Many women say they want to be more confident – but what exactly is confidence, and how do we get it?  Are some people born with it while others miss out?  Is it something that we can learn or work towards achieving, or even ‘fake’ or ‘buy’ if we purchase the right clothes, hairstyle or car?   In the blog below, I unpack the concept of confidence, and how you can see it in a whole new light.

Confidence is often defined as:

“A belief in yourself and what you can do”

“Full trust; belief in the trustworthiness or reliability of a person or thing.”(Macquarie Dictionary, 4th ed)

“The quality of being certain of your abilities, or of having trust in people, plans, or the future.” (Cambridge English Dictionary)

To have confidence can result in feeling:

  • Self-reliant
  • Assured
  • Bold
  • Positive
  • Calm

How do we gain confidence?

There is no doubt that confidence can grow from having repeated, successful experiences.  Think of when you learned to play a sport – the more you practiced the more confident you became.  Most advice therefore, focuses on the actions you can take to help your confidence to grow.  For example:

  • Repeatedly practice a skill until you get better at it.
  • Learn more about a topic until you know more about it .
  • Use a mentor so you can apply her practices to your life.
  • Find a coach to guide you towards your own development.

But what if you don’t believe that you can do something, or don’t trust yourself to be able to achieve that skill or dream?  What if you’ve had the coaching, read the books, practiced the skill but still lie awake at night questioning whether you have what it takes?   

When taking action doesn’t seem to make any difference to your belief in yourself, then it isn’t your behaviour that needs to change – it’s your brain.

The key to self-confidence

Everything you think and feel about yourself starts in your brain.  Your body does what your brain tells it to – like sleep, eat, feel fear or joy, laugh, cry, run away or move toward something.

Feeling confident is one of those things that your brain takes charge of well before you start thinking about specific actions to build confidence.

Every thought you have gives your brain instructions about how you feel about yourself and the situations you find yourself in. When you give your brain the message that you are uncertain about yourself or your situation, this alerts your brain that there could be danger ahead.  This danger signal releases chemicals that make you feel anxious, not confident.

Your thoughts create your wiring

To have just one thought, you need millions of neurons (nerve cells) in your brain connecting to millions of other neurons and ‘firing’ together to produce energy.  This firing can be seen on brain scans where the brain lights up like a Christmas tree as a person thinks about a task.  These patterns of neural firing can be measured as energy in your brain, and this energy directs your brain in many different ways, creating your feelings and perceptions.

When you repeatedly use the same thoughts about yourself, for example, ‘I’m hopeless at this’, the networks of neurons responsible for responding to that thought fire together, creating energy.  This pattern of firing becomes stronger and faster the more often you use that thought.  It’s like driving down the same dirt road day after day after day.  The ruts in the road become deeper and deeper from continual use, resulting in a track that is hard to steer away from because the wheels just ‘go there’.   Patterns of neural firing work the same way, forming deeper and deeper neural pathways in your brain, and firing more and more quickly whenever you think about how hopeless you are.  

Negative thoughts such as believing you are ‘hopeless’, ‘inefficient’, ‘fearful’, ‘weak-willed’ or any other term you apply to yourself, have a longer lasting impact in the brain than positive thoughts.  The brain is deeply concerned with threats to your safety, much more than how happy you are, because keeping you alive is its primary function.  So it responds more quickly and cautiously to a negative thought than a happy one.  

Confidence starts in your brain

It pays to take a few minutes to consider what thoughts you repeat about yourself and whether they are more negative or positive.   Ask yourself, which ones are reinforcing your brain’s wiring that you are not a confident person?

Step 1: Listen to yourself

Over this week, listen to the way you talk to yourself about yourself.  What is your inner voice saying about you?  What remarks do you make about yourself when something doesn’t go well?  How often do you put yourself down in a single day by thinking about yourself poorly?

Step 2: Write it down

Until you hear the way you talk about yourself, and see what you are thinking about yourself, you won’t be motivated to change it.  Write down the phrases or words you use or record them in your phone. Collect them for a week to get a picture of where you are hardest on yourself.  

Step 3: Decide to stop

Yes, there are lots of different things you could do here, but deciding to stop is number one. Until you fully commit to stopping negative self-talk you won’t do it.  Rewiring your brain isn’t difficult but new thoughts can’t hold until you choose to stop using your old patterns.