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CONFIDENCE: What is it and how do you get it?

Have you ever felt like everyone has got their shit together except you? Do you ever feel like you’re the only one, when walking into a room, who feels all their insecurities creep up and are visible enough for everyone to see? Do you ever feel like one day you’re going to be found out that actually you have no idea what you’re doing, that you’re just pretending to be good at your job? If you have felt any of these sentiments, trust me, you’re not alone.

Social media often illustrates otherwise. What you see on Instagram and Facebook isn’t what you see in actual life. Just google “confidence” and you will get so many posts about statistics and percentages about how many of us from all age groups are suffering from low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and how it impacts our day-to-day existence. Yet despite the statistics, we often feel alone in a world of seemingly confident people. But here’s the secret, there isn’t one person in the world who wakes up every day feeling confident about every aspect of their being. Not even those famous people who have millions of followers. And I would hazard a guess into saying they probably feel the pressure the most to appear to be perfect and confident with their self-esteem at a high at all times. A pressure that would make them feel like a hamster on a wheel running towards that “perfect” goal and then constantly trying to maintain it.

The Huffington Postcompiled quotes from interviews with celebrities who talked about their insecurities. The actor Ryan Reynolds said, “I feel like an overweight, pimply faced kid a lot of the time.” The actress, director and producer Olivia Wilde said, “As I get more successful, insecurities pile on top of one another.” The reality star and businesswoman Kim Kardashian West said, “I don’t find myself as sexy as everyone thinks. I am a lot more insecure than people would assume.” The actor Alexander Skarsgård said, “I have days where I feel like I am the ugliest person on the planet.” And the list goes on. In an interview with Esquiremagazine in 2016, the actress Emma Watson said, “I, as a 21 year-old, was riddled with insecurity and self-critiquing. Some of my friends still are. I realised that I didn’t like friends taking photos of me when I wasn’t working and I actually got in a fight about this issue. And I wondered, why is this bothering me? Why does this make me so insecure? And I realised it’s because I can’t even reconcile myself with my own image on the front of these magazines. Comparing myself to how I look, when I’ve gone through all of that makeup and styling, in my normal life is…just…I can’t live up to it. I was like, ‘Holy shit! If that’s how I feel—and I get to be the person who’s on the cover of those magazines—how’s anyone else meant to cope?”

We often compare ourselves to celebrities. Ok, maybe not compare so much as envy. We look to them as the beacon of living the “good life”. Yet we often forget that they are human beings who are trying to find their own way in a world that is getting more demanding by the minute. They/we live in a world that has defined “beauty” in some weird way alienating a whole spectrum of colours, shapes, and sizes, and probably defined by a group of people who 1) didn’t know better and 2) were making decisions based on their own perceptions, influences, and insecurities. The irony is, even the people who society has deemed as beautiful have also been subjected to criticism and rejection. Models like Gisele Bündchen, who recently published her book, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life, talks about the crippling anxiety attacks she would have, the rejections she has had to deal with, all the while feeling like she had no right to feel that way given what people assumed her life to be. She told Peoplemagazine, “Things can be looking perfect on the outside, but you have no idea what’s really going on…I had a wonderful position in my career, I was very close to my family, and I always considered myself a positive person, so I was really beating myself up. Like, ‘Why should I be feeling this?’ I felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel bad,” she says. “But I felt powerless. Your world becomes smaller and smaller, and you can’t breathe, which is the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”[expand title="Read More..." swaptitle=""]

So what exactly is confidence? Matt Brown, a business psychologist and executive coach studies “confidence” in a clinical way, searching for it’s actual meaning after a pivotal moment in his own career. He tells me, “I started coaching when I was 30 and the first person I ever coached was a FTSE 100 board member. There was me sat in this room with this 52 year old FTSE100 board member and I remember thinking “what have I got to offer this person?” We sat down and during that conversation, (the executive) took his glasses off, put them on the table, and burst into tears. And his exact words were, “I just haven’t got the confidence to do what they’re asking me to do.” And that was a seminal moment for me because it made me think about the belief that I had about really successful people being super confident is rubbish,” he says.

