“I guess I just want to feel more confident.”
I hear this a lot from my patients. I usually ask, “More confident to do what?”
It could be anything: Confident to start dating again. Confident to push back against an abusive boss. Confident to get out of a dead-end relationship. Confident to tell their friends how they really feel. The specifics vary, but the idea is the same: “Once I feel confident, I’ll be able to do the hard stuff.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Usually, you just have to do the hard stuff.
“So if I do the hard stuff, then I’ll feel confident?”
Well, not exactly. The point is to not let your lack of confidence keep you from leading the life you want. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do the hard stuff, you won’t be thinking about confidence anymore.
Think about it. When you know you can do something, do you feel confident about it? You probably don’t feel much of anything at all. Confidence is only identified by its absence.
For example, do you feel confident regarding your ability to ride a bike? Probably not. You just get on and ride. You don’t wait to feel anything. But to get to this point, you probably had to go through some unpleasant feelings. When you were a kid learning to ride, you probably felt pretty nervous when the training wheels came off. Maybe you even fell. If you had waited for your fear to subside, you never would have gotten on the bike; you’d still be afraid to fall. But, you pushed through the fear and it was soon replaced with the thrill of riding.
So, in riding a bike, the feeling of confidence is not really important. What’s important is whether you get on the bike period.
This might sound trivial, but it’s not because when you’re trapped in anxiety about something, you can get hung up on trying to change your feelings instead of trying to change your actions. I usually suggest the tried and true, “Fake it ‘til you make it” approach to confidence because that’s the approach that most often works.
This is easy, but it is doable. If you attempt it, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:
“If I felt confident right now, what would I be doing?” This is the million-dollar question for dealing with fear — the golden hypothetical. For it to be useful, the answer needs to be concrete and observable.
-Not useful: “If I felt confident, I would be feeling better about my career prospects.”
-Useful: “If I felt confident, I would be updating my LinkedIn profile and writing cover letters.”
“Can I accept the consequences of failure?” Another powerful question — as long as the consequences you list are objective, not emotional.
-Not useful: “If I start a business and it fails, I’ll feel like a failure and I can’t accept that” (Feelings of failure are just that — feelings. And anyway, are you sure that avoiding risk is a good way to feel good about yourself?)
-Useful: “If I start a business and it fails, I’ll lose all my savings and I can’t accept that” (Not an airtight case against taking a risk, but certainly worth taking into account.)
“Am I willing to feel the fear?” Be honest with yourself. If you do what scares you, you will feel scared. There’s no getting around it. The question is, is it worth it? Most things in life that are worth doing involve putting up with uncomfortable feelings. If you go snowboarding, you’ll feel cold. If you fly to Europe, you’ll feel jetlagged. If you run a marathon, you’ll feel tired.
And, if you take a risk, you’ll feel scared. It’s all part of the deal. And it’s only a problem if you’re waiting around for that fear to be magically replace itself with confidence.