Wright Team | August 12, 2021

How to Improve Self-Confidence (Hint: It May Be Overrated)

How many of us have heard, “fake it ‘till you make it,” when we wonder how to increase confidence?.

We live in a culture that reveres self-confidence and self-assuredness, but as it turns out, there may be a better approach to success and personal development: self-compassion. While self-confidence makes you feel better about your abilities, it can also lead you to vastly overestimate those abilities, wrote Kristin Wong in her recent piece in the New York Times.

Maybe we’ve heard that self-confidence is the key to getting that new job, landing a date, or making a new connection. Everywhere we look, we’re led to believe that if we simply pretend to project confidence, we’ll succeed—and if we’re not confident enough, we’re doomed to fail. We may look for ways to increase our self-esteem and self-assuredness because we’re hoping to “trick” others into believing we’re better than we think we actually are.

In reality, the opposite may be true about faking confidence. Projecting over-confidence can become a detriment rather than a sign of strength. We’re far better off learning not to lean too hard on our inner-blow-hard OR our inner-critic. Instead, it’s more important to listen to our inner realists, assess the situation, and then use self-compassion and self-affection to nurture and care for ourselves. We can and should identify our weaknesses, of course. But rather than beating ourselves up over challenges, we’d do better to focus on how to use them as an opportunity to grow and expand our capacity.

The Question isn’t How to Improve Self Confidence, But How to Identify Blind Spots

I recently had a conversation with a team member who also happens to be in one of our leadership training groups. He brought up concerns he’s having with a fellow member of the group.

“He’s overconfident in his leadership abilities. It’s actually holding him back. It keeps him from identifying the challenges and growth areas he needs to work on. It’s like he turns a blind eye to any sign of weakness.”

We all have blind spots.

When we meet someone, who refuses to recognize areas where they’re challenged, we should realize they are actually in a very fragile position.

Overconfidence isn’t often a genuine state, and their outer shell of confidence is just waiting to be cracked, uncovered, and disturbed.

When this reality check happens, it’s often particularly difficult for them. In fact, it may be earth-shattering when he or she has to face the truth. It isn’t that they need to learn how to increase confidence, but they need to learn how to increase self-awareness.

In studies about kids and resiliency, it’s been discovered that kids who are congratulated frequently for being inherently smart or “born with talent” tend to rest on their laurels. They learn they can rely on their wit and intelligence to get through any situation. In some ways, they become overconfident in their abilities and talents.

On the other hand, kids who are congratulated for trying hard develop resilience and grit. They keep trying and don’t give up. Rather than simply believing they’re smart, they learn they are ABLE. They learn to have self-efficacy—the belief that they can do something. This belief in their own capability and coping skills serves them well into the future. No matter what challenges they face, they realize they’re able to experiment until they find a resolution. They understand the power of trial and error. They’re not frightened by uncertainty because they recognize challenges are simply part of growing.

The idea of grit doesn’t apply to kids-only. Adults can learn to be grittier too. We learn far more from mistakes than we do from our successes. When we push ourselves to do everything “right” or believe we always know the answer, what happens when we fail? What happens when we face a situation where we really don’t know what to do? We may find that we veer toward the safe zone, and we don’t go out of our range of comfort. This limits our experiences and can hold us back from many great opportunities in life. We may be missing out on the whole picture around us.

As I counseled my leadership group member about their peer—many times, those who can’t recognize their ability to fail are setting themselves up for a major failure. We all have blind spots, and it’s foolish to believe they aren’t there simply because we can’t see them.

Over-confidence keeps us from being really present and aware of our interactions. We can’t truly engage with others—find opportunities to learn and grow from them—if we believe we already know all the answers.

When Confidence Can Set Us Up for Failure

In the late 70s, I was teaching a course at a blue-collar trade school. The students and I had enjoyed a fantastic semester together, and I was deeply honored when I was invited to deliver their graduation address. I felt overly confident in the situation. I believed we were there to celebrate what we’d done with the students. This felt like a situation where we’d toast each other and give out pats on the back.

I confidently assumed my audience would be filled with people who would want to hear us cheer ourselves on. I hadn’t reckoned with the fact that the audience would really be filled with mothers, dragging along belligerent, resentful fathers who didn’t want to sit through a long, self-congratulatory graduation ceremony about the values of higher education were touted. Many of these fathers hadn’t had the opportunity to finish high school, let alone trade school. They were just waiting for a chance to shoot at someone.

And shoot they did.

Because I went into the situation over-confidently, these fathers were ready to take me down. I set myself up for a nightmarish experience of being heckled. What followed was one of the most humbling experiences of my career up to that point.

In hindsight, I realized I walked into the situation believing I was failure-proof. I was cocky and self-assured. I didn’t consider the feelings or viewpoints of those I was hoping to inspire (or at least, hoping not to tangle with). Because of my over-confidence, I was headed for a sure fall.

When we go headlong into a situation with too much confidence, we often fail to plan for contingencies. We don’t look at how we will cope if a situation doesn’t pan out as expected because we think we know it all.

In truth, we can all fail at any time. In fact, it’s often at our most confident and self-assured, we trip up or get our world completely rocked out of the blue. We find ourselves truly blindsided.

Self-Compassion Over Self-Confidence

We have to understand that self-confidence isn’t bad or wrong, but arrogance or a failure to see our blind spots puts us in a vulnerable place. We may be wondering how we strike a balance—how do we keep our eyes open to these pitfalls while maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem? How do we like ourselves without becoming arrogant?

Just as Ms. Wong reported in her Times piece, the goal isn’t to beat ourselves up over feeling confident or knocking ourselves down a few pegs. The goal is to practice more self-affection and self-care. When we feel powerless or like we lack control over our circumstances, we can embrace the vulnerability and find our inner grit to continue.

We may feel that a display of confidence is where we find the most power, but it’s not. As Wong writes, “Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, allowing you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view. Both have merits, but many experts believe self-compassion includes the advantages of self-confidence without the drawbacks.”

When we treat ourselves as someone who’s learning, who’s capable of making mistakes, but sees them as opportunities for growth, we’re nurturing ourselves.

We’re realizing that we’re human—wonderful and amazing, but still on a path to growth. We’re not perfect because no one is. We’re on a journey of learning and striving to be better each day.

Many of us look at our kids, our friends, and even our spouses, and we may be able to quickly identify their flaws. In fact, those flaws or weaknesses may even cause us to feel MORE compassionately toward them. We’re forgiving of them because we recognize no one does everything perfectly all the time. We love them anyway.

Yet, when it comes to ourselves, we don’t want to admit we’re also learning as we go along. We cringe at our mistakes and beat ourselves up for missteps—replaying them over and over. But in life, our opportunities to grow and learn from each experience are limitless. It’s this growth that adds interest and excitement to life. Each new adventure and challenge helps us feel fuller and more alive.

So give up faking confidence and aim for self-affection and compassion instead! The next time you make a mistake, give yourself kudos for discovering an opportunity to learn, emerge and evolve. Be kind to yourself and keep moving forward as you discover more about how resilient you are!

For ideas on ways to get MORE out of life, don’t miss our courses on Wright Now. We have opportunities to learn more about your career, relationships, and personal growth. If you’re ready to live life to your fullest potential, start today!

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation’s performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.