I think if you were to ask most of my friends, they’d tell you that I’m a pretty confident person. I enjoy public speaking, I can walk into a room and make small talk with people I’ve never met and I can get through a whole work meeting without the other person realising I’m a fraud (note to self: tackle that imposter syndrome).
Without going too far the other way and blowing my own trumpet, I actually think I’m pretty good at what I do – people (whether it’s blog readers or magazine editors) tell me they love my writing and I’ve spent the last year or so really working on some areas that I knew had room for improvement – photography, video and Photoshop editing amongst others.
So why is it then, that I’m often crippled by a lack of confidence?
I convince myself that I’m terrible at my job and/or a bad friend and/or unable to balance work and life (delete as appropriate). I can easily spend a whole day dwelling on it. Chastising myself for being so awful. Wishing I was as good as this person, or that person.
That same thing that can boost us, make us feel like we can achieve anything, can crush us flat.
And I know I’m not the only one. I regularly see amazing, talented women talking about how they’re battling with their confidence – I hear them describe their low self-esteem and it makes me want to shake them and say “But you’re amazing!” One friend recently confided that she might give up freelance life, and look for an office job, because she felt stifled by her confidence rut – every time she sat down to think of work ideas, her mind drew a blank. And then that piled on pressure, because if a person with a creative job can’t think of any ideas, they’re basically screwed.
Another friend sends me regular emails, telling me she’s not sure she can compete with her colleagues and peers – she sees younger, newer, shinier people coming up the ranks, who all seem to know what they’re doing, and it panics her. She worries she’ll be left behind and become irrelevant, like an iPhone 3GS that no longer accepts software updates.
Both of these women, by the way, are INCREDIBLY talented and brilliant. They’re both women who inspire me on a daily basis.
Evidence suggests that this is more of a problem for women than men – and it’s a problem that stems from our youth. In one 2011 UK study, a business school professor asked students how much they would deserve to earn five years after graduation. The women’s estimates were 20 percent lower than the men’s.
According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of Womenomics, this is a real crisis. “A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be,” they say. “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”
To me, this is a scary thought. That my dips in confidence could have a genuine – and lasting – effect on my achievements, is terrifying. But of course it could – if an opportunity were to come along at the moment that I’m struggling to see my abilities for what they really are, I might talk myself out of it, and turn it down.
I’d go as far to say that confidence wobbles are a particularly common problem for mums. I still remember that feeling, while I was on maternity leave, of not actually being able to remember how I once did my job – how I functioned in an office – how I ran meetings and got shiz done. Going back to work after a year off, I had to discover “work me” all over again, which is enough to knock anyone’s confidence. In fact, I recently came across a bunch of work notebooks, from when I worked at LOOK magazine, a few years back. Flicking through the pages, I was aghast at some of the stuff I’d noted down, either in meetings or whilst planning strategy. It was impressive stuff. “It’s like I actually knew what I was talking about!” I said to Mr P.
Why was I so surprised? And what can we do about these confidence dips? Author of Emotional Agility, Professor Susan David, says that we shouldn’t try to silence that inner voice telling us we’re no good, we should tame it. She says, “Every day we speak around 16,000 words – but the voice in our head creates thousands more. Thoughts such as ‘I’m not spending enough time with my children’ or ‘I don’t have the confidence to do this presentation’ are taken as unshakable facts when in reality they are the judgemental opinions of our inner voice.” According to her, because this voice is part of you, you need to make friends with it, and try to understand where it’s coming from. “Suppressing your inner critic doesn’t work. In fact, ignoring thoughts and emotions leads to a rebound effect, increasing their intensity and frequency.”
I think that as well as questioning where these thoughts of self-doubt are coming from, one easy way to curb it for us all, is to talk more about it. Those friends I mentioned earlier – every time they chat to me about confidence, I tell them what they need to hear. Not because I feel I should, but because it’s the truth, and I can’t stand to think of BRILLIANT people beating themselves up.
So, if you’re feeling low on confidence, chat to a friend. If a friend confides in you, boost them! Remind them how fantastic they are. They might just repay the favour next time you need it.