Confidence is an elusive concept. Most of us lack it to some degree, and few would argue they don’t want to feel more confident, yet when it comes to defining how we could develop it we are at a loss. Having confidence rids us of the anxiety and doubts that hold us back from so many opportunities. It not only makes us feel better about ourselves, but also enables us to achieve more and inspire the conviction of others in our abilities.
Having said that, too much confidence is not a good thing. This is displayed in leadership, where an “overwhelming” self-assurance leads to something known as hubris syndrome. This acquired condition, which represents the extreme end of the scale, results in what Lord David Owen, a former MP and psychiatrist, defines as “disastrous leadership” that can “cause large-scale damage.” It is marked by behaviors such as “impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate.” The same behaviors manifest in anyone who becomes too self-possessed. Consequently, you want to build your confidence to optimize your potential, but you also need to be careful not to take it too far.
There is a “sweet spot” you want to reach where your self-assurance is robust enough to allow you to take a balanced view on risks, make effective decisions, have influence, and effectively forge ahead with your purpose. Understanding what this means and where you are with it will form a strong platform from which you can move forward and fine-tune your own level of confidence. Psychologists consider confidence in terms of two broad concepts: self-confidence (known technically as self-efficacy) and self-esteem. Self-confidence is about how much faith you have in your ability to achieve a specific goal in a particular situation. As such, it’s not a given that being self-confident with one task means you’ll be equally self-confident with another. For example, you may be confident that you can cook a good meal or play a strong game of tennis, but still lack confidence when it comes to your ability to run a marathon or play a piece of music on the piano.
Although self-confidence is task specific, one person may have an overall higher level than another. Someone with higher levels of self-confidence will approach all new challenges in a more forthright way. For example, they might throw themselves down a mountain when learning to ski, confident that they’ll get the hang of it, and approach another task, say scuba diving for the first time, with the same vigor. On the other hand, another person who is less self-confident may be very fearful of any novel task.
Self-esteem differs, in that it is more internally focused than self-confidence. Rather than being based on the successful completion of tasks or challenges, it’s about how much you value yourself or how much you like and accept who you are. An easy way to assess your level of self-esteem is to listen to your internal dialogue. How do you speak to yourself: are you kind, accepting, and appreciative (e.g., well done, you did a great job with that), or harsh, cutting, and critical (e.g., you idiot, why did you do that again, when will you learn)?
People frequently strive to make themselves feel better by chasing the more tangible aspects that relate to self-confidence—external rewards such as awards, academic achievements, or sporting success—while neglecting to work on their self-esteem. Celebrities often fall into this category, looking to the outside world for reassurance about their self-worth and getting that by achieving public recognition, awards, or notoriety. However, they can often be the loneliest people, feeling empty because their higher-level needs are not being met, their ability to like and accept themselves. This leads to destructive behaviors such as taking drugs, drinking to excess, and overeating.
Both self-confidence and self-esteem are important to well-being and to the pursuit of your goals within the context of what makes you unique and special as a person. One without the other is not helpful. Once you’ve built your self-confidence and self-esteem, they need to be continually nurtured to enable optimal performance.
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Owen, D., & Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years. Brain, 132(5), 1396-1406.