physically (e.g. Tony Robbins[8]).

2) Confidence as Success (Skills and Achievement)

Others define self-confidence as being an internal sensation caused primarily by achievements. Confidence is seen as the rewarding feeling that occurs when you are skilled, capable and likely to consistently succeed. You earn confidence through mastery. As Robert Kiyosaki, property investor and author of Rich Dad Poor Dad, says

“Confidence comes from discipline and training.”

Philosophies like Stoicism[9] and Epicureanism[10] focus on mastery of behaviour. Stoics claim there are 4 virtues we should all live by, and all Stoic definitions of a good life or being a good person are about taking action to master these virtues – to be confident means to become consistently good at behaving virtuously.[11]

Some psychologists focus almost entirely on behavioural modification, like Albert Bandura who created a 4 step confidence-building process that focuses mostly on actions (mastery experiences, vicarious learning, modelling behaviour, and social persuasion)[12].

And you’ll notice we use this definition of confidence often in our daily lives, particularly when we believe someone else to be skilled and reliably successful; we’d say we “have confidence” in them.

Problems with These Definitions

Unfortunately, these definitions of confidence leave no room for certain natural human processes, like regret, low mood, failure, uncertainty, negative thoughts, grief, worry about the future, and rejection from others. And because at least some of these painful states will occur to every human at some point during the average week, these definitions mean it is impossible for the average human to be confident for lengthy periods of time without lapse.

What if you’re naturally pessimistic as a personality; hard-wired to focus on the downside of things? Or what if grief, illness or catastrophe overwhelm your focus and reduce your certainty about the future? Is it really impossible to also be confident in yourself if you’re one of these people?

I don’t see evidence to prove that negative thoughts and feelings negate the possibility for consistently high self-confidence, particularly as I know myself to have high self-worth and yet I still occasionally experience painful thoughts and emotions.

Furthermore, belief in oneself does not guarantee high self-worth. Arrogant and narcissistic people might believe in themselves strongly and yet still be riddled with obvious insecurities (e.g. Donald Trump[13]).

We can clearly see that thoughts and emotions are governed subsconsciously[14], so trying to control these processes is an incredibly impractical method for building confidence.

But what about skills?

While behaviour is arguably easier to ‘control’ than thoughts and feelings, being good at something or generally successful still does not guarantee high self-worth. Look at how many great musicians commit suicide before the age of 30, despite being talented, rich, and famous[15].

Each of us will remember a time where we briefly felt confident because we were good at something, there’s no denying that. But does the confident feeling remain if we stop being good at it? If I’m confident in myself because I’m a good dancer, what happens when I break my leg and get a permanent injury? What if all the other dancers simply become better than me as I get older? I don’t want my lowest point of confidence to come at the end of my life!

Even if you were to develop a large range of skills, providing cover for a range of potential mishaps, you could still always end up quadriplegic from a car accident… how would you maintain confidence then?

Confidence should not be so easily disrupted. We should not have to rely on continued success and happiness to be confident, because these are largely outside of our control. Sure, we can work hard and often feel good, but too many unpredictable outside forces can swoop in and destroy these at any time. Practical confidence should increase over time, regardless of feelings or achievements.

PRACTICAL PSYCHOLOGY

So far, these current definitions of confidence are too fragile, because they rely on those uncontrollable factors and will be destroyed by bad luck or significant changes. Someone trying to live by these is doomed to fail eventually.

However, there’s some helpful information in there we can use. We can see that confidence is an emotional response to your own behaviour – a feeling of certainty in yourself that can be created by the individual. We can see that having some form of mastery is important, provided it contributes to confidence without being reliant on it (or vice versa). We’re seeing at least some clues about what works.