Brown’s research for his PhD into defining confidence led him into finding, when talking about ‘self-confidence’, the term was often broken down into 4 areas: self-efficacy, which is our own belief in our capability, esteem, fluctuation of emotion (how we are actually feeling that day), and sense of security (as seen as or defined as comfortable in our own skin and environment). Basically, ‘confidence’ or ‘self-confidence’ can’t be read as one isolated feeling when it is actually a very complex component into understanding our motivations and psychological make up. He says, “Babies, when they’re born, they don’t have the cognitive architecture to understand the world. As soon as they start to, their personality starts to take them to a place where the combination of their genetics and their interaction with the world starts to form patterns…We are born with a basic map and where that map goes depends then on the interaction with the genetics and the environment. Babies don’t have fear because they don’t understand the world. That understanding starts to dawn, Brown tells me, around the age of 5 or 6 when we begin to take in the world that's outside of our immediate environment. He tells me, “That period of time is fundamental. And when you talk to people, they often go back to their first formative memories and they’re burnt in. So things like confidence, shame, a lot of fundamental memories that then drive our interpretation of the world come back to us.”

There is also a physiological factor that explains why we hold on to events or experiences that have a profound impact on our current behaviour. “Negative memory is burnt into our psyche to a greater extent than positive experiences because we have an in-built threat scanner and the threat scanner, neuro-psychologically, is located in the amygdala,” Brown says. “So what basically happens is we are in a situation and the amygdala in our brain senses some type of threat and what it does is flood the brain with cortisol which dampens the cognitive, the rational side of the brain and it is a fight or flight situation…Threats, which evolutionary psychology would say was there to protect us from the dinosaurs, keeps us safe, but it also binds us to the negative. Positive memories or positive situations aren’t threats.”

All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that if you are not confident, if you have insecurities, that it all comes down to a negative event in your childhood. We are inundated with so many messages telling us who we should be, what we need to get to be that person, who gets accepted and why. Sometimes, it comes down to internalising those messages that are repeatedly fed to us from all mediums, whether it is a peer, a colleague, a television show or a magazine editorial. It is a feeling of not measuring up to any one standard, a standard where there are no definable parameters. Even if we hold ourselves up to that supposed high standard, the fear of failure looms like a shadow, sometimes driving us to achieve more (which can positive) or dragging us down because of our inability to meet them. All affect our sense of who we are and what we are capable of (self-efficacy as noted by Brown). So much of what we assume to be true is based on our perceptions, not actually what is. I was once told by a manager that “perception is reality.” The question I then asked myself was ‘whose perception did I have to cater to?’ And there never was an answer.

Byron Katie, the author of The Work, trains people to question those self-limiting thoughts that we all have about ourselves. Thoughts on any one situation, person, relationship, and ourselves. Her process focuses on four simple yet provokingly-affective questions: 1) Is it true? 2) Can you absolutely know it’s true (this is where we go deeper to find the answers that live beneath what we think we know). 3) How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought? This is where you notice the “internal cause and effect.” And 4) Who would you be without the thought? Katie goes on to ask through the final question, “How would your life be different if you didn’t have the ability to even think the stressful thought?” The final task is what she describes as The Turnaround where you think the opposite of what you believe.

It’s a way of training yourself to change your thought process and from evidence from neuroplasticity studies, you can physiologically change the way your brain operates. Just ask Barbara Arrowsmith Young, the author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. As a child, Arrowsmith Young had severe learning disabilities. Once she was able to identify where in her brain the anomaly was located, she studied and documented how training her brain with a set of “repetitive and targeted cognitive exercises” transformed the weak areas of her brain. What she found was the brain’s ability to adapt and learn new things despite physiological impediments and in other cases our psychological and emotional impediments. A finding that can help any of us change how we think, how we act, and how we perceive ourselves. It’s like training your muscles to do what you want them to do.

