Doubts. Fear. Every time uncertainty visits us, there’s a lot going on inside of us. At times, we cover up our fear with a suit of false confidence; other times we get caught up and freeze without responding. Developing confidence is a work in progress for many of us.
When we lost it
Not everyone has self-confidence issues. At least, not in the same situations. The amount of confidence, or the lack of it, depends on several factors, being the experience one of them.
Several years ago, in my first year of teaching, the business school where I worked asked me to give a fifteen-minute talk to the students about my course, so they could get a taste of what it was about.
When I got there, at an ungodly hour in the afternoon, after a full day of classes, I found a bunch of tired people eager to go home. They paid little attention to what I said and asked no questions. The whole explanation lasted less than 10 minutes, and I felt discouraged, beating myself up for everything I should have done and didn’t do.
On the first day of my class, I really struggled to find the confidence to teach, thinking that my students had no interest in the subject.
Their lack of interest that day combined with my lack of experience did the trick. My confidence evaporated.
Weakening confidence is an easy process, even if you don’t do it on purpose. The good news is that we can create the conditions to build confidence in a healthy and productive way.
Three Cornerstones: Permission, Community, and Curiosity
As you can imagine, that first class didn’t go well. My teaching skills weren’t up to par. I usually go off script in my classes, taking every question as an opportunity to learn, even if it’s off-topic, but I couldn’t do that that day. I hadn’t given myself permission to be me, being more concerned about “doing things well” than providing the best learning experience for my students. The fear of not being interesting enough made me be a lot of boring.
Days later, I shared my feelings with a fellow professor and friend. She told me that the next time I felt this way, I should come to her. We had taught together in the past, and she was confident in my abilities. Anyone can fall – she said – but it’s easier when someone helps you pick yourself up.
After our conversation, I was determined to be myself again in class, but I realized that I needed to know what had happened that day during my presentation. My brain was working overtime, making assumptions that were causing me to lose my confidence.
So I decided to ask my students and openly share my feelings about our first two interactions to understand what they were thinking and how we could move forward with the course. Spending those ten minutes clarifying what happened, and their expectations, was wonderful. The rest of the year was great.
This was one of the most important lessons I learned as a professor.
To build self-confidence, we need permission to be ourselves without fear of the consequences, a community that supports us and provides feedback, and a humble curiosity to understand, not imagine, reality. It works the same way for the people on our teams or in our families if we really want to help them.