Developing Self-Confidence

Written by
Michael Wells

Developing Self-Confidence

Written by
Michael Wells

Developing Self-Confidence

Written by
Michael Wells
QUESTION
"How do I keep 'building self-confidence' at the top of my priority every day?"

Self-confidence is fundamentally about trusting your ability to handle unknown, unpredictable, uncontrolled situations.

When you are confident, you feel comfortable in these situations, because you know deep inside that there is nothing there that can harm you - and that great experiences happen in these places.

Why is this?

There are two primary reasons that feeling comfortable-without-control creates a sense of confidence.

First, when you feel more natural, comfortable, and familiar with a situation, your cortisol fight / flight / freeze threat response system doesn't switch on as easily. 

You might not love the situation - but when the situation feels familiar and you believe you can handle it - you can more easily just stand back and watch, ready to respond if anything is needed. 

Connected with this is a second, and even more significant reason.

When we feel unable-to-handle a situation, that emotional stress ( aka cortisol ) causes our rational mind to go into a panicked overdrive, trying to predict and prepare for 1,000 imaginary problems that don't actually exist yet - and probably never will.

This overdrive mode is an impossible place for your brain - your rational mind likes to think slowly, carefully, and clearly, and it isn't designed to deal with that high-stress cortisol-injected situation.

Your mind suddenly finds itself thrashing about, drowning in an ocean of what-if's and imagined fears.

As you experience this struggle, your stress and cortisol level increase even further.

Do you see the problem?

I refer to this as the emotional-rational feedback loop, and it can bring even the strongest person to their knees.

It's like putting the microphone too close to the speaker, and getting a horrific feedback sound.

Instant overwhelm, leading to paralysis and panic.

But when you enter the situation feeling relatively safe and in-control, that feedback loop never triggers.

Even when you identify some clear level of risk - you simply don't need to solve these problems in advance. You can just sit back and watch, and wait to see if there is an actual problem to solve.

  • This is why someone practiced in martial arts, or who has been in fights before, feels comfortable around physical aggression.
  • This is why people who practice public speaking feel comfortable in front of a crowd.
  • Why someone who makes an effort to learn dance feels comfortable on a dance floor.

They know they can handle it, while others might experience overwhelming fear in that same situation.

This experience of comfort-without-control is fundamentally what confidence is.

Confidence is Situational

I've met professional dancers who are fearful of public speaking. And I've met top-notch public speakers who are fearful of dancing. One person can enjoy fighting, but be afraid of swimming. Another can be enjoy swimming, but be afraid of a fight.

Confidence is situational and depends on what, specifically, a person is comfortable with and in which situations they feel no sense of security.

But, ultimately, I believe that it's possible to develop a kind of True Self-Confidence, where someone can trust themselves deeply enough that any uncontrolled situation feels pretty much OK.

How do I Develop Confidence?

In fact, developing confidence is a very simple process.

Start by identifying exactly the situation in which you lack confidence, and then follow these steps.

#1 - Learn to handle it better.

Improve your skills & knowledge so that you have the tools, thought processes, skills and patterns needed to respond effectively in that situation.

We'll discuss some approaches to this in the next section.

#2 - Make the situation more natural, by experiencing it more often.

Simply put yourself in more of those situations, more frequently. In psychology, this concept is known as exposure therapy, and it's a very powerful tool.

Just like learning to swim, you’ll become more comfortable and skilled as you practice. And just like gym, you may start weak, but you will quickly become stronger.

You will be amazed how quickly something turns from deeply uncomfortable, to tremendously fun and enjoyable.

#3 - Learn to avoid uncontrolled imagination.

My final tip, but I've found this to be a very powerful one.

Remember, 98% of your anxiety is caused by the emotional-rational feedback loop. It's not the problem in front of you that's the threat, it's the 1,000 things you can imagine going wrong.

In this situation, your imagination is working against you, and you can prevent that.

Simply give your mind something more practical and present to pay attention to - such as your breath, right now. The feeling of the air on your skin, right at this moment. The people you’re with, or the task you’re engaged in.

This takes a bit of practice, but learning to control your thoughts is the single most powerful way to prevent unnecessary feelings of panic.

If you're not imagining 1,000 bad things, then your emotions have nothing to react to except the simple reality in front of you. Even then, if you focus on good things "I feel fine", and "Breathing feels good", then your emotions relax peacefully.

