Building up confidence

The following is an excerpt from a private exchange. I am sharing it with the permission of my correspondent. Their identity remains private.

1: I have a lack of confidence in whatever task I do, that’s mainly due to the thought being what if I do anything wrong, then I have to be ashamed in front of everyone (imposter syndrome).

There is no easy way to feel more confident. It is an attitude we build over time. In my experience, the best way to gradually gain confidence is to aim for “small wins”. Try to do simple things: do them well; do them consistently. Master the everyday basics, like washing your face first thing in the morning, keeping your desk tidy, preparing your own meal, and the like.

The idea is to set yourself up to be more reliable and dependable in what you do. If everything around you is in a disorderly state, you feel you have no control over what is happening, so you naturally do not believe you have the power to affect anything. This sense of powerlessness is fuel for your insecurity.

When you do those basic things, you have to put your heart into them. Do not fake it. These are not “chores” anymore. They are rituals that will remake you. You have to do them in earnest. This way, you will know deep inside that you did not cheat and you earned something rightfully.

The tricky part with confidence is that we are our own self’s worst enemy. Before convincing others that we are worthy, we have to prove this to the mirror. This is why the “small wins” are the best place to start: the stakes are low and we act in the safety of our immediate environment.

Show to yourself that you can get things done. Keep going without interruptions. Spend the time it takes to improve yours skills. Again, these are not chores. If you are not committed and do not do what you must consistently, you will lose your momentum and revert to feeling inadequate.

Take it one step at a time and do not overcommit. Become good at something small and gradually expand from there.

Once you do the basics right, try to extend the same principles to more demanding tasks. For example, when you are studying for school, do not just memorise what you were taught in class. Instead, read more on your own to actually understand what the subject matter is. This way, you will prove to yourself that you have acquired the relevant knowledge. That inner voice which whispers the doubts will then be forced to shut up, otherwise it will be talking nonsense—and you will be sure it is nonsense.

I will return to the point of feeling ashamed a bit later, but let me first comment on your other remarks.

2: Suppose I’m doing a task, let’s say playing a football match. And If some random person does better than me, even in one match, I get tunnel visioned and start to belittle myself that I have no worth, and the person is better than me. Here the word “better” is emphasized. There is some sort of elitist feeling in me, I do wanna accept the things around me that I’m not perfect but I’m not able to. I lose control of my mind and start wandering.

Remember the basics I mentioned above. They are hard to do consistently, right? If you spot someone who does those flawlessly, will you not admire them for it? You might not express admiration, but you will probably feel it. The same is true for sport. When you see Lionel Messi glide through the field with that peerless close control of the football, do you not get a sense of awe at the sheer potential of the man himself and of humanity at-large? When Cristiano Ronaldo towers over everyone to score a header, do you not acknowledge greatness?

With sport, you know that there is only one way to get better: train harder. There is no faking it. Again, this is about working on the basics. Do more running to build up your stamina. Work on your explosiveness and core body strength. Practice with the ball, to pass it with the right weight and shoot it with greater accuracy. Once you put in the work, you will know that at least in terms of work ethic and attitude you have earned respect. Then, if someone still beats you, you simply admit they are more talented and/or physically gifted than you. But you are worthy of respect regardless.

Do not worry about this elitism you mention. It will be fixed on its own once you get in the flow of earning small wins. You will better appreciate how difficult things actually are and will begin to value the finer points. This is a subtle quality in a person, which you only recognise if you yourself have gone through the rigours. Whereas now your attitude is more along the lines of “all or nothing”, which usually means you get nothing. This is fine. Do not worry about it and stick to the basics.

3: The consequences of the above two makes me unable to focus on any task in future related to that particular field or any field in general. Then I start questioning myself and the loop continues.

It is a vicious cycle, indeed. It will lose its force naturally as you work on your routines. Always keep in mind that we build up confidence. It does not just come out of nowhere.

About questioning yourself, this is not a problem per se. Some self-doubt keeps us in check and inspires us to try our best. While the small wins give us ample evidence which we can use to silence this inner critic. It is a balance. If you do not do the work properly, then the inner voice is left unchecked to make harsh comments that sound convincing.

Now to the topic of shame. It is inhibiting you and feels terrible, though think why you are ashamed of failing to meet some standard: it is because you have a standard to begin with. The way to deal with this is two-fold:

  1. Lower the standard to something more realistic. You will know what that will look like after you gain more experience, so do not worry if you cannot find the right target at this early stage.

  2. Try harder to meet that standard. It will have to be realistic, as noted above, though still require some effort from your side.

How realistic a standard is has to do with your perception of yourself versus others. You are likely underappreciating your abilities and overappreciating the abilities of others. Everybody has doubts and all must put in the work to achieve what they want. It just happens that you are perhaps more aware of yourself than others are of theirs. This has the downsides you are experiencing, though it can be turned into a strength of yours, as you can become more thoughtful, considerate, and nuanced.

Whatever you do, take it easy. The world does not depend on your performance. Not everybody is focused on your every move and thought: they have their own issues to deal with. Once you get in the flow of small wins, you will gradually start enjoying a challenge and will thrive in it. But this is for the future. Your goal now is to start small, proceed one step at a time, and do things right.

Good luck!