During my research, two fields of psychology immediately came to the forefront, where self-confidence is prioritised, and is seen as both an inner mindset and a set of behaviours while remaining detached from uncontrollable factors.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)[15] focuses on a range of interventions for both your mind and your behavioural habits[16]. There is cognitive training to manage your thinking and emotional processes, and then there is systematic exposure to fear and problem-solving actions. (CBT is also commonly considered to be a therapeutic adaptation of the Stoicism philosophy.)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)[17]  provides a model of 6 core principles that focus on both mind and behaviour[18]. Like CBT, there are elements of mindfulness and management of thought, combined with ‘valued-living’[19] (acting with integrity[20]).

From these fields of psychology, a better definition of confidence starts to emerge, involving management of your thought processes and behaviour to help you build self-worth as much as humanly possible. Instead of trying to control chaotic factors like your mood or external results, you learn how to manage your reaction to uncontrollable and inevitable challenges.

We will use this more helpful definition as a foundation for building a new version of confidence that is practical, realistic, and applicable by any person in any situation.

THE “CONFIDENCE TEST”

Before we can define a helpful new version of confidence, we must first clearly identify what confidence is NOT if you wish to maintain and build it no matter who you are or what life you have.

To build a new version of confidence, it must be able to hold up to the challenges where the others fail – it must survive a “confidence test”. It must be able to manage your mental and behavioural reactions to life but not require control over happiness, certainty, success or approval.

unbreakable confidence does not mean…

Happiness – We only become aware of thoughts and emotions after they’ve already occurred. We are not conscious agents in their creation. These processes are too temperamental, too easy to lose control of, too easily swayed by internal and external factors beyond your control. You will definitely experience negative thoughts and painful emotions, at least occasionally, so confidence must be able to survive dips in happiness.

Confident while unhappy: You must be able to think and feel anything and yet still feel confident in who you are, at a deeper level, e.g. stressed about your workload, or during the grieving process.

Certainty – Given enough time, you will face a situation where you’re uncertain. The only way to avoid uncertainty is to hide away from change, challenge and growth. This would leave you woefully behind as everything always evolves, with or without you (e.g. imagine where technology will be in 20 years). Regular exposure to uncertainty stops you becoming fragile around unexpected and confusing situations.

Confidence must allow for uncertainty. You must be able to experience self-worth while having no idea what you’re doing, e.g. while anxious, showing up to a dance class by yourself, or during a car accident.

Success – Nobody has ever had a 100% success rate, ever. Yesterday’s success is today’s normal because expectations always reset based on achievement; it’s only a matter of time before you fail to be better than you were yesterday. And you can’t control your competition, your health, and many other factors in success.

You will be beaten one day, so confidence must be unaffected by failure and loss. You must be resilient to failure and ‘anti-fragile’[21]. Confidence cannot be damaged by losing, e.g. getting rejected for a date, or going through a bankruptcy process. And ytu must be able to build confidence in any situation, no matter how limited your choices are, e.g. being broke, or being in prison.

Validation, power and approval – These are all too easily removed. A model of confidence that’s resilient and self-created cannot be left in the hands of others. The crowd is fickle. You can influence people but they will always be able to suddenly hate you at any time, and no-one can permanently control everyone (even Martin Luthor King was assassinated).

Confidence must survive a complete lack of love, approval and validation from others, e.g. getting dumped, or moving to a new city with no friends. And not being able to control or influence the outside world or people the way you want to should not reduce your confidence. Epictetus was a well-known Stoic leader – we can assume he had high self-confidence – yet for most of his life he was also a slave.

I doubt there’s any level of confidence that’s 100% immune to pain, confusion, failure and rejection, but we can at least speculate how a highly confident person can survive these inevitable setbacks, with their self-worth remaining intact and even building more confidence from these events.

So the question becomes:

What CAN you control that would create confidence in ALL of these situations?

The answer to that question is the answer to building unbreakable self-confidence.

CONFIDENCE – the new version

The world will always be challenging and impossible to completely control, therefore confidence is about managing your reaction to life more than anything else. Confidence must remain relatively unaffected by external factors (as much as humanly possible). It must grow with any experience, good or bad.

