The Science of How to Boost Your Confidence (and Success!)

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: When faced with a challenge, self-doubt can get in our way.
The Science: Confidence is as important as competence in achieving our goals.
The Solution: Confidence can be learned and cultivated! Here’s how.
The things that make us the most fulfilled in life can sometimes be the most daunting: A big interview that may lead to an incredible new job. Moving to a new city to follow a dream. Or even asking someone out on a date in the hopes that it will lead to a fulfilling relationship.

Sometimes, in the face of a challenge, no matter how capable we are, we experience feelings of self-doubt. I’m not skilled enough to get this job. I won’t be able to make any friends if I move to a new city. She’ll never like me, I shouldn’t try asking her out. Because of our desire to succeed, we actively try to guard against any possibility of failure.

However, having more confidence in the face of a challenge is actually one of the most important things we can do to succeed.

To Succeed, Confidence Matters As Much As Competence

Research clearly demonstrates the role of confidence in achieving goals and building relationships. The people who truly believe in their ability to succeed are the ones who end up being most successful at doing just that.

For example, a study at the University of California-Berkeley found that people who are overconfident in incorrect information are actually more effective in building peers’ trust and respect than people showing less confidence in the correct information. (This isn’t to say that falsely asserting misinformation will make you more confident and well liked. But it does show that self-belief is a noticeable and powerful quality in social interaction.)

Self-belief is also hugely influential in business interactions and outcomes. So much so, in fact, that some business managers suggest instituting confidence measures as a formal part of hiring and performance review processes. These leaders recognize that an ideal employee is not only competent, but also has the confidence to convey their competence when it matters most.

Our own belief in our ability to succeed is a primary factor in how many situations in life play out for us. Psychologist Albert Bandura studied the role of self-belief in how people approach goals, tasks, and challenges. He found that a person’s view of their own ability profoundly influences their success—both in achieving aspirations as well as overcoming challenges.

Additionally, levels of self-belief impact the choices people make; for example, the choice to apply for a new job or to ask someone out for dinner. People with higher self-belief perceive challenging situations as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided.

What Holds Us Back?

So, confidence in our ability to succeed is key, but what holds people back from feeling confident all the time? Why do we feel doubtful of our ability, even when we know it would benefit us to feel (and look) more confident?

Perfectionistic thinking holds many people back from speaking up, taking action, or taking risks. We’re afraid of trying something and not doing it perfectly, or even (gasp!) failing at it. We hesitate to answer a question or share a new idea unless we’re certain that we’re right or novel. We don’t consider applying for a job or promotion unless we meet 100% of the qualifications.

(This is especially true for women, who are significantly more likely than men to underestimate their abilities—and therefore hesitate to take risk.)

Yet even though lack of confidence holds us back from taking action, psychologists now believe that risk-taking, failure, and perseverance are actually critical components of developing confidence.

Confidence Can Be Learned

Research on brain plasticity shows that our brains physically change in response to new experiences, thought patterns, and behaviors. This means that we can train ourselves to think differently about challenging situations—and, in turn, respond more confidently to them.

We can cultivate confidence by practicing thoughts and behaviors that increase our own self-belief. Try these:

  1. Seek opportunities to practice success

Research shows that successfully mastering a challenging task strengthens our belief that we can achieve the same success in the future. A common example of this is public speaking: Although many people shy away from it, those who practice public speaking regularly get better at it, become more comfortable with it, and become more confident in it, too. Accumulating examples of success increases our confidence in a given area.

  1. Watch and learn from successful examples

Witnessing others succeed increases our belief that we, too, have the ability to succeed in a similar way. For example, the more we watch our friends run marathons, the more we begin to believe that we could also accomplish such a feat someday.

  1. Build a positive support network

Social persuasion is a powerful tool for combating self-doubt. Encouragement from people we trust helps convince us that we have what it takes to succeed. So, when you’re facing a challenge, surround yourself with people who believe in you—their belief will help build your own awareness in your skills and abilities.

  1. Recognize and redirect your unconfident feelings

How we perceive the way we feel about a challenging situation greatly influences how we feel about the challenge itself. For example, when we feel “butterflies in the stomach” before a presentation or performance, do we interpret the feeling as excitement or nervousness? This interpretation has a profound effect on how confident we feel in performing.

With these strategies to enhance self-belief, we can increase our power to confidently achieve our goals and overcome our challenges.

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Melissa Stephenson
Melissa is an urban planner and healthy cities enthusiast moonlighting as a positive living blogger. She is passionate about health, happiness, and the human experience. And trying new restaurants. Melissa holds degrees in anthropology, geography, and urban planning, but firmly believes that the best lessons in life come from curiosity and the confidence to try. Check out Melissa’s new blogging project: http://thetinatimes.com/.
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