6 Strategies for Building Robust Self-Belief.

“Confidence is like a speedometer. It tells you how you are doing.”
~Martin Seligman~

Remember when power posing was all the rage? This fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to building self-confidence, popularized by Amy Cuddy, has since been discredited after numerous failed attempts at replication of her team’s original research findings.  

Though you might be able to fool others into thinking you are confident, it is exceedingly difficult to fool yourself. When the level of challenge reaches a certain threshold and the inner critic starts to speak up with its self-doubts, you cannot rely on gimmicks and false bravado. You have to be able to tell yourself that you can do it and believe it.

You might wonder if it is even possible to train yourself to be more reliably confident? The answer turns out to be yes. But like anything worth pursuing, building credible confidence takes deliberate effort and practice.

In this article, I describe 6 research-based strategies that you can implement immediately to build the sort of robust self-confidence that can hold up against performance pressures and competitive stress.

Here they are:

1. Track your successes

Research suggests that the most effective and durable source of confidence is repeated mastery experiences. To put it simply, the more you succeed the more confident you become – but only if you actually notice and acknowledge your successes.

Make a conscious effort to catch yourself doing things well, especially when it is under pressure. Start a credible confidence log where you actually write these experiences down. This will serve as a sort of confidence memory bank – a collection of positive experiences that you can use to challenge your inner critic.

2. Leverage small wins

When you accomplish a goal, no matter how small, the reward centers of your brain are flooded with dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter), which makes you want to repeat the associated behavior. This is the secret behind the addictive quality of smartphone games like Candy Crush as well as the effectiveness of to-do lists.

You can use the psychology of intermittent rewards to your advantage by breaking up your larger goals into a series of bite-sized, dopamine-friendly steps so that you can receive this behavior-reinforcing chemical reward more frequently. Start with small, easily reachable goals and build incrementally, slowly ramping up your goals and level of stress as you gain momentum and confidence.

3. Talk yourself up

Confidence ultimately comes down to how you talk to yourself, which is why positive self-talk has become one of the pillars of applied sport psychology. Not to be confused with generic motivational chants of the “you can do it, rah rah rah” variety, positive self-talk involves personal affirmations that are uplifting yet grounded in reality.

Create a list of affirmations that put you in a confident frame of mind. The most effective affirmations are:

  • brief: a single word or short phrase
  • context-specific: a reminder of when you delivered in similar situations
  • personally-meaningful: it only has to make sense to you

By using self-talk to connect to prior experiences of success, you will arm yourself with supporting evidence for challenging negative thoughts as they arise.

4. Keep good company

Be mindful of the company you keep. Nothing can suck the life out of your vision faster than a naysayer – someone who always has a ready list of reasons why your goals are unattainable and unreasonable. These dream killers often want to see you fail as a result of their own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Avoid naysayers like the plague.

Surround yourself with supporters who want to see you succeed and who supply a steady stream of encouragement. I am not talking about cheerleaders and groupies here (although those are nice too). What you want is people in your inner circle who you trust to provide candid feedback, both positive and negative, in a way that communicates that they want the best for you and are pulling for you to reach your goals.

True friends and supporters do not feel threatened by your pursuit of excellence nor do they take it personally that you organize your life around your performance goals.

5. Use your imagination

Mental imagery, another pillar of applied sport psychology, was once called visualization but has since expanded to include all the senses. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research indicates that the same areas in the brain light up whether you are actually executing a skill or just imagining it. The brain literally cannot tell the difference.

Mental imagery is often challenging at first but can be developed with practice. For those with no prior experience, it might be easier to start by imagining a simple, sensory rich activity like eating a fruit. As you improve your ability to fully engage all of your senses, shift to mental rehearsal of performance-related skills. First, imagine what an ideal performance would look like to an external observer. Then, progress to imagining exactly what it will look and feel like from behind your own eyes.

This one might sound a little woo-woo, but there is a reason it is a staple of mental preparation for world-class athletes and performers. It just works.

6. Watch and learn

Finally, another great way to build confidence is to watch and emulate the best. Much like with mental imagery, brain research involving mirror neurons suggests that watching is often just as good as doing when it comes to performance. Find a performer who inspires you and make a point to regularly watch their best performances.

When you are practicing or performing, imagine that you are that performer. In the best-case scenario, your model becomes yourself. Try to get your hands on video of yourself during an optimal performance. Watch the video over and over again as a way of training your brain to run that particular performance script.

A big advantage of these last two training strategies is that they provide ways of getting extra reps of practice when your body is not capable of engaging in actual physical practice due to fatigue or injury.

Summary

Confidence cannot be faked, but it can be trained. To sum up, the best ways to build credible self-confidence that can stand up to challenges are:

  1. Track your successes: Look for and document your achievements
  2. Leverage small wins: Set incremental goals to reinforce positive behaviors
  3. Talk yourself up: Use affirmations to remind yourself of prior successes
  4. Keep good company: Surround yourself with trusted supporters
  5. Use your imagination: Imagine the experience of performing optimally
  6. Watch and learn: Emulate the best in your field, hopefully yourself

These six strategies, if practiced regularly, will help you develop the sort of confidence that you can rely on, that will hold up under pressure, and that won’t desert you when need it most.

With you in the pursuit,

Dr. Dave