External factors matter – we must give thoughts, mood, results and approval from others credit for at least a ‘30% influence’ on your confidence, just to be safe. So let’s focus on the 70% control factor. And what do we have control over? How we react to that other 30% of life.

Confidence, therefore, becomes more about learning to manage how you see the world, your perspective and frame, and how you translate the internal and external things that occur into helpful decisions on how you will react.

Self-Worthiness

Confidence must become a way of living that builds a view of yourself that is resilient to hardship, negative thoughts and feelings, unexpected loss, painful surprises, rejection, disapproval and failures.

Self-worth will come from creating a narrative that you take pride in consistently – a story about how you reacted to life; a story you’re proud of. It must be a truthful story, created and evidenced by integral actions – you can’t bullshit yourself into believing you’re a good person.

If the story is impressive, you will not want to trade being You for being any other person, even in hard times and painful situations. This gives us a clear measurement – if being You is more fulfilling and meaningful than being anyone else, no matter how well or poorly your life is going, then you’re confident!

Confidence means that no matter how tough things get for you, you’re committed to being You and want to see You through the challenge of life. Your reactions have become so meaningful that You is a person you want to be, regardless of failures, upsets and disapproval from others.

This You will make the most of any situation, and there is essentially nothing wrong with You because You always turns any situation into something You benefit from (these are the skills and ability you really need to develop).

My Definition of Confidence

When we put all of these thoughts together, we can design a new version of self-confidence that encourages the right mindset and behaviour, to increase and maintain self-worth over time regardless of your situation. Here it is:

“Confidence is the love for yourself that develops from of evidence of you consistently reacting to life in a way you’re proud of, regardless of external results, temporary feelings, or approval from others.”

In my terms, building confidence means “Creating integrity through consistently living by your values.”[23]

Luckily for you, I’ve already been exploring and refining this version of confidence for many years with my clients and BROJO community, so we can skip straight into practical application. We have figured out that to ensure the actions you take are something you’ll be proud of, they must align with your core values, i.e. you must be doing things for the right reasons, and you must give yourself credit for doing them.

Below are the two main factors to consider when building confidence – your mind and behaviour – and then we’ll go through the simple 3-step process that makes this new version of confidence practically applicable to anyone’s life.

Part one: Your Mind (internal processes)

Your first focus should be to constantly upgrade how helpfully and accurately your mind processes information and makes decisions. Essentially, it’s about creating your own philosophy that focuses very specifically on a single point: Your reaction to life. This does not mean your initial thoughts and emotions in reaction to something, but your decisions and actions.

From now on, your job is to enhance your ability to react helpfully to external events and internal thoughts and feelings. You must learn how to react to these factors with decisions that upgrade your sense of self-worth over time – actions you’re proud of, regardless of how hard they were to do, or the external results they create.

Read books written by confident people, study philosophy and psychology concepts like critical thinking[24] and neurotransmitters[25], and surround yourself with peers and coaches who will challenge any problem-thinking processes.

Part two: Your Behaviour (outer expression)

Behaviour is what you do – the way you talk, what you say, the way you move, what you do for a job or hobbies, how you interact with people and how you participate in the world.

If confidence is mostly a sense of worth, then behaviour is the labouring workforce responsible for the day-to-day creation and maintenance of confidence, through building evidence of valued-living; starting and continuing habits that you’ll be proud of.

Rather than primarily focusing on mastery of some particular skillset (though this is good to do for other reasons e.g. it’s meaningful and fun), behaving in a confident way should become the main skill you seek to master. This does not mean pretending to be confident, it means behaving with integrity so you impress yourself. This way you build a sense of capability without needing to be particularly “good” at something by anyone else’s standards.

You can become skilled at trying new things, for example, which requires no competence, just courage and openness to learn. Or you can become skilled in being honest, assertive, or respectful to your health.

