Behavioural Coach, Michelle Ensuque, gives her thoughts on what confidence means to her and how to find yours - even when it feels like it has deserted you.
What is Confidence?
It's defined as 'the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.'
So, what does it mean for you?
Is it appearing utterly relaxed entering a room of hundreds of people?
Is it the ability to give a presentation without stuttering or wondering how many times you have said the word 'um'?
Is it being able to hold your nerve when you take an exam so that you can focus?
Or, is it just doing what you think is right, standing up for what you believe and ignoring the critics?
Well, as you read this, it will largely depend on what is most important to you.
Are we born with confidence? No!
In fact, we are so dependent on our parents for years on end that it is a small wonder to me that we made it as a human race. We don't spring from our mothers' womb making grand speeches and regaling stories to our loved ones. If we are lucky, we might speak by the time we are two! Some schools of thought say that confidence is genetic; most say it is developmental, and I have to say I agree with the latter, but that is just my opinion.
My Struggle with Confidence
When I look back over my life, I was excruciatingly shy when I was young. I was an only child, and adults were my primary interaction, other than conversing with me inside my head. No, I am not mad - honest - it's just that you learn to 'be with yourself as an only child. I didn't have many friends at school and was bullied for many years until, frankly, I 'grew a pair' and rammed my bully up against the coat pegs with pure venom on my face – I mean, she had pulled my jumper for gods' sake. My mum would go mad!
I used to be a musician and gave up after attending music college and going solo for a few years, partly because I never felt truly confident in that space. I always felt others were far better than me, but mostly because I didn't love it. Ah, interesting that. I didn't love it, so I never felt entirely secure when performing.
I've not had great confidence in relationships either (I was a pleaser), and rarely was I able to stand up for myself if I felt hurt. In my formative years, my male role models had skewed my expectations of what was acceptable within a relationship, and I allowed myself to be hurt so many times. So, this too has taken time to develop, to understand my own needs and find the strength and confidence to speak up for me. I've learned to lean into the self-talk and challenge my inner critic to gain more confidence.
I developed more confidence over my military career through training and working with others, but it was still a work in progress. Presenting in front of others made me feel shaky and sick, although on the surface no one would have known, well, apart from when I made a complete Horlicks of it, and I did!
We called it 'acting like a swan'. On the surface, we were calm, elegant, composed, sure of our stuff and underneath our feet were peddling like mad to keep us afloat. It was a great analogy and what struck me was that most of us felt like that at one time or another. Honestly, when presenting, I'm more confident when I genuinely believe in the thing I am doing and when I have enough skills and knowledge about the subject matter.
All those experiences are very different, but in essence, I think anyone can develop confidence. It is inextricably linked to experiences, self-belief and the things we tell ourselves as a result of those things. Frankly, we could do with helping our children with this in schools - whether it be to prepare for exams, aid communication or just because it's another learning and development skill.
Instead of that, we seem to leave it to chance and personal experience to find our way through the maze of life.
Our perceptions of how we think people see us are key to us having confidence in different situations. If we are giving a presentation and believe that everyone will be criticising us, the chances are that we will look under confident and we certainly won't feel it. If we imagine those people are interested in what we have to say, we will, at the very least, feel more engaged and more confident.
Someone who sells a product has the confidence to know that they will get a sale; otherwise, they wouldn't continue to sell. Someone who believes in their skills and is confident of achieving a promotion or success in a new job or challenge is more likely to succeed than someone who doesn't think those things.
The story we tell ourselves in terms of who we are, what we are capable of – all of these things affect our ability to be confident.
Find Your Alter Ego
Sometimes I ask people to imagine they have an alter ego or, at the very least, that they have high self-confidence. Then I ask them to notice the differences in how they feel or act. They will often have changed something physically or emotionally to be their alter ego and can tap immediately into that.
Try it now:
Think of a situation when you don't usually feel confident. Now, imagine that I've waved a magic wand, and you are truly confident in that same space. Notice the differences in this new version of yourself and how you might feel; notice how you behave, the tone of your voice.
If you can imagine being that person right now, how would that change what you do, feel, see and hear?
One of my favourite authors and comedian is Dawn French, and I love her attitude on confidence:
"My theory was that if I behaved like a confident, cheerful person, eventually I would buy it myself and become that. I always had traces of strength somewhere inside me; it wasn't fake; it was just a way of summoning my courage to the fore and not letting any creeping self-doubt hinder my adventures. This method worked then, and it works now. I tell myself that I am the sort of person who can open a one-woman play in the West End, so I do. I am the sort of person who has several companies, so I do. I am the sort of person WHO WRITES A BOOK! So I do. It's the process of having faith in the self you don't quite know you are yet if you see what I mean. Believing that you will find the strength, the means somehow, and trusting in that, although your legs are like jelly. You can still walk on them, and you will find the bones as you walk. Yes, that's it. The further I walk, the stronger I become."
― Dawn French, Dear Fatty
Michelle Ensuque is a behavioural coach whose project management and consultant career has spanned 30 years across public and private sectors.