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Many people struggle with confidence issues. They may lack confidence in their work, in their families, in making friends, in public speaking, or in a myriad of other real-world situations.
Fragile confidence—even when camouflaged by a bold façade—affects performance in every facet of life. It jeopardizes emotional, spiritual, and even physical wellbeing.
But here’s the good news. Confidence is not just a feeling. It’s a skill that can be learned, practiced, and mastered just like any other skill.
Nobody understands this better than Dr. Nate Zinsser. He’s Director of the Performance Psychology Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point—one of the most comprehensive mental training programs in the world. For the past three decades, he helped prepare cadets for leadership in the U.S. Army.
He’s also served as psychology mentor to many elite athletes, including a two-time Super Bowl MVP, many Olympians, NCAA champions, and even professional ballerinas.
Dr. Zinsser’s research-based book is The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance.
So, you don’t aspire to lead soldiers or play in a Super Bowl or perform as a ballerina? Okay. But whether you wear combat boots, football cleats or ballet slippers, you still need confidence to perform at your best. Some fresh understanding of how to manage your own confidence can come in very handy.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What do you see as some of the most debilitating misconceptions about confidence?
Nate Zinsser: There are several.
First, the idea that confidence equals outspoken arrogance. No, confidence is a quiet sense of certainty. You can be powerfully confident without being considered conceited or arrogant. If you happen to be a quiet, more introverted individual, rest assured that developing confidence won’t make you any less polite, respectful, and likeable.
Second, the idea that confidence is a fixed inherited trait. No, confidence is a quality that you can develop the same way you develop any other skill, ability, or competency– through practice. It really doesn’t matter how much confidence you have or don’t have right now – you can build always build more
Third, confidence is very situation-specific. You can feel very confident on the basketball court but feel completely insecure in the history classroom and vice versa. Even on the basketball court you can have entirely different levels of confidence for different aspects of the game—shooting free throws vs shooting off the dribble, posting up vs rebounding, etc.
Duncan: Most everyone who has had to perform in some way has experienced a case of the “butterflies.” You teach people that, rather than being overwhelmed by their autonomic nervous system, they can use it to great advantage. How does that work?
Zinsser: We humans are hard-wired to undergo a biochemical change when we are about to undertake something is important to us—whether it’s something that we want to do or something that we must do. That biochemical change is unfortunately all too often labelled “nervousness” or “anxiety” when it could just as accurately and just as reasonably be labelled “excitement.” When you have “nerves” before a big event it simply means your body is producing chemicals to speed up your heart, get blood to your muscles and otherwise prepare you to faster, stronger, more perceptive, and more reactive. I urge my clients and students to respect their body’s wisdom and enjoy the fact that it produces a state-of-the-art performance enhancing chemical pretty much whenever you need one, even if it feels a little abnormal. But why would you expect to feel “normal” when you’re about to do something that’s “important?”
Duncan: You suggest that people should compile a list of their top ten accomplishments, no matter how insignificant they may seem. What role does such an exercise play in building confidence?
Zinsser: The Top Ten exercise establishes what I call your mental bank account—that collection or repository of thoughts that you have about yourself. By creating this list of energizing and encouraging thoughts about your chosen field (and placing it where you’ll see it every day) you have created a foundational sense of certainty about yourself.
Duncan: Some people say affirmation statements are just a way of deluding yourself and hoping everything will turn out okay anyway. What do you say to those skeptics?
Zinsser: I say they are probably deluding themselves about what they’re not good at. We all exist within a web of many chosen personal realities and the only question is which realities we care to choose for ourselves. History has shown that many previously believed “impossibles” weren’t really impossible after all—like the supposed unbreakable four-minute mile, or that Everest couldn’t be climbed without supplemental oxygen. Why not embrace a slightly delusional reality that brings you closer to want you ultimately want?
Duncan: On the flip side, what’s your advice on how to combat negative self-talk?
Zinsser: Talk back to it! Everyone has had the experience of getting into an argument or disagreement with a family member, or a co-worker, or a teammate, or a supervisor. The topic or the disagreed upon issue could have been about anything, but two things about that encounter were constant—there was a back-and-forth exchange between you and the other person, and whoever made the final statement, whoever got in the last word, usually “won” the argument. Dealing with our own internal negative thoughts, fears, and worries is very much the same—two competing opinions are vying for control of our mind and one of them is going to emerge as dominant. One voice is urging you forward, keeping you focused on what needs to be done, and building you up, while another is criticizing each step you take and distracting you with worries about bad future outcomes. Which voice will “win the moment?” The one that speaks last and gets in the last word. Acknowledge that you’re in an argument, stop that negative voice any way you have to (imagine flashing red lights or a STOP sign), and replace that negative voice with a memory of a personal success or some personal progress.
Duncan: When pursuing their dreams, everyone has setbacks. What’s the key to defending against threats to your dreams?
Zinsser: Keep those setbacks in their proper perspective. Sure, they happen, and maybe they were costly, but you can always think of them as temporary instead of recurring, limited in their scope instead of globally affecting everything, and non–representative instead as being the definitive statement about yourself. Treating your mistakes as temporary protects you from the “here I go again” trap, and treating your mistakes as limited protects you from the “my whole day is going down the drain” trap. Treating your mistakes as non-representative protects you from the “Maybe I’m not good enough” trap, that swamp of unrestrained self-criticism that always seems to be waiting to engulf us.
Duncan: You talk a lot about building up a personal bank account of confidence. What’s that about?
Zinsser: Your confidence in any situation (and it’s very situation specific as we’ve discussed), is your sense of certainty about yourself in that situation. That certainty comes from the combined total of all the thoughts you have about yourself – the memories you keep, the stories you tell yourself about yourself in the present, and all those pictures and video clips your imagination produces about your future. That collection of past, present, and future thoughts is just like the balance of a bank account in that it rises and falls depending on what is put into it and what is taken out of it. Depending on what’s in your mental bank account regarding a certain situation (“What’s in your wallet?”) you will either have certainty or doubt as you encounter that situation.
Duncan: What can parents do to help their children develop self-confidence—not the boastful variety, but healthy confidence that they can accomplish their goals?
Zinsser: Pretty much the same things that I would advise those parents to do for themselves—keep a healthy balance of encouragement and challenge, and refuse to accept personal limitations. Help your kids look for the best in themselves day by day (“I saw you help your sister with her homework today—that was really great”). Help them create excitement and eagerness for things they haven’t done yet (You’ll have so much fun once you can ride that bike”). And support whatever interest they seem to have whenever they have it—it might be soccer one week and clarinet the next. Just don’t confuse your preferences and interests with theirs.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.