Confidence is normally described as a belief in yourself and your abilities. I don't like this definition because it feels too static. In my mind, self-confidence is not a single belief or idea but a process; it's how you function despite all the challenges you face and the critics who will make you question yourself.
When viewed through this lens, the usual confidence advice of dressing nicely, keeping your head up and speaking clearly is patronizing. These things induce a temporary feeling of confidence, but they address the symptoms rather than the source of the problem.
Designer pant suits aside, the fact is that most of us oscillate between moments of amazing confidence and moments of downright fear regardless of our personality types. How confident we feel in a given situation just depends on the level of challenge we're facing. For instance, I feel confident when explaining myself in writing because I can hone and refine the words until they're pretty close to what I'm thinking. Ask me to say the same things out loud in spontaneous conversation, however, and the brain-mouth connection jams. I start "erming" and "you knowing" like a bumbling idiot. I don't feel confident in that environment at all.
What I've just described is a typical Introvert experience. Being put on the spot is anxiety-inducing for many of us, which is why we may struggle in a roomful of strangers or hate receiving unplanned phone calls. Extraverts, on the other hand, may show a lot of charisma in social situations. Since we mostly see them in social situations where they shine, we tend to assume that they're always that confident. We don't see the other situations that may be hugely challenging to an Extravert. Does anyone really know what goes on behind closed doors?
For Introverts then, there's no such thing as confidence or lack of it. We're all confident in some areas and cowardly in others. All that's actually needed is take the skills we have in one area and apply them to situations we find more challenging, until those situations become less challenging.
And that isn't nearly as hard as it seems.
How to be self-confident
Nothing can be learned without practice. It's the same with feeling confident in the areas that present us with the most challenges. The question is, how can you develop confidence in those areas? I propose a process in four steps:
1. Admit your potential.
2. Experiment with "yes" and "no."
3. Forget about skills.
4. Do not sabotage yourself.
Simple, right? Let's take a closer look.
Admit your potential
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. That's a summary of the Dunning Kruger effect which occurs when people fail to assess their own level of competence—or rather, their incompetence—at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than they actually are. I've not seen any research on this, but I'd hazard a guess that low-conceptualizing types are much less likely to analyze their performance, leading to an inflated sense of competence and, yes, a whole bunch of unwarranted self-confidence.
Because Introverts tend to be inward-turning, we also spend a lot of time examining our own experiences. Self-awareness is important to us, and we tend to put a lot of effort into understanding our motivations, behaviors, responses, decisions and mistakes—and we are our own worst critics. Which means, for Introverts, we're more likely to underestimate our abilities compared to others. We know enough to know that we don't know very much at all, and that starts us wondering when someone's going to find us out. This is known as impostor syndrome.
If you doubt yourself (and I've never met an Introvert who doesn't), remember, this doubt is largely the result of your self-critiquing process. Specifically, it's a result of:
- Assumptions you make about yourself ("I'm shy so I won't be good in a sales job")
- Negative messages you have internalized ("My teacher once told me I couldn't draw, so there's no point to me taking an art class")
- One stupid mistake that you've generalized into being an absolute truth ("I feel anxious when making a presentation because the last time I did it I got some of the numbers wrong.")
Take a moment to think about it. What abilities are you underestimating because you're a naval-gazing Introvert who doesn't give herself enough credit? Start reeling them off—your qualities, your friendships, your knowledge, your experience and your past successes, large or small. Don't diminish or judge them—just admire the length of the list.
Now imagine, what amazing things could you accomplish in the light of what you have just listed?
Don't be afraid to experiment with "yes" and "no"
I have the (completely unscientific) idea that people are either "yes" people or "no" people. By which I mean that some people are programmed to say "yes" to every request that comes along (and thus get exploited) and others are programmed to say "no" (and thus miss out on opportunities).
In my youth, I tended towards "no." This means I started from the position that an idea was inherently a bad idea, and then I had to think of all the reasons why it might actually be a good idea. It wasn't until I quit my job and started working for myself that I learned how limiting this approach was. As a freelancer, you can't say "no" to work that looks hard, or that you've never tried before, or that you're fairly sure you'll mess up, when the alternative is earning no income and the bank repossessing your home!
As a "no" person, learning to say "yes" more often can potentially open the floodgates of opportunity. By saying that one little word, you commit yourself to doing something that sits outside your comfort zone. Then, you have no option but to pull on the skills you already have and start applying them to this new and challenging situation. You make inroads into an area that maybe once scared you; you start to win a little. The confidence you get from this will bring even more momentum as you make deeper inroads into those challenging areas.
As for those who are programmed to say "yes," I'm afraid that being keen and compliant is rarely the nicest thing you can do for yourself, or for others. Introverts who juggle too many commitments aren't winners; they're exhausted! And the saddest part is, they end up feeling guilty when their energy gives out and they have to drop the ball on something. I wrote some tips for "yes" people at length in this article. If that's you, take back control by saying "no" every once in while. See what it does for your confidence levels.
Forget about endless skills training
Okay, this one might be controversial. If a tennis player wants to win Wimbledon, she has to get some skills. If an explosives expert wants to finish his shift in one piece, he too has to get some skills—people's lives may depend on it. But when it comes to confidence, acquiring skills can be a distraction. It's working on the symptoms instead of root cause of the problem.
For many Introverts, we feel an urgent need to be really good at something before we feel confident in that area. We think we need to learn, learn, learn, and have lots of experience in a subject or situation, before we can conquer whatever trials may come. Yet according to Dunning Kruger, someone with low skills and no success in their past can be supremely confident! Endless skills training is not the answer.
The root cause here is the belief that you need to improve yourself before you can feel self-confident. But everything—everything!—that's making you feel this way is a social construct. All the things you think you need to be confident (skills, experience, assertiveness, status, movie-star good looks) are conditioned by society, instead of being absolute truths for you.
What I'm asking here is for you to let go of the attachment to all those symbols that represent status in the outside world. Such things as your current knowledge level, experiences, job title or the opinions of others do not represent what makes you worthwhile, and so they do not matter.
Here's a challenge: push yourself to use "I" statements more—they are the basis of your confidence. I want to do this, I think this, I feel that. So what if your knowledge falls short of expert level? Your opinions are still worthwhile. Saying "I" puts your needs front and center and creates a space for the steps above, such as saying "no."
Stop sabotaging yourself!
When Introverts lack confidence in a certain area, they tend to prove that they are right not to have confidence by seeing, hearing and doing only that which reinforces their belief. Suppose, for instance, that you think you are socially awkward. You go to a party, and you stand in the corner by yourself. If no one comes to rescue you, it reinforces your belief that you must be socially awkward. And so, you maintain a lack of confidence in yourself.
In other words, you self-sabotage.
Now, this is not an article about self sabotaging behaviors and I don't have any tips for stopping this ridiculous thing we do to ourselves - other than to recognize when we're doing it and challenge these conclusions. But I do know there are no excuses for holding ourselves back, because self-sabotage is our own personal hand grenade and we're the ones holding the pin.
Ultimately, the choice is our own. Do we, as Introverts, want to keep talking down our talents and underestimating our abilities? Do we want to say "no" when we really mean "yes" (or vice versa)? Do we want to spend our lives in a constant state of self-improvement just so we can be confident by society's measure of that standard? Or do we want to apply our own value statement to the term?
I think you know the answer to that. The rest, as they say, is up to you.