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Confidence is a Learnable Skill

| December 14, 2010

by Jim Bruce

Some people seem to be born full of confidence, while others have difficulty speaking up about their ideas.  Is confidence, then, something you are born with and therefore that those of us less gifted, just have to muddle through?

No!, say both Jessica Stillman – London-based free-lance writer with interests in green business and technology, and in management – in “Confidence is a Learnable Skill”, and Erika Casriel – free-lance political journalist and Associate Editor of Rolling Stone Magazine – writing in the Psychology Today article, “Confidence:  Stepping Out“, which Stillman summarizes.

When we observe someone stepping out in confidence, too often we feel at a disadvantage and automatically say to ourselves, ”Oh, I could never do that.“  The reality is that most socially confident people have to deliberately learn and practice specific skills to enable the behavior they display.

Jon Maher, a social psychology professor at Florida State University, points out that while our bodies may be finely tuned machines, the signals they send are more attuned to the Stone Age.  In that day ”…we did not have societies in which one could simply jump from one group to another.  Rejection or ostracism could very well have spell death.“  So, we evolved to be highly sensitive to signs of both social acceptance and disapproval.  Situations that were outright dangerous then, e.g., approaching a stranger, are often harmless now.  However, our bodies don’t know that and rev into overdrive.  The result is a nervous system that ”over-heats,“ short-circuiting our resolve and deflating our best intentions.

So, what can you do?  Our readings suggest four steps:

1.  Forget about simply repressing your anxiety.  This simply makes you more self-conscious.

2.  Understand your body’s signals.  Forty percent of all young people today describe themselves as shy, anxious in social situations.  Just about everyone gets nervous in high-stakes situations.  Research at Stanford’s Psychopsysiology Lab has demonstrated that many magnify their response in difficult situations, perceiving it subjectively to be much greater that it actually is.  This creates a crisis of confidence as you overreact to your own normal heightened alertness.  But, there’s good news.  If you can work yourself up by misinterpreting your body’s signals, you can ”chill“ by reacting to them correctly.  Studies have shown that this natural excitement, if read as a sign not that you are failing, but that you want to do well and that your body is there to help, you can enhance your performance.  So, read your body right.

3.  Focus on helping others.  Research at Duke university has shown that ”self-esteem rises and falls, acting as an internal barometer on how well you’re faring.“  These changes provide information that’s useful in navigating social situations.  As you note people drifting off when you’re speaking, your self-esteem falls, signaling you to move on.  When they’re engaged, self-esteem rises and you feel energized and more confident.  So, work on creating positive interactions that engage your audience, whether one or many.  By focusing less on yourself and more on others you make headway in building confidence.

4.  Get close to your fears.  Identify an area in which your confidence is low and your anxiety is high.  Dissect the area and intentionally begin to take steps – either small low-anxiety-producing ones or larger higher-risk ones – and keep at it, increasing the level of difficulty as you congratulate yourself on your successes.  Soon you will find that you have significantly increased your confidence.

So, if you are lacking in confidence in an area, don’t despair.  Roll up your sleeves and tackle it head on, taking steps that keep taking you to the expanding edge of your comfort zone.


.  .  .  .     jim