Few topics have received as much attention as confidence (or self-belief) over the years, with thousands of self-help books claiming to have the “secret” for building everlasting self-esteem and eliminating doubt. However in reality most people experience fluctuations in their levels of confidence from time to time. There will be occasions when one feels extremely confident and self-assured, with a deep trust in their ability to get the job done and to do it well. Equally there will be times of less surety and underlying doubt in the capacity to live up to expectations. This variability is a natural part of life – it is impossible for anyone to be good at everything and exempt from making mistakes. However it is common for individuals to be less understanding and accepting of these inconsistencies, with a desire to be unwavering in their self-belief so they can always present as confident in the eyes of others. This is particularly evident within organisations where there is an unwritten rule that leaders must always be strong, authoritative and assured in their appearance. By extension this can create the impression that there is no room for any dip in personal confidence – or at least that this cannot be shown openly to others.
Interestingly, most people tend to quickly notice those in their network that present as the most confident and self-assured, making the assumption that they must never suffer from moments of self-doubt. However, in reality the only people that do not experience fluctuations in confidence are those who truly lack objectivity in their self-evaluations, or those who display narcissistic tendencies. Human beings have a natural inclination to draw social comparisons as a means of evaluating their own worthiness, with a bias toward the negative. This subjective appraisal can be useful when in proportion, fueling individual drive and motivating the desire to learn new skills and develop at a personal level. However left unchecked and without a more objective perspective, negative social comparisons can lead to a sense of inadequacy and be highly detrimental to the development of self-esteem. Perfectionism, or a fear of failure, is often misinterpreted as a determination for success with many leaders wearing this is a badge of honour. By contrast, this trait is actually more likely to represent the need to demonstrate competence to others as a means of proving self-worth, with an underlying lack of independent self-belief and fear of failure. Not surprisingly it is also highly correlated with levels of stress and anxiety.
In pursuing the “ideal self”, many leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to fix their weaknesses with the hope of achieving all that they think they should be able to achieve. In reality this is an unrealistic task, with unrealistic expectations of what is possible. There is an important difference between setting stretch goals and believing that things could always be done better. Psychologist Nathanial Branden, who is a leader in the field of self-esteem, suggests that first and most important step in establishing a healthy self-belief is to know and accept oneself completely. This means acknowledging both strengths and weaknesses, taking full responsibility for what one has to offer without the need to win the approval or acceptance of others. It requires always acting with integrity and been assertive for individual beliefs, seeking personal purpose as priority and letting go of the need to draw comparisons of worthiness with others.
So how can a leader develop a deeper level of true self-belief? The key lies in recognising the value inherent in their own story and appreciating the strengths and qualities that makes up their character. A leader who truly accepts who they are and takes full responsibility for what they have to offer does not need to draw comparisons with anyone else for the belief of worthiness.
- Practise self-acceptance
Self-acceptance is the foundation to a healthy self-esteem. It requires a deep level of self-understanding and the willingness to take responsbility for who you are and what you have to offer. Start by identifying times or situations where you may be giving more attention to how you are received by others instead of just being yourself. Look for opportunities to own and express your thoughts or emotions in situations where you may otherwise hold back.
- Embrace your strengths
Most leadership programs teach us to identify and then address our weaknesses as priority. While this may be important, it is not enough alone as our weaknesses are not responsible for our successes. Instead, invest more energy into really understanding your strengths and then look for new ways to use them. Don’t ignore opportunities for improvement, but first make sure you are doing the most you can with what you already have.
- Acknowledge success
It is not self-indulgent to pause and reflect on things that have gone well and that you are proud of having achieved. However most people spend more time worrying about what they didn’t do well or what they don’t have. Take some time to reflect on your successes and savour these moments. Also look for how you could bring this into other areas of you life.
- Be compassionate
Building on the points above, when things do not go to plan instead of judging yourself harshly step back and adopt a more compassionate perspective. Think of what you might say to someone who you care about in the same situation. Often people are much tougher on themselves than they would ever be on others – look to adopt a more considerate and caring self-perspective.
Please contact us if you would like to learn more about how Optim works with executives, teams and private individuals to help them build authentic self-belief.