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How do you define confidence?

How do you define confidence?

Confidence is a subject I get asked about a lot. I’m currently working on a mini-book about that very topic – this blog post is an excerpt from the book draft.

Photo credit: Frederick Homes for Sale via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA


Nearly everybody I work with believes that confidence is something other people have and they do not. When they try to define confidence, they usually say something to this effect: I know what confidence is and it’s not me.

Does that definition sound familiar? For many people it’s central to their concept of confidence. But as far as a definition goes, it’s pretty rotten.

First of all, it’s vague, with no consistently identifiable traits or characteristics.

Second, it hinges on exclusion – specifically, on excluding you. This rotten definition explicitly excludes you from being allowed to experience confident thoughts and feelings.

Third, it avoids nailing down what confidence really is to you. Instead of defining confidence, scores of people I’ve spoken to talk about the ways in which they are not confident, or grasp for words that describe something they long to feel, but rarely believe they have. That’s because confidence is a complicated, messy, thorny thing. It’s much easier – intellectually and emotionally – to avoid giving it a name by instead pointing out how we don’t have any.

As bad as most of us are at defining confidence, we think we’re mighty good at recognizing confidence. We know what it looks like when someone gives off that vibe of self-assurance and certainty. We can see it in their stance, hear it in their voice, identify it by the words they use.

Most of us define confidence by what we think a confident person looks like – an outwards impression of an inner feeling.

The problem with using that outwards impression as your definition is that it rarely represents what’s actually going on inside the other person’s head. Just because someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean they feel that way. Believe me, I know – in my work as a speaker, a trainer, and even a dancer, appearing poised, relaxed, and unflappable is a big part of my job. I might be up there with a big smile and a relaxed posture, but if my technology isn’t working, or the audience didn’t respond to a joke the way I wanted, or I forgot what I was supposed to say next, or my music went haywire (all of which have happened to me). In these moments, I may look completely confident about where I am and what I’m doing, but I am freaking out on the inside. I’m wondering how I’ll make it through to the end, or how I’m going to recover from the screw-up. Sometimes I’m figuring out the best escape route out of the building. I feel a lot of things in moments like those, but confidence sure as heck isn’t one of them.

The big problem with defining confidence by the way we think confident people look or behave is that we don’t take into account the complicated soup of feelings and growth and work and behaviors and circumstances that go developing confidence. It doesn’t recognize that feelings of anxiety or inadequacy can exist alongside self-assurance, not does it take into account the dynamic, shifting nature of confidence. This can lead to a vicious circle of beating yourself up for being unconfident, which in turn makes you even less confident than before.

It’s time to do away with those limiting, exclusionary, vague definitions of confidence. It’s time to start building your own confidence by creating a new paradigm.


The dictionary definition

Let’s start at the most basic, ground-level definition of confidence and crack open a dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary has 11 definitions of confidence, but it’s the first two that are especially helpful:

  1. The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing
  2. The feeling sure or certain of a fact or issue.

Both of these definitions have a common thread: trust and certainty. Confidence hinges on you being sure about something. It could be that you feel certain that a given outcome will be achieved, or certain that you’ll have five friends in the audience cheering you on, or utterly positive that you will be able to say the first three lines of your presentation

Neither of these definitions say that ‘confident’ is a state of being or personal characteristic. “Confident” isn’t something that we are or aren’t, it’s something we feel at certain points in time given certain conditions.

Click to Tweet: “Confident” isn’t something we are or aren’t, it’s something we feel at certain times given certain conditions. #confidence @lsergy

This is incredibly freeing! This means that you can take off some of the pressure to simply “be” confident. Instead, you can look outside of yourself to identify the circumstances in which you feel confident and figure out ways to create or trigger those circumstances. Even if you don’t have big confidence in yourself, you can reap similar benefits by feeling confident about whole bunch of little things around you.  You can have confidence in a specific thing, or in an action you took, or in somebody else, or even in a future event.

Here are some things that, prior to a talk or performance or meeting, I’ve leaned on for confidence when my own was low:

  • Knowing that my notes were clear and easy to read so I could stay on track if I forgot what I wanted to say
  • Having backups of my backups in case something when wrong with the technology at the presentation
  • Confident that even if the Big Important People in the room didn’t like my idea, my boss had my back
  • …and for one talk I dreaded so much it gave me nightmares, being 100% certain that even if everything went as badly as I’d feared, by 5pm that afternoon it would be over and I’d be going out for dinner with my husband.  Sometimes you have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find something to be confident about, but you’d be amazed at how helpful even dregs can be.

At it’s core, confidence is certainty. So look for positive things that you can be certain about. Don’t place too much value on having a sense of overall self-assurance. Focus on the smaller pieces instead. It’s hard to build a wall by erecting one giant slab of stone. It’s much easier – and just as effective – to build one out of smaller bricks.


Click to Tweet: It’s hard to build a wall with one giant slab of stone. It’s easier & as effective to build one out of smaller bricks #confidence @lsergy

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