So much of confidence comes down to what we tell ourselves. We all experience it. I have experienced many stabs of low self-esteem, low self-confidence. I have questioned my abilities on many occasions. I remember when I was offered my first job as as on air reporter for a local news station in Toronto. That moment should have been the best moment of my life back then. I had been working hard towards that goal for so many years and when I was offered the job, my immediate reaction wasn’t elation. It was fear. Fear of being found out that in reality I was a failure, that I didn’t actually know how to do the job I had just been given. Fear that I didn’t deserve the recognition. In fact throughout my career during contract negotiations and discussions about my professional path, I have often thought “who do I think I am to demand what I believe is fair?” "What do I know?" It was my mother who would keep telling me, “you show them who you are. You have worked hard for everything. You have every right to not just ask but demand to be treated and compensated accordingly.” So whenever I wonder who am I to be in any room, who am I to be hosting a show or asking for a raise, or interviewing with the tough questions, or who am I to even be writing this blog, if I ever wonder about my ability to do something even after I have prepared for it, I say to myself, why not me? Why shouldn’t I be that person? I turn my thoughts around. I put myself in the offensive instead of defensive. Of course in the beginning it felt like I was acting out a part, that I was just telling myself a fib to get the job done.

I’m not alone in utilising this method. Remember Sasha Fierce? She’s also known as Beyonce’s alter ego. The multi-award winning entertainer has said that she created Sasha Fierce to give herself that armour when performing. She told Oprahin 2008, “Usually when I hear the chords, when I put on my stilettos. Like the moment right before when you’re nervous, then Sasha Fierce appears, and my posture and the way I speak and everything is different…It’s not different from anyone else. I feel like we all kind of have that thing that takes over.” Whether it’s performing in front of thousands of people or talking one-on-one in a job interview, the feelings can be the same. It’s that ‘fake it till you make it” way of thinking. The more I did it and had the results to prove it the more it felt natural to me to be that confident person I always wanted to be. Confident in my abilities and confident in being a person deserving of any place at any table.

It wasn’t easy to get to that point. It still isn’t. It takes a lot of work, a lot of introspection and in the past, discussions with my wonderful therapist who helped me to see me. Matt Brown says that in order for us to get to the point of feeling confident we need to see ourselves and where we are mentally and emotionally with an honest and compassionate lens. He says we, “need to understand what is going on in (our) environment. How do we make sense of that? Is it accurate? And how do we know? If you did a 360 of yourself you get a pretty accurate picture of the outside world looking at you. And that would help you to think about what (you) believe and whether it is true or not. Then you have a clearer picture, a sense of yourself to protect yourself from the noise. It is not something that is really easy to do on your own. Parents, colleagues, friends helps us. The more people we can educate to understand how confidence works, the more people are there to help support us.” And as for Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce she told Alluremagazine in 2010, “the thing that’s interesting is I don’t need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I’ve grown and I’m able to merge the two. I want people to see me. I want people to see who I am.”

Confidence isn’t a secret that only a few people have the privilege to know about. It isn’t a key that only a select, special group have. Confidence is learned behaviour. And what I’ve learned is that the more authentically I live my life ignoring the influences of other people’s perceptions, that “noise” that Matt Brown was talking about, the more confident I am in the decisions I make. I have a mental checklist that I go through when I need to feel that burst of belief in myself at any given moment. I ask myself, if I’ve worked hard, if I have prepared to the best of my ability, if I have acted out of kindness & compassion, if I am honest and true to who I am then why shouldn’t I hold my head up high and feel I deserve to be where I am? Listen, no one walks around feeling like they are perfect and that they deserve the treasures of the world every second of every day. What we need is our own checklist or tools to help bring ourselves back up to where we are operating at the best level we can. The way to get there is to get to know ourselves. The rest is just noise.[/expand]

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