You’re about to give a speech and wish you had more confidence to deliver your talk slowly, without looking down at your notes, punch up some words as the pros do, answer questions knowledgably and smile throughout the presentation. You are told that the more you do this, the easier it gets as you build your self-confidence in the pursuit.
Or you’re about to host a dinner party for your partner’s milestone birthday and wish you weren’t breaking out in a sweat as you try to get everything on the table at once, especially the dishes that are supposed to be hot. You hope the wine is chilled properly, too. On top of this, you must look presentable. And you bemoan, oh where oh where is your confidence when you need it most as you work yourself up in a frazzle?
And here’s yet another example. You’re driving to a new doctor’s office for an important appointment. Although you’ve looked over the directions, you wish you had more confidence that you will be able to find your way easily.
We all feel anxiety at times and wish we had more confidence, though we may not all verbalize this fear and our failures. Those who always seem to reflect a hefty dose of self-confidence often are the most anxious. They may even try to cover up their insecurity by overcompensating and emanating too much confidence, which can make them come off as arrogant and condescending, which they may not be at all.
Where does self-confidence stem from so we can find it and add some to our inner selves, like filling up the tanks of our cars with gasoline? Is it a trait we each are born with to varying degrees and something we can dig deep down to find when we hit rough patches or face new challenges? Or is it something we gain from our parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, friends, partners and other loved ones who nurture us and feed us raves, the equivalent of a big gleaming trophy? Is there anything we can read to find some on our own and change ourselves to learn how to deal better with certain situations and people when we need to exhibit more confidence? And finally, is self-confidence the same as self-esteem?
Let’s start with basics. Confidence derives from the Latin term fidere, to trust. And according to Dr. Neel Burton, a British psychiatrist, writer, editor, educator and author (Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking), self-confidence essentially means to have faith in oneself. “A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, rise to new challenges, take control of difficult situations, and accept responsibility and criticism if things go wrong,” he wrote in an article, The Secret of Self-Esteem, in Psychology Today magazine (Nov. 20, 2014). Self-confidence reflects our actions and achievements—what’s external, he says.
Self-esteem is different, however, and it’s important to distinguish it from self-confidence, Dr. Burton adds. He does so in another article, also in Psychology Today, Self-Confidence Versus Self-Esteem (Oct. 15, 2015). Self-esteem, derived from the Latin term aestimare, means “to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate,” and is more about our emotional appraisal of our worth and reflects our relationship to ourselves, others and the world around us, he says. People with self-esteem may suffer but are resilient from within and don’t need to prop themselves up with external status and stuff or lean on alcohol, drugs, sex and retail shopping therapy.
Self-confidence does not always work across the board, Burton says. It’s possible to be highly confident in one area such as dancing or cooking but very unsure in another such as public speaking. Barbara is confident about her cooking ability—and even invited entertaining maven Martha Stewart and Parisian chef Guy Savoy at different times to her home for a home-cooked meal after she had met each. Neither accepted but she dined in a restaurant with Martha once and felt confident that she could carry her part of the conversation when it related to food. She did. Margaret is confident about her knowledge of some operas and classical music to the extent that when she is in the company of well-known classical musicians and opera singers, she can hold her own in a conversation. However, she is totally uncomfortable singing a solo in front of a crowd. She only has felt confident when singing in a large oratorio chorus, which she used to do when a member of the Bach Society.
But back to the question of where confidence comes from. Dr. Burton says we are each born with a smattering of self-confidence, which is then either sustained or undermined by our experiences. And for this reason, he agrees with Maureen Healty, author of the book, Growing Happy Kids, who said in another article in Psychology Today (Nov. 3, 2011), Is Self-Confidence Pre-Determined? that it doesn’t come from our genes but what we do with what we are given. “There is no ‘magic pill’ that you take, and boom—you wake up feeling confident from the inside out. But there are certain ways to think, feel and be in the world that nudge you toward and help you develop the skill (hear me: I said skill) to believe in yourself wholly and completely,” she says.
Barbara, long a decent artist, had parents and later teachers who recognized her ability and encouraged her. She now wants to become more confident in her ability to paint larger more abstract, larger canvases. She needs a few more “go for it” boosts from her current teacher and classmates but knows if she doesn’t succeed, her self-esteem won’t be decimated. She also wants to be more confident in her ability to discuss the different Democratic candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, which she plans to do by reading up on their positions and listening to their speeches more carefully.
Margaret, who heard about a book club started in Iowa to get voters to read all the books written by political candidates, has plans to read some of those works, too, so she can give voice to prudent political choices. She also has been able to muster the confidence to make a permanent move on her own from St. Louis to New York City in her 70s.
Some, such as Dr. Burton, would say this is courage, not confidence. He says, “Confidence operates in the realm of the known, courage in that of the unknown, the uncertain, and the fearsome.”
And though neither of us is confident about our sense of direction—and we each would be wise to work on that to avoid getting lost so often, we frankly don’t care to the same degree that we do about other matters. At our advanced ages, we have far more important tasks to accomplish. About that, we’re definitely confident.
Dr. Burton’s 5 tips to gain self-confidence and improve self-esteem:
- Put things into their proper perspective. How important is that speech or dinner party that you are going to give? How does it fit in with everything else in your life? What’s the worst that could happen, and will people really mind? What could you do to mitigate the worst-case scenario? Now that you’ve dealt with the worst, what’s the best possible outcome? And what’s the most likely outcome?
- Remind yourself of all your strengths and past achievements. We can be blind to our positives, so maybe get a friend to help you with this. How did you feel last time you were in a similar situation? How did things turn out, and were your fears justified? If things could have gone better, what can you do to make sure that they do?
- Identify and question any negative thoughts that you may be having. Try to think positively about yourself. Remind yourself that, despite any shortcomings you may have, you are a special and valuable person with a unique contribution to make. You are, after all, a miracle of consciousness, the consciousness of the universe.
- Get artistic. Activities like gardening, painting, and singing enable us to process thoughts and emotions and put them into a better perspective. They also enable us to express ourselves, interact positively with others, and reduce stress levels. You might even impress yourself with the results! If need be, find a class through your local adult educations service or community center.
- Be nice to people and do nice things for them. For instance, strike up a conversation with the postman or shopkeeper, invite a neighbor around for coffee, visit a friend who is poor, or get involved with a local charity. Putting a smile on someone’s face is bound to put one on yours and fill you up with positive energy.