STEP-BY-STEP confidence building PROCESS 

Today I was challenged by one of my coaching clients to explain how to build confidence in the most simple way possible. I managed to get it down to two words:

“Impress yourself!”

Here’s how to do that:

Step One: Discover your core values.

To make decisions about how to react to life in a way that builds confidence, you must first know what ‘integrity’ means for you – what living consistently by your core values would look like as practical actions.

In simple terms, notice the traits you admire in people and try to live by them. I live by these 6 core values:

  • Responsibility – taking control of what you can control.
  • Curiosity – trying to discover the most truthful way to live.
  • Courage – facing what you’re afraid of.
  • Honesty – expressing yourself as accurately as possible.
  • Acceptance – letting go of what you can’t control.
  • Respect – maintaining boundaries to protect your self-worth, and allowing others to do the same.

If you’d like a free confidence coaching session with me to figure out your core values, apply here. However, if you’re not ready to go intensive right now, then try this lighter version here: Identifying Your Core Values.

And if you’re ready to invest in yourself and join a self-development community, the Discovering Your Core Values course is the most detailed guidance BROJO has to offer about how to figure out your unique core values.

Step Two: Use your values to make decisions

Once you have a basic understanding of what your core values are, they can guide you to take actions you’ll be proud of.

In BROJO, we combined scientific method with Stoicism and ACT principles to create The 3X Model of Confidence[27]. This model helps you translate values into behaviour.

We have created a free course on how to use the 3X Model[28] (email dan@brojo.co.nz to get access to the course).

There’s also a members-only course on Valued-Living which approaches the same concept from a different angle[29]. But, if you want to do this on your own for free, check out the BROJO podcast episode on valued-living.

In simple terms, valued-living is about choosing a value and trying to live according to it, so you impress yourself, e.g. “How can I be more honest right now?” or “What is one fear I can face today to be more courageous?”

Step three: Measure and calibrate

Once you start taking actions, you’ll be able to measure what effect they have on your confidence. The problem most people have with integrity is that they actually do live by their values quite often but because they are overly focused on unhelpful criteria like success, happiness, and approval[30], they don’t realise they should already be proud of themselves (it’s an amazing accomplishment just to survive).

We often measure the wrong things and end up creating the Not Good Enough story in our minds[31]. You must learn how to implement an override – to deliberately use a new measurement system, to replace the old unhelpful one.

This is why I go on and on about journaling[32].

Journaling isn’t just “Dear Diary, today a boy was mean to me;” journaling is about accurately measuring how well your behaviour aligned with your core values, giving yourself approval when it does and critical feedback when it doesn’t (i.e. give yourself credit and suggestions for future improvement).

The BROJO Introduction to Journaling Course will guide you through this, or again the free version would be the BROJO Knowledge Base page on journaling.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

You don’t just think your way to confidence, or simply earn it by doing well, instead you must constantly move forward each day with experimental actions designed to increase your integrity. The main skill to work on is simply the ability to do something valuable to impress yourself; to react to anything with helpful behaviour that you’re proud of.

Confidence is not a quick-fix. There’s a good chance you’ve been conditioned into low self-worth for many years, so you won’t untangle all that neural wiring overnight. Work at it every day, think of it like adding 1% confidence to your psyche, every chance you get.

Confidence is about using valued-actions to write a life-story of the person you’d be proud to be. Let go of external outcomes[33] like success, approval and happiness, and instead refocus your attention on doing the right thing for the right reason, by your own standards. This will take much practice – you’ll constantly be distracted by neediness, loneliness and stress – but just keep refocusing as often as you can.

Create a daily routine where you choose a value to live by, follow through with a bold new action you’ll be proud of, and then journal about it later to learn from the experience. One action per day is all it takes.

Any attempt at living by your values is worth taking pride in.

Thank you for reading, scroll down and comment below with your thoughts, stories, critiques or agreement.

VIDEO VERSION

If you prefer videos over text, here is the BROJO YouTube channel series for this post:

Part One

part two

part three

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