Confidence Begins Within
Your brain is trained to recognize the absence or presence of confidence as you size up the people you meet. It is intuitive and primal, and so important to success. Time and time again in my research for Pivot Point, I found that women struggled to build, maintain, and express confidence consistently in their personal and professional lives.
The struggle is real
I too have struggled with having adequate confidence in my life. I remember being the timid girl in gym class growing up, and then the reserved student in undergrad. Professionally, I have been told I was “too confident” in job interviews and in sharing my opinions, and “lacking confidence” in presentations and networking settings. In reflecting, I found that so much of my own confidence has been dependent on the external factors around me. My confidence hinged on the people I was with, and how I compared myself to them. When I was with those stronger than me, I recoiled, yet when I was with those I perceived to be weaker than me, I puffed up my confidence. Often, I find with women leaders I coach, that confidence is a fluid barometer, it ebbs and flows based on the situations and the people around us. Just when you think you have locked it down in cruise control, here comes a curve ball that takes it down a notch.
As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman articulate in the book, Confidence Code, women’s brains are wired a little differently, which does impact your confidence. In their research, they found that women have neurons dispersed throughout the rational and emotional centers of your brain, while men have more of their neurons concentrated in the pre-frontal cortex where rational thought prevails. Furthermore, they note a significant difference in women focusing externally vs. men focusing internally. Women tend to focus on others around them more, leading them to base their confidence more on the external environment.
Another confidence guru, Amy Cuddy, focuses her research on presence, and the impact on confidence. It is truly game changing. Like Kay and Shipman, in her book Presence, she found that there are real differences between men and women in confidence. Her research on four and six year olds confirms that perceptions of gender differences are cemented at a young age. In the research, there are two gender neutral dolls placed in front of boys and girls. They are asked to identify which gender they see based on the body positioning. One doll has enclosed (unconfident) body positioning, with arms and legs positioned close to the body. The other doll has expansive (confident) body positioning, with arms and legs extended outwardly from the body. An overwhelming ~80% of six-year olds identified the enclosed (unconfident) body position as a girl. Yet, what I found more interesting, was that of the four-year olds, only ~60% associated this position with a girl. Something happens between the ages of four and six that is truly fascinating. I have shared this research with many professional women, and they recount stories of being taught to care for others and share with others at a young age, while their male counterparts were encouraged to be brave and take risks. These subconscious gender roles are still at play today.
Given these biological differences, compounded with the gender norms of women’s upbringings, women often naturally lack confidence. The good news is that despite the confidence gap, there are proven strategies to overcome this gap. I have wrestled with my own confidence gap similar to the women I coach, and have found great solace in practicing confidence building tools. In coaching women, and peeling the onion down to the heart of what is holding us back, confidence is often at the core of the challenge. These strategies center of what I call the negative thought reel, the internal dialogue inside your brain that is negative and disrupts your confidence. It is pivotal to replace this reel.
Women often are telling themselves a negative story that is just plain not true.
The negative thought reel goes something like this – “I am not good enough,” “There is no way I could do that,” or “I do not deserve it.” It is very common to have these phrases pop in and out of your brain from time to time. Thoughts are thoughts; sometimes they do not mean much. Yet, there is a fine line when this becomes problematic. If these self-dialogue patterns occur too often, they begin to permeate your brain, and you actually begin to believe these false thoughts. A thought turns into a belief – the pivot point of danger.
How to replace the reel
For those in the throes of the negative thought reel cycle, there are a few key strategies I have had success with, both for myself, and for those that I coach, that I often recommend. To overcome negative self-talk, and replace the reel with positive self-talk, here are some pivotal strategies: journaling, personal narrative, and positive affirmations.
