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Science-Backed Ways To Build Confidence When You Feel Like You’re Out Of Your League

Forget about faking it 'til you make it, these tips will trick your brain into thinking you're all that.

Science-Backed Ways To Build Confidence When You Feel Like You’re Out Of Your League

[Image: CSA-Archive/Gett Images]

Whether you are interviewing for a job that feels beyond your current abilities, demonstrating a skill that feels rusty, or working with someone who is difficult and challenging, there are dozens of everyday challenges that can shake your confidence.

Some people suggest that you "fake it ‘til you make it," but that’s bad advice, says Angie Morgan, cofounder of the leadership consulting firm Lead Star and coauthor of Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success. "Confidence isn’t a skill, it’s an emotion," she says. "You can manage it. In fact, unpacking your confidence is a part of self-efficacy."

Tapping into your source of confidence is important because it connects you to the goals you want to pursue. "Confident teams ask for more money," says Morgan. "When you lack confidence, you put a lid on your potential."

So how do you do it?

1. Practice Positive Self-Talk

Our brains are hardwired to defend ourselves, says Morgan, and we often scan for worst-case scenarios or danger instead of looking at something as an opportunity. Instead, put a positive talk track in your head to get in the game.

"Our words run through our brains reckless and unchecked," says Morgan. "Get rid of thoughts like, ‘I’m lucky to be here’ and ‘I hope I do well.’ Instead, say to yourself, ‘[Confidence] is a thing, and I can manage it.’"

Morgan recalls having a bout of insecurity before she was to take the stage and deliver a speech. "I went into a corner and had a Stuart Smalley moment, saying, ‘I’m good enough. I’m smart enough.’ It sounds cheesy, but it works."

Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that self-affirmations do indeed boost confidence. In an experiment conducted at the University of Toronto, half of the participants were instructed to write about their most important negotiating skill, while the remaining half were told to write about their least important negotiating skill. All of the participants were then tested on their negotiating skills. Those who completed the self-affirmation performed significantly better in negotiating a lower sale price.

"Any time you have low expectations for your performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations," writes lead researcher Sonia Kang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resource management. "Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat."

2. Bask in Your Successes

If you had a great presentation or won an account for your firm, take time to experience your success. "It’s easy to get to a point where your achievements don’t feel real, where you attribute your success to someone or something else," says Morgan.

The practice of looking to outside reasons for success is called "imposter syndrome," a term coined by Atlanta psychologist Pauline Clance in 1985. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that 70% of people suffer from the syndrome, and it’s especially prevalent in people who challenge themselves, because they’re constantly in a stage of growth and discomfort.

"Identify and celebrate what you’re doing well," says Morgan. "When you take time to acknowledge and experience your achievements, you build a strong foundation and have ready points of reference to use when you feel challenged."

3. Surround Yourself With Supportive People

We all encounter negative people or those who aren’t supportive, but we can choose whose opinion we allow to influence us, says Morgan.

"Not everyone or anyone should have a say in how you feel about yourself," she says. "Be purposeful about who you choose to surround yourself with."

A study from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research found that confidence is linked to a person’s number of social connections. "Having a large network of friends did not predict self-esteem, but belonging to multiple groups did," the authors write. "Groups provide benefits that interpersonal ties alone do not; namely, meaning, connection, support, and a sense of control over our lives."

4. Manage Confidence-Killing Thoughts

It’s natural to feel fear or worry when you’re doing something you’ve never done before, says Morgan. "Courage isn’t action in absence of fear; it’s action in spite of fear," she says.

Instead of letting these emotions consume or even paralyze you, determine if the danger is real. "If it is real, decide how you would manage it," she says. "If you’re manufacturing the danger, let it go."

One way to let go is to practice meditation. When negative thoughts come into your mind, recognize them as thoughts and release them. A study from Emory University found that 20 minutes of daily meditation is associated with activity and connectivity changes in the region of the brain that controls attention, allowing you to disengage from distraction.

5. Use Body Language

Another way to boost your confidence is to pay attention to the way you hold your body. In her viral 2012 TED talk, Amy Cuddy shared the concept of "power poses": Making yourself bigger by stretching your body to take up more space. The practice, which takes just two minutes a day, increases your testosterone levels and decreases the amount of the stress hormone cortisol that is released into your brain, making you feel more powerful and confident throughout the day.

Although Cuddy's study wasn't successfully replicated in subsequent research, Richard Petty, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, has also researched the link between posture and confidence. In a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Petty found that sitting up straight and pushing out your chest can boost positive beliefs in yourself as opposed to being in positions of slouching or looking down, which can lead to negative thoughts.

"The brain has an area that reflects confidence, but once that area is triggered, it doesn’t matter exactly how it’s triggered," Petty told Fast Company last year. "It can be difficult to distinguish real confidence from confidence that comes from just standing up straight . . . these things go both ways just like happiness leads to smiling, but also, smiling leads to happiness."

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