Many people who work with me want to gain more confidence in themselves. Especially if they’re facing a transition in their life, and what they used to know, no longer serves them. “I’m excellent in the boardroom when it comes to crunching the numbers,” despaired one client who was changing her profession, “but when it comes to consulting people, I feel out of my depth.”
The trouble is, we’ve been told a lie about confidence. We’re told that confidence is when we see ourselves mastering skills and achieving goals that matter in those skill areas. When we think of confidence, or confident people, we think Superman, or Wonder Woman. We think bold. We think brazen. We think strong. We think capes and gold wristbands.
What a trap. It’s a trap because it makes confidence conditional—conditional on education, on mastery and on achievement. So what the heck do you do when you aren’t feelin’ that superpower feeling? What do you do when you’re starting something new? Or presented with a completely foreign situation? When faced with kryptonite?
I often see clients hit this vicious cycle of losing confidence, especially when they are growing and changing. They strike out into unknown territory, then without the usual props of knowledge, skill or external validation, they begin to falter and either lean back into the ‘known’, or berate themselves for being so stupid. All of this reinforces playing it safe, or the usual self-criticism—hardly the stuff of transformation.
Or I’ll see the opposite, where clients might lean into what they think confidence looks like or feels like. They rely on their head instead of their heart and body, and push themselves to live inside the realm of constant achievement and intellectual understanding.
Either way, it perpetuates unnecessary suffering, stress, and blocks access to real wisdom.
Maggie is a highly respected GP. Recently she encountered a new patient who presented with some serious symptoms. After running tests, Maggie told the patient to come back in at the earliest available appointment the following week. The patient never returned. When the results came in, Maggie knew she needed to find the patient urgently—her diagnosis was serious and needed immediate attention. It was over six weeks before the patient finally returned Maggie’s calls, and came back in to the office. By then her situation had progressed severely.
“It ruined me,” Maggie shared later. “I second-guessed myself with everything at work. And I flogged myself endlessly for not doing better with this patient. I should have emphasized to her how important it was to come immediately back, but I didn’t. I should have been more clear. I should have…”
Maggie lost confidence.
And her mind found endless reasons to justify her loss of confidence. If she had been allowed to continue down this self-destructive road, there’s no telling what some of the consequences may have been for her. Fortunately she had a wise (and very cool) group of professional women around her to stop the train, and reflect something more accurate.
I was lucky enough to be a part of that conversation where we explored confidence, and here are some of the highlights:
Part of understanding true confidence, is recognizing our dominion. What I mean by that is knowing what, exactly, is our sphere of influence and responsibility. As Wayne says often, we can do the right thing, but we cannot make the right thing happen. Maggie’s patient’s willingness to take care of her health is completely outside of Maggie’s dominion. If Maggie loses sense of this, and tries to over-reach into territory that does not belong to her, she’ll set her self up for losing confidence.
Dominion is not a black and white understanding. What-is-mine is not so much a mental understanding as it is a visceral one. I notice that my anxiety levels build when I am reaching outside my dominion. Like, for example, when leading a workshop: my facilitation is my dominion; what people do with it, is not.
But when I forget that, and take responsibility for people’s experience in the workshop, I get anxious. Anxiety has become my friend. It tells me when I’m overstepping my boundaries (or having them stepped over).
Like, for another example, when running this company: my drive to learn how to do it well, is my dominion; whether it survives or not, is not. Make its survival entirely my domain, and I’m a wreck. Wrecks can’t run companies.
So, what’s the ‘secret’ of real confidence?
Confidence, real confidence, is vulnerable. It’s standing in the firm presence of the unknown, and knowing you must stand there. Accepting what I cannot control, feels vulnerable. Maggie watching her patient make bad choices in spite of her warnings, is vulnerable. Letting this company have its own destiny, but running it anyway, feels excruciatingly vulnerable. Knowing nothing about consulting people because you used to be an accountant, and doing it anyway, is vulnerable.
Vulnerability scares people. They parade around with mock confidence to mask how terrified it makes them feel. We’re not allowed to be vulnerable. We’re meant to have it all together. We’re meant to have all the answers. We’re meant to control all the outcomes. We’re meant to leap over buildings in a single bound.
But this is humanly impossible. So if we accept that we only have limited dominion over what is really and truly ‘ours’, then vulnerability is a very honest response inside true confidence.
Here’s another secret to confidence. Being open, and being willing to make mistakes (and a lot of them). It’s being receptive, and being curious. Which brings us back to being vulnerable.
And here’s the last secret to confidence. Faith. Confidence comes from the Latin root confidere—‘with faith’ or ‘with trust’. Notice that it does not mean trust ‘in something’ as in ‘trust in your capacities’, or ‘faith in your hot looks’, or ‘trust in your brain power’. Just plain old ‘with faith’, and nothing else added. No cape, no gold wristbands. Just you, standing there, with trust.
I have a dear friend and mentor who has been successfully consulting Fortune 500 companies for decades. I asked him how he does his work, and how he manages to feel so confident in such unpredictable high stakes circumstances. A bigger than life Italian from Boston, his Catholic roots support him. “Before every workshop, or before any big meeting, I say a prayer.” he replied. “I ask only that I be of service to the greater good. And when I’ve done that, I know everything will work out just as it is supposed to.” Looking at me with a sparkle in his eye, he finished, “I just trust.”
Confidence is a way of being invites you to tap into a much more feminine sense of power, one that leans into the unknown. It’s more about presence than about prowess. And it’s more about befriending the free-fall, not having a net.
In fact, if you take just a moment right now you can even get a visceral sense of confidence. Just be present, still and quiet. Imagine you standing inside your domain, or your dominion. Just imagine it circling around you like a sense of all that you are. Then, lean into some sense of trust…and let go. That feeling you get in your body when you do all that…is confidence.
My father was quite a famous academic and public speaker. I asked him many years ago how he became so confident up there at the podium.
“I’m not confident,” he exclaimed, “I’m terrified! I never know what I’m going to say, or even if it will come out right.”
“But,” said I, “You don’t look terrified; you give terrific talks. How do you do that?”
“I just know,” he said, after a long quiet pause, “ that for reasons I’ll never understand, I’m supposed to be up there.”