Fake it ’til you make it: how to build confidence

Confidence may seem like an elusive quality you either have or you don’t, but it’s actually something you can build and foster.
Portrait of happy mature woman in garden

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When you think about ways to boost your confidence, dancing awkwardly to Dancing Queen in front of a roomful of strangers probably isn’t the first idea that comes to mind.

But that’s exactly how Rob O’Donnell, a facilitator at the School of Life, starts his ‘How to be Confident’ class – urging students, in a you-don’t-really-have-a-choice-about-this kind of way, to get on their feet and join him for a short stint of singing and dancing to ABBA.

Few people enjoy the cringe-worthy experience – certainly not Rob himself – but it does effectively tackle something that stands in the way for many people wanting more confidence: the fear of looking silly.

Rob, who has a background in learning and development, says feeling self-conscious is what often holds us back from approaching situations with confidence. But that doesn’t mean people who appear to be confident don’t feel worried about what others think of them.

“We all look at other people and we think, ‘They must be really confident’. And when you go and talk to them you generally find they’re nowhere near as confident as you think they are,” he says.

“We tend to be hugely overgenerous to other people and hypercritical of ourselves.”

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Defining confidence is tricky, since it means different things to different people.

The dictionary describes it as “self-reliance, assurance or boldness” – and it’s that last word which hints at one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to confidence.

“I often hear Donald Trump mentioned as a person who displays confidence [but] I see him as a deeply, deeply insecure guy who overcompensates for it by being arrogant,” says Rob.

“We tend to not really understand that you can be confident and subdued at the same time.

“You don’t have to be shouting and brash and in the spotlight all the time – in fact, it’s the people who are quietly confident we tend to admire the most.”

What Rob wants people to understand most about confidence is that it isn’t something you’re either born with or you’re not.

Confidence is something you can develop over time – it’s a skill that can be learned,” he states.

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Learning to back yourself

Trish Everett, a mindset coach who helps people build inner leadership, says confidence is about self-belief.

“It clicks into that ‘I’m enough’ business,” she explains.

“The more belief people have that they are enough – that they have what it takes to be there – the more confident they are.

“That belief can be rocked in so many ways.

“In childhood, being told that you can’t, that you’re not good enough, that that’s not the right place for you, that’s not a place for girls to be, being criticised, being shamed… all of those things,” says Trish.

“The earlier it happened, the more deeply ingrained it can be.

“But you can still have that kind of knock to your confidence at any point in your life.”

Imposter syndrome – a sense of feeling unworthy of a job or relationship, for example, and the associated fear of being exposed as a fraud – is often underpinning a lack of confidence, she reveals.

“If someone walks into a room and their belief is ‘I’m not supposed to be here’ that usually will come from ‘I’m not worthy enough to be here’.

“Without a belief that you’re supposed to be there, your confidence doesn’t come through,” says Trish.

But even when you do have strong self-worth, your confidence may not be strong in all areas. That’s because confidence can come and go depending on the situation, Rob contends.

“I give the example of Richard Branson in class – there’s a guy who has a huge sense of self-worth, massive confidence and massive charisma in certain situations, particularly one-on-one, but he hates public speaking with a passion,” he says.

“Self-worth doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be confident in all situations.

“There are some things that just freak people out.”

The importance of being optimistic

To boost your confidence, Rob advocates a formula of self-efficacy plus optimism.

Self-efficacy is the belief that you have the ability to do what you want to do, or that you could master the ability to do it.

You can build this by practising the particular skill involved, getting support from others, looking for good role models and taking care of your physical and mental health.

The ‘optimism’ part, however, is a bit more challenging.

“We have these little voices in our heads and they can be quite critical,” explains Rob.

“I’ve got a friend who refers to them as the ‘itty bitty sh**ty committee.'”

The hallmarks of these pessimistic thoughts are:

  • Permanence – eg, “You always screw this up.”

  • Pervasiveness – eg, “You screw everything up.”

  • Personal – eg, “It’s all your fault.”

The best way to stop these thoughts is to tackle the relevant ‘P’ factor, explains Rob.

“If they say, ‘You always screw this up’, you respond with, ‘No, I screwed it up last Thursday, but I’ve learned from that and here’s how I’m going to do better’.

“You’re making it temporary and positive,” he says.

“If it’s pervasive, for example, ‘You suck at sports’, you can say ‘No, I suck at football but I’m good at archery’.

“When they tell you it’s all your fault, accept responsibility for the parts that are, then look at what else was at fault.”

After doing this exercise for a few months, Rob says the pessimistic thoughts lessened and even started to become quite optimistic thoughts.

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Fake it ’til you make it

Without consistent effort to challenge your beliefs around self-worth, your confidence is unlikely to improve, Trish says.

She recommends finding a confidence partner – a friend, coach, colleague or peer – or using a journal, and regularly communicating where your confidence is lacking and how you intend to challenge that.

Another approach she recommends is positive self-talk – telling yourself regularly, ‘I am confident, I can do this, I have value to give’, which she says is particularly powerful when you say it into the mirror.

Body language is also helpful. Trish endorses ‘power poses’ – body positions that make you look and feel powerful.

“I’ve found them really useful,” reveals Trish.

“For me, my big challenge was when I was in a big room full of people and it was also when I was speaking from a more vulnerable place. I would sit back on my chair, spread my arms and take up more physical space.

“That would really help me – you’re acting as if you’re confident.

“People who are confident don’t make themselves small, they make their bodies take up the right amount of space,” she adds.

Working on your posture so that you stand tall can also assist in projecting confidence – it’s all about faking it ’til you make it.

“Confident people don’t slouch!” she says.

“They stand upright.”

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