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  • Writer's pictureHelen Frewin

Why You Don’t Need To Be Confident

In the book Better Than Confidence, I explain how there are far better thinking tools than getting distracted with confidence. Often in conversation about this, I am challenged on the idea.

“What is so bad about confidence?” People ask. And they say, “I find confidence really useful!”

And so here we explore in more detail how confidence can indeed feel great and at times be useful. And sometimes it can be less helpful.

Confidence is feeling good, feeling calm, in control, having self-belief. Is that the goal? It might be helpful for a good night’s sleep before a presentation, but is it the best or only way to achieve your goals? To do your best work? No. Feeling calm and in control certainly feels good, but it does not necessarily lead to our best work, because our thinking may not be most helpful.

There is a difference between confident thinking and helpful thinking.

And when our thinking is unhelpful, confidence can have plenty of downsides.

It is for this reason that it can be useful to consider our thinking. Rather than just saying “I feel confident” or “I lack confidence,” what if we could identify which thinking was helping us, and which thinking was holding us back or leading to issues?

Think about a specific example when you have had fears and concerns about your ability to do something well. What was the impact of those negative thoughts? Were they helpful in preparing you? Or unhelpful in causing you stress? Or maybe both?

Now think of a specific time when you have had a lack of worry, that calmness and focus we might call confidence. What was the impact? Was it useful, keeping you cool under pressure? Or perhaps you got complacent? Missed an opportunity because you were not so well prepared?

To be confident or not to be confident is not the question.

The question is, “What thinking would be most helpful for me right now to get the outcome I want?”

Let’s explore in more detail how the two ideas of helpful thinking and confidence can link, in a 2x2 grid. This is a grid of how confidence and helpfulness of thinking can show up in any given situation. I share this in the book Better Than Confidence, and here we explore in more detail how you can assess your thinking and choose something more helpful.

Unconfident and unhelpful

Some typical thoughts when you’re in this space are:

I can’t do this.

It’s better not to try.

What am I doing here?

What if I look stupid?

What if I fail?

And the impact of that thinking is often that you don’t try. This is part of the brain’s natural mechanism to protect you from harm. By not trying, by staying small, avoiding risks, you stay safe. But at what cost? What opportunities have you missed out on?

Notice when you are in this space. If you take time to reflect on this now, can you think of specific situations you face at work, or with your family or with taking a risk, trying something new…. What are the trends on when you go into this line of thinking? And how does that affect your behaviour in those situations?

Becoming aware of when we move into this space, is the first step in being able to do something about it. If your thinking is unhelpful and you notice it’s happening, you can choose to shift your thinking.

I’ve spotted that when I keep saying to myself, “I’m so busy,” this is a sign that I am in an unhelpful space of feeling overwhelmed. The thought is simply about how much there is to do, with no useful thinking about how to prioritise or structure my day so that I can get things done.

Taking time to notice your own common phrases, and when they indicate unhelpful thinking, is incredibly useful. Don’t concern yourself at first with changing the thoughts, just notice them. This is where mindfulness is so powerful: it is not about emptying the mind, but noticing what the mind is doing. Non-judgementally observing that this thought is occurring and it is leading to this other thought and this behaviour.

Once you have an idea of the common thoughts that indicate you’ve moved into an unhelpful space, then you can start to consider ways to shift that thinking. The tools in Part 2 of Better Than Confidence can be great ways of making that shift, for example asking “what outcome do I want?” or “how can I ad value?” These questions move us out of introspective unhelpful thinking and toward action.

A critical point here is that we are not talking about moving from negative thinking to positive thinking.

Negative thinking says I can’t do this.

Positive thinking says I can do this.

But both are just beliefs. Neither one deals with the practical questions like, is this feasible? Is it worth doing? And how can I do this in the best way?

Moving to positive thinking is vague and can be just as unhelpful. You might even argue that positive thinking and confidence sound the same. “I can do this, it’s going to be great.”

That positive or confident thinking can be unhelpful too, as we’ll explore here.

Confident and unhelpful

Imagine feeling really calm and in control: what could be the downsides? Here are some common phrases I’ve heard from people in this space:

I feel good.

I am not having any worries or fears come to mind about this.

I can just rock up and do my thing. I don’t need to prepare, I can wing it.

That last phrase gives the strongest indication of where this can go: complacency. When you feel so relaxed about something, you might spend less time preparing. You might not consider what someone else needs from you, or how you could do the best job. You turn up expecting things will be fine, and maybe they are, or maybe something goes wrong. And you’re not prepared for it. It’s a risk.

Good risk management means considering what could go wrong and planning how to reduce the chance of those things happening. And then we can add the “what if…?” piece, on what we’ll do if that thing does happen.

Notice again that the shift here is from positive, confident or complacent thinking, to being more prepared and action-oriented. That is the powerful change that will help you prepare for events and come across with greater credibility and competence.

I hear complaints every day from business leaders who are frustrated with their teams not being good at risk management. And so when you show that you have considered things that could go wrong, and you have prepared for them, you could be demonstrating to your manager that you are a rare gem! And for your personal wellbeing and effectiveness, such risk management will help you to achieve more, as you are so well prepared for the things you do.

Unconfident and helpful

Here’s the great news. You can take a lack of confidence and simply shift your thinking in a more helpful direction. Common thoughts in this space are:

I don’t know if I can do this. How could I prepare so that I give it my best shot?

I’m worried I’ll fail. How can I plan for things that might go wrong, work to avoid those things and also respond to them if the worst does happen?

I can’t do this. But I want to do this. So how can I make a start?

Negative thoughts are translated into solutions.

Your lack of confidence does not need to hold you back. The anxiety and worry can fuel good questions and helpful thinking that drives you to put in the work and do your best. You might succeed, you might fail, but you can learn from that too. This line of thinking helps us find courage and give things a go, teaching our brain that we can be safe and try new things.

Even when we get knocked down, we can choose to keep going. We will be okay.

The tools in Part 2 of Better Than Confidence are all built to move you into this helpful thinking space, whether you feel confident or not.

Once you notice that you are thinking something negative or limiting, you can choose to move to more helpful thinking.

Confident and helpful

Notice the difference here. You can feel calm and still do the work.

I feel calm and have no worries. Now, what outcome do I want?

How can I prepare in the best way to get that outcome?

What do I need to be ready for, e.g. risks that could affect me delivering that outcome?

You put in the work and do your best. Your confidence has not led to complacency.

And so again, you may find it useful to notice when you are feeling confident, and the warning signs that you may have moved into complacency. Notice it and choose to add on a question, so that you move toward more helpful thinking.

I was chatting with my neighbour, and she was telling me that since having two children, her career confidence had taken a huge dive. “I don’t feel I am good enough at my current job to apply for a promotion. But at the same time, I know that before becoming a Mum, I was getting promotions every year or two. So, I’m thinking I just need more confidence.”

You have probably heard people say similar things, or perhaps you can even relate to this yourself.

The issue is, what do you do with the idea that you need more confidence? Do you use it as a reason not to progress? Use it as a reason to wait?

Next time you feel you lack confidence, or need more of it, notice it and move into a more helpful thinking space.


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