How do you define self confidence?
Is it a feeling you have sometimes (or wish you had)?
How do you know when you are confident and when you aren’t?
Defining self confidence is a complex thing, because well, confidence is a complex thing. We tend to simplify it into stereotypes of power hungry people who talk loud and often, who wear bright clothes, and who love public speaking (seriously, they exist), but confidence is more complex than appearances and stereotypes.
And yet it’s also incredibly simple to define, as Katty Kay and Claire Shipman quote in their excellent book The Confidence Code:
confidence is what turns ideas into actions.
We get an idea in our head – we want to ask someone out on a date; request a pay rise; write a book; go travelling; start a business; make a speech at a friend’s birthday – and hanging out in the gap between the idea and actually doing it, is confidence. In this way, confidence looks different to everyone (and thankfully gets us away from the irritating stereotypes about confidence). If confidence is about acting, and we all have different things we want to achieve, then confidence looks different to everyone.
This simple definition of confidence tells us one important thing – confidence is not so much about a feeling (or at least not only), it is a doing (and that to develop confidence we need to develop internal conditions that are conducive to doing).
But the definition also falls short, because within that gap is a whole host of attributes and pre-conditions that give us confidence. What matters most? Different people will give you different answers, but I think the three big contributors to and enablers of confidence are self compassion, personal power, and deep purpose.
Self compassion is essential for confidence.
Working as a therapist has taught me many things, but one of the most heart-breaking is how many people struggle with a hostile inner environment. The degrees of hostility vary, but we all seem to have it. We are mean to ourselves, talk down to ourselves, and say things to ourselves we’d never say to another person, maybe not even to a potted plant.
This inner criticism impacts on confidence (turning ideas into actions) in three ways.
Firstly, inner critics convince us we are not capable of doing the things we want to do; we’re not smart enough, motivated enough, educated enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, talented enough etc.
Secondly, they tell us we are not worthy of what we desire; the person we like is too good for us, we don’t deserve the pay rise, we’re not special enough etc.
Thirdly, inner critics are always waiting in the wings for when we fail or things don’t work out how we’d planned. We think we fear failure, but actually we fear the internal shaming we know comes after failure. They shame us for failing and hold up our failures as evidence of incompetence and undeservedness. A couple of experiences like this and we soon stop trying new things and taking risks.
Self compassion is the antidote to inner criticism, but it’s not always quick or easy to come by.
It’s simple in theory – you just accept that you are imperfect, like everyone else, and change your inner dialogue to be kind and loving and supportive – but not so simple to achieve.
This is partly due to the fact that we have been living with and identifying with our inner critics for so long that we don’t even notice them (check out this article on how to notice inner critics if you need help with this bit). A life-long habit rarely changes quickly or easily, but it can be done and is without doubt worth the effort.
The second reason is that it can be hard to retrain ourselves to be self compassionate is that often inner criticism is rooted in experiences of past misuses or abuses of power. Changing habits alone doesn’t heal trauma.
Personal power is one of the more hotly debated concepts in sociology, but I love Julie Diamond’s definition (from Power: A Users Guide):
Personal power is one’s inner, self-sourced sense of authority that remains stable and durable regardless of the outer situation.
Personal power isn’t about how important our job is, how much money we make, how white our skin is (in fact all those things can get in the way of developing personal power – check out this one-pager on different aspects of power). Personal power is what we develop by working on ourselves; our wounds, our awareness and our vulnerabilities. It’s about what we do with our experiences of suffering.
Again like self compassion, personal power isn’t necessarily easy to come by and to have reliable access to, but it’s worth the effort. Self compassion and personal power don’t just give you confidence to do things, they make it nicer to be in your own head, you treat others better therefore making the world a better place, and they make you more impactful, which leads nicely to my third pillar of confidence.
PURPOSE AND MEANING
I really like the idea of useful beliefs (Chris Helder published a cute little parable about the concept, called Useful Belief). Useful beliefs side step the debate about whether something is true or not (and let’s face it, truth is mostly subjective), but focuses on whether it is useful or not (it’s also more effective than one of my pet peeves, positive thinking).
Believing that life is inherently meaningful, in some way or another, turns out to be an incredibly useful belief.
Whether or not life is inherently meaningful is one of the ongoing philosophical debates of humankind. There is no way to conclusively prove either argument, so why not go with what is most useful.
Of course, whether something is useful or not depends on what your goals are; for some people it could be more useful to think life is without meaning. But for most of us, we are happier and more confident when we belief life is meaningful (even when we don’t know what that exact meaning is yet).
Believing that you are alive for a reason, that there is something unique that you have to contribute to the world, a deeper reason for your existence, helps you get around little me complexes (inner critics).
If we can connect to a sense of service, that there is a cause we are serving, we can often side-line inner critics and take action on behalf of those we believe we serve.
Conceptualising the “why” of our lives connects us to a deep purpose that grounds us when things get tough, and compels us to take a next step.
People find this deeper meaning in all kinds of ways. Jungian psychology calls it Life Myth and tells us we can find it in our earliest childhood dreams and peak life experiences (check out Melbourne Processwork Centre, we sometimes do workshops on this). Depth astrology calls it the North Node, the soul’s journey in this life (Jan Spiller’s Astrology for the Soul is the go-to book for this if astrology floats your boat). Some think you can discover it through strategic questions and reflection (just Google “how to find my life purpose” for a plethora of ideas on this). However you approach it, connecting to service, purpose and meaning gives you more confidence to act.
So there you have it. A simple definition of self confidence is that it’s the thing that turns ideas into action, but the more complicated to acquire, central pre-conditions are self compassion, personal power, and life purpose.
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