“A few rare individuals refuse to have limited lives. They drive through tremendous amounts of pain—from rejections and failures to shorter moments of embarrassment and anxiety. Because they avoid nothing, they can pursue their highest aspirations. They seem more alive than the rest of us.” ~Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
If you were to see me in a social situation, you’d think that I’m confident.
And in most informal social settings, I am. Now.
I love people, love hearing their stories, so most of the time I trust my ability to relate and connect.
But this wasn’t always the case.
These were skills I had to re-learn.
During adolescence, probably as a result of my parents’ divorce and going to a new school where I felt completely out of my depth, I lost my natural childhood confidence.
Approaching new people felt very hard.
I would often spend break times at school pretending to be busy doing work, to avoid the shame of having to go up to a group and ask whether I could sit with them and face the potential humiliation of being told no.
It was a very lonely time.
For most of my high school career I avoided reaching out unless I was pretty certain of a favorable response.
Then I left school and took a gap year and needed to make money, so I started a job waiting tables.
I was perfectly capable of upgrading to waiting tables after the mandatory month of training (when I was responsible for clearing plates and setting tables but didn’t have to engage much with customers). But I was so afraid of the having to approach people and the deal with the uncertainty of how they would respond to me that I declined and continued to train for another two months.
Eventually it got ridiculous and I had to take the risk.
I can still remember my first few months waitressing.
I was terrified to approach new people and initially would try to avoid it by giving tables away.
But then something interesting happened. By now I wanted to buy a car, and the pain of being dependent on others for transport was greater than the pain of the potential rejection, so I started to force myself out of my comfort zone—and I started to enjoy it.
I started to enjoy the uncertainty and the challenge. I realized I loved meeting people from different places and hearing about their lives.
This increasing confidence and enjoyment of connecting with people has been key in helping me accomplish a number of my dreams, especially in relation to my work.
I’ve gotten several jobs through being able to connect with people, who then recommended me when an opening opened up (though this was not my initial intention when connecting with them).
My challenge now is to develop the same confidence I have in informal social situations and apply it to performance situations. This is still an area where I struggle with performance anxiety and feel self-conscious.
So I will continue to use the ideas below myself!
1. Our minds play tricks on us.
As Alison Ledgerwood, Ph.D, says in her TED talk entitled Getting Stuck in the Negatives (and How to Get Unstuck), our minds are built to look for negative information and hold onto it. Failures stick in our minds longer than successes do.
What that meant for me is that in most cases, I was massively overestimating the potential for shame and rejection from each new interaction. But I was also underestimating my capacity to cope, should my worst fears ever come true. (In hindsight, I don’t think that even the most challenging experiences came close to the horror stories my mind was telling me were possible.)
My mind kept reminding me of all the pain of failures I had previously experienced, rather than the times it had all worked out fine.
Alison Ledgerwood advises: “Our minds may be built to look for negative information and to hold onto it. But we can also retrain our minds if we put some effort into it and start to see that the glass may be a little more full than we initially thought.”
2. Just as our minds play tricks on us, we can trick our minds.
It turns out that how we interpret the feelings of fear is the key to determining whether we’re able to engage or whether we avoid.
While most of us tell ourselves to calm down and stop worrying when we feel afraid, research out of Harvard shows that this standard response to stress may be well meant, but it's also wrong. Instead of trying to calm ourselves down, we should aim to get excited, suggests Alison Wood Brooks, Ph. D of Harvard Business School.
I was definitely not excited at the thought of approaching tables with the possibility of being shamed and humiliated.
But trust me, this works.
Why is that?
“When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well,” Wood Brooks explains.
Even if you don’t believe it at first, when you say it repeatedly, authentic feelings of excitement increase.
Fake it until you become it!
The fact that you’re reading this post is testament that this works. For years I’ve been wanting to write, but my own anxiety and self-doubt held me back. Now when I sit down to write and feel myself becoming anxious I repeat “I’m excited, I love sharing ideas with people” over and over again.
After a few minutes I can feel myself actually start to believe it, and I feel more able to write.
3. On the other side of fear is your limitless potential.
This is an idea from therapists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels from their book The Tools. They describe how we all tend to avoid emotional pain, but that this dramatically limits our potential.
We need to know that our infinite potential exists on the other side of our comfort zones, and if we want to actualize our potential we need to break through it.
They advise that we need to condition ourselves to get excited about the challenges in our lives, and instead of avoiding fear and pain we need to run straight at them screaming “BRING IT ON!!”
I know this to be true.
When I’ve had the presence of mind to remember this idea and keep going, rather than avoid, I find myself in a strange and unfamiliar place. It’s a feeling of absolute freedom—of not being limited by what you fear.
And as a recovering worrier, that feels very good.
Here’s how I’m using it to help me develop my confidence in performance situations. Mostly when I think of something that I want to do that makes me feel anxious, my tendency is to procrastinate and avoid it.
But now, when I notice that fear (and the intense discomfort it can bring), instead of avoiding, I tell myself something along the lines of: “Great, an opportunity to expand my comfort zone and my capability. Bring it on!”
This allows me to move from avoidance into engagement.
The more I repeat this cycle, the easier it becomes to do the things I fear (mostly because I see that the thing I’m terrified of happening doesn’t actually happen).
While I can’t go back in time and change the course of my younger self’s life, every day I’m faced with choices that determine whether I move toward becoming what, deep down, I have a feeling I’m capable of becoming, or step back into my comfort zone to avoid risking humiliation.
What I now know is that the feeling of letting yourself down—the disappointment and unravelling confidence with each retreat—is far more painful than what is out there beyond the safety of what’s familiar.