(An audio version of this article is available HERE)
As a university lecturer I was responsible for the personal guidance of a large number of students. Many of them would come to talk to me about their hopes and fears, and quite a few of them shared their personal struggles with anxiety with me. However, there was always one type of task that seemed to strike fear into nearly all students, even the most capable and seemingly confident ones – the dreaded class presentation. Any task or assessment that involved standing up in front of the class and presenting, be it as individual, or part of a group, caused high levels of panic amongst many in the class.
I’m Just Not a Confident Person
A phrase I would often hear when students talked to me individually was ‘I’m just not a very confident person.’ Many people tend to say this when faced with a situation or task they are uncomfortable about, but people forget there are many things they are very confident at doing, but take this confidence for granted.
To help students get over the belief they’re not very confident people, I would ask them to write a list of skills or tasks they were confident at doing, however simple. Sometimes they would stare at the blank piece of paper and say they couldn’t think of anything. So I’d ask them if they were confident at walking. If so, they had to put it down on the list. Then I’d name more skills, such as eating, driving, catching a ball, climbing a ladder, handwriting, gaming, etc. Then we’d go through their list and I’d explain they weren’t always confident at doing these things, but because they’d done them so many times, they take them for granted. So a universal or general lack of confidence isn’t normally the issue; we tend to lack confidence in specific activities and certain areas of life.
Why do we Lack Specific Confidence?
There are a number of reasons that lie behind our anxiety about trying something new or tackling something uncomfortable. We normally lack the confidence in our ability to do something due to one or a combination of the following:
We lack the expertise or skills required: If we haven't got the skills to do something it wouldn’t be natural to feel confident about doing it. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, so do you think it would be reasonable of me to feel confident about riding one?
We lack experience: If we have little or no experience of doing something, then we can’t expect to be confident about it. You may be able to sing well, but if you’ve never sung in front of a huge audience before, you’re not likely to feel confident about doing it.
We have unreasonable aspirations: We often have unreasonable expectations that are difficult to fulfil if we are trying something new, or have to do it in a challenging situation. We all get caught up in this type of perfectionism at times, that we shouldn’t do it unless we are excellent at it, or at least extremely competent. This often stops us from doing something before we’ve even tried.
We engage in extreme self-criticism: The human mind has a natural tendency to judge itself harshly: to criticise, to look for the negative, and predict the worst. This is just a normal human mind at work – the troublesome brain. It reminds us of negative stories from the past, creates gloomy future forecasts, and puts us off trying something before we’ve even started. It keeps us focused on what’s wrong with us, makes us afraid of failure, and causes us to give up more easily. It makes us less resilient in the face of challenges and therefore less likely to learn from mistakes.
We focus on fear: We may be afraid of failing, of being embarrassed, of rejection, of others laughing at us, or of fear itself. However, as we discussed earlier, fear in itself does not affect our performance, but focusing on the fear does. The more we focus on our fear the more it is likely to undermine our confidence.
The Confidence Cycle
So how do we overcome all of these barriers, build confidence, and become good at doing something? Well there is no magic bullet, and no shortcuts; a hypnotic trance won’t help us, and neither will attending a weekend ‘Super Confidence’ workshop. Sure, we can psych ourselves up and feel good about doing something for a short while, but the effect won’t last long, especially when we step outside of our comfort zone and into the real world.
However, the good news is we can feel confident about, and be good at, doing almost anything. We’ve done it countless times before – when we learned to walk, talk, eat, tell the time – all the way through to operating a computer and driving a car. We’re going to follow the same process now; using what is called in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), The Confidence Cycle.
Dr. Russ Harris, a world-renowned ACT trainer, outlines the four steps of the confidence cycle in his book The Confidence Gap. I’ve always considered a more appropriate name for the process should be ‘The Learning Cycle’, because it’s a process for learning news skills and teaching yourself to be able to perform them in challenging situations. It is only after we are able to do this we can truly feel confident.
The Confidence Cycle is also a reminder of how important a growth mindset is. We become good at something, and confident at doing it, by practising it, and not because we were born with a special gift or disposition. Our abilities and skills aren’t fixed – we become experts in, or competent at, the things we practise.
1. PRACTISE THE SKILLS
If we want to get good at, and feel confident about anything, we need to practise – whether it’s public speaking, painting, or playing the guitar. Keeping this in mind helps us to overcome the mental barriers to practice – the things that stop us from starting to learn, or force us to give up relatively quickly. These mental barriers include: feeling anxious or fearful, the desire to give up when progress is slow, and the tendency to quit after an initial failure, perfectionism, or extreme self-criticism. So whenever you’re practising a new skill and come up against one of those mental barriers, accept what you’re feeling is normal, but understand persevering will help you to get past the barrier and on the road to confidently performing a new skill.
2. APPLY THEM EFFECTIVELY
Practising the skills is important, and it’s the place we must start at, but we need to do more than that if we want to feel confident about doing something well. We also need to step out of our comfort zone and apply our practised skills effectively – into real life challenging situations.
After putting their presentations together and practising in their own rooms, I always used to give my students the opportunity to practise in front of other students in specially arranged sessions. Those who practised in front of others nearly always performed better in the real presentation assessment. As we’ve learned, leaving our comfort zone makes us feel uncomfortable, so we need to practise our skills in real life uncomfortable situations. By doing this we can learn to focus on what we are doing rather than getting caught up in our thoughts and feelings - this is called Task Focused Attention; and applying the mindfulness skills from ACT - defusion, expansion, and engagement (see this blog post) - will help us to do this. We need to think of uncomfortable and challenging situations an opportunity to learn.
3. ASSESS THE RESULTS
After applying our skills in a challenging situation, rather than burying our heads in the sand, we need to reflect on the results. We need to consider what did and didn’t work, and what we could do differently the next time to improve our performance. There are some key points to keep in mind when reflecting on our performance.
Firstly, it’s important that we reflect in a non-judgemental way, and remember we are in the process of learning. So we should avoid being extremely self-critical. Harsh self-judgement is rarely helpful and often pushes us in the direction of quitting, discouraging us from further learning. When we were toddlers learning to walk, if we stumbled and fell, we didn’t think “Well, I’m not doing that again, I felt like a right idiot! I’ll never be able to walk properly.” So when you assess the results, keep in mind that learning is a process, and be compassionate and encouraging in your self-reflection. Self-compassion can increases motivation and willpower, brings greater perspective and boosts decision making. This makes us more resilient:making it easier to bounce back in the face of failure and learn from mistakes.
Secondly, avoid comparing yourself to others, especially when assessing your results. It’s helpful to have an expert training or teaching you - someone with a higher skill level - but focus on how you can improve against your own performance. If you do start comparing yourself to others, use the defusion, expansion, and engagement skills, and focus compassionately on your own results. It’s fine to aspire to those who perform the activity better than you, but too much emphasis on the performance of others during the learning stage can have a negative impact on motivation.
4. MODIFY AS NEEDED
The next step is to modify what you are doing, do more of what is working well and change or modify what isn’t going well. During the presentation practise sessions that I arranged at the university, I would instruct the students in my class to write down a list of what went well and what didn’t go so well, and how that could be improved. It’s the only way to develop and get better. As Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
After you have modified what you are doing, you repeat the cycle until you get good at what you’re trying to learn. Confidence will follow. The actions of confidence come first, the feelings of confidence come second.
In part two of this blog post (coming soon), I will discuss how visualisation can be a powerful tool when used within the confidence cycle.
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