Documenting your thoughts is a critical first step in understanding what fears may be driving the negative self-talk. Each day, jot down your thoughts – what about your day made you happy, sad, proud, afraid, confident, intimidated, etc. It is critical that the thoughts are recorded exactly as they played in your head – no filtering. After about 10 days, you can take the data from the daily records and begin to summarize key themes. Package the data into categories that make sense – maybe just two columns of positive vs. negative – or customize the buckets that work for you. What I usually find in summarizing the information is that the positive list is fairly short, yet affirming, while the negative column is lengthy and concerning. This makes sense – the brain is primal – searching for things in the environment that are threats that to fight or flight. The world just does not have the same threats it once did when saber-toothed tigers were walking around, and this type of thinking was helpful. Now, humans, especially women, often act as their own saber-toothed tiger, attacking themselves with negative self-talk.
With this data summarized, you can unpack and tackle the themes one-by-one. Start with the positive themes first. What makes you most happy, proud, and confident? You may notice a theme of the people you are around, or experiences you have that drive these feelings. Remembering the importance of the internally driven confidence, dig deep for things within your control that fuel your confidence. Chances are it is connected to your values – the attributes that are important to you in your life. Prioritize your themes into no more than three to five groups and name them. These are your confidence boosters. These now become your guard rails – your job is to align your efforts with these themes as much as possible in your daily life. As for the negative column, this data is also very revealing. Again, prioritizing the top themes into a few distinct buckets. These are your confidence limiters. If they are externally-oriented, the good news is that you can choose to avoid these people and/or experiences as much as possible, or to choose to regain control of how you let these people and/or experiences affect you. The negative thoughts need to be flipped into more positive thoughts, as in this example: “I am not good at speaking up in groups” – translation – “I have thoughts people want to hear.” See how that is still true, yet it is not limiting. It facilitates possibilities rather than constraints.
That’s the thing about confidence – it’s your choice to be confident or not – no one else’s.
If the confidence limiters are internally-oriented, you may need to do some soul searching. You need to understand the fear behind them – fear of failure, not being perfect, letting someone else down – I have heard them all. These fears are real in your mind, but not in reality. The more you understand the fear and what is driving it, the more equipped you are to proactively recognize when you are slipping into the negative thought reel, and reel yourself back to reality.
Another personal favorite of mine is writing your own personal narrative. I learned this powerful technique in my coaching certification classes, and utilize it with my clients battling confidence and negative self-talk. Essentially, it requires you to ask yourself the question “what do I want?” from all angles:
- For your business/career
- With your relationships
- With your family
- For your health/wellness
- Overall to ensure future happiness
As a coach, I playback what I heard to ensure accuracy, and ask “what else?” to promote even more self-discovery. We then weave all of the answers into a short story about your life with all positive words said in present tense. I recommend my clients record themselves reading their story, repeating it at least four times, or better yet, find a recording device with an automatic loop. Then, each night for at least 30 days, listen to the recording. By listening to your personal narrative, your subconscious brain begins to believe the story, and subconsciously automatically maps your daily actions to achieving the story.
I know it sounds hokey, yet it works. I have not had a client yet that did not diminish their negative thought reel with this technique.
Another powerful tool to squish the negative thought reel – positive affirmations. These are affirming statements that are somewhat aspirational, and are rooted in reality. Positive affirmations must be said in present tense, and by nature, are inherently optimistic. They answer the questions – “what is important to me,” “what do I want,” and “what I will do.” I like to brainstorm a bank of positive affirmations with all possible making the list. Then, reflect on what makes me feel most motivated. This is clearly a gut feeling – go with the gut. I like no more than seven statements, ideally three to five is great. Then, make it visual. For me, I write mine on masking tape and display them in places in my working space that I cannot help but notice. I rotate and update mine every few months when I feel myself losing focus, or simply just letting them blur into the background so that I do not notice them anymore. On any given workday, I will notice my affirmations – “I accomplish my financial goals” and “Women want to read Pivot Point.” They drive me forward, keeping those pesky negative thoughts at bay. When I feel a negative thought creep up, I acknowledge it, call it out as the negative thought reel, and replace it with a positive affirmation.
Do you want to bolster your confidence in an authentic way? Listen to the limited time playback of our online workshop on Authentic Confidence. In this free one-hour workshop, you will learn proven strategies to bolster even more confidence.