And this is essential, because then your mind can operate at its best.

Building a Self-Confidence Gym

Your goal is to make the practice of courage - facing fear and uncontrollable situations - a daily experience.

I recommend choosing some hobbies that create mild discomfort for you.

  • Perhaps join a performing arts group, if going on stage makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps join Toastmasters if speaking in front of a group makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps competing in a sport, if having others depend on you, and feeling challenged makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps saying hello to strangers at the bus stop, grocery store, cafes, if strangers and unpredictable social situations makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps seeking a rejection each day, from someone, for something you ask them for (aka rejection therapy), if rejection makes you feel uncomfortable. Google this and watch Jia Jiang’s 100 days of rejection TED talks, they’re eye-opening.
  • Perhaps take up a dance class if social situations and leading make you feel uncomfortable or martial arts, or debate if confrontation makes you feel uncomfortable.

What makes you uncomfortable is a very personal thing, so dig deep, and get creative.

The key thing is to make this uncomfortable practice a regular part of your life. You will find that as you practice it, it will quickly become comfortable.

Once it becomes too comfortable, dial up the intensity a bit.

You want something that is not entirely predictable, or controllable. Learning to feel comfortable with that lack-of-control element is the center of where you develop self-confidence.

Also, I highly recommend that - if possible - you make this challenging practice something you do as the first thing each day. Not only will it be done, but it powers the rest of your day with a huge emotional boost.

How Well Does This Work?

Personally, I've used this approach to completely redesign 3 areas of my life-

  1. Social confidence. I struggled with deep introversion most of my life, and now find social situations & meeting random strangers one of the best experiences ever.
  2. Conquering stage fright. You could not have paid me $10,000 to go on stage in the past. Now that happens regularly, and I would probably do it for free. I
  3. Cold showers. I'll add this one in too, because the principle is the same. I used to hate them and avoid cold at all costs, now I find cold showers better than coffee - enjoyable and invigorating.  Even the sense of discomfort is gone, and all because my mind has re-programmed to relate to the cold differently, as a positive and beneficial thing.

‍How I Apply This in Practice

I used to struggle very badly with stage fright. I was absolutely petrified about the idea of going on stage in front of a lot of people. 

I imagined everything going wrong, forgetting what I was supposed to do, getting laughed at, booed off stage, tripping and falling on my face, puking... pretty much anything that could go wrong, I could imagine it.

So here’s the confidence gym I built, to conquer stage fright.

  1. First, I joined a performing arts group. In my case it was a Japanese drumming team.
  2. I learned some songs, all of which are played with a group of 8 to 15 people generally. I was not alone when I was performing - we practiced and performed them to each other in our dojo.  No one else.
  3. Then we performed them to new students, and visitors.
  4. Then we performed at small community festivals. Again I was never alone on stage, and we were all performing the same thing.
  5. Then bigger festivals, with larger audiences.
  6. Then, gradually, corporate events.
  7. Then recorded TV.
  8. Then live TV.
  9. Then huge stadium events, broadcast live, with thousands or millions watching for the biggest events.

I ended up doing 500 public performances in total over nearly 10 years. 

The emotional experience was particularly interesting for me, and I can tie it directly to the amount of stage exposure I had.

  • Performances 0 to 50 were scary.  
  • 51 to 100 were not-so-scary.  
  • 101 to 150 were OK.  No real anxiety, I felt comfortable.
  • 151 to 200 were fun.  What had been anxiety before, was now excitement.  I was thoroughly enjoying this.
  • 200 to about 450 were downright addictive.  It was so enjoyable to feel the rush of being free of fear, and doing something that people really enjoyed watching.
  • 450 to 500 became a bit meh.  It didn’t feel challenging anymore, not really.

At that point, I switched to some new challenges.  Brazilian zouk dance performance, acrobatic yoga performance, public speaking, blogging, authoring, creating youtube videos.

For me this is the experience of building confidence.

First published on 
. Last updated on 
May 12, 2020

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Addendum

Confidence is Natural

In fact, I think that it's most accurate to say that confidence is our natural state.

We always feel confident, except when we imagine a threat and imagine that we are unable to handle it.

Both must happen to "lose" confidence.

In that moment, all sense of security flies out the window.

Exposure Therapy

One of the core concepts described in this article is known in psychology as exposure therapy.

It's well worth researching if you intend to pursue this practice seriously.