Developing Confidence

Some of us have it and some of us don’t. Confidence. It’s an essential part of life happiness and success, at work, in relationships and within yourself. Building confidence is all about taking action, discovers David Goding.

Fortunately, you can learn how to be more confident, says Dr Russ Harris, author of The Confidence Gap.

“Confidence is a game – a skilful psychological game. And unfortunately, our society gives us the wrong rules to play it,” he says.

Having a lack of confidence can prove costly.

“Whether you call it ‘lack of confidence’, ‘fear of failure’, ‘performance anxiety’ or ‘self-doubt’ the chances are it’s cost you dearly in your life. Take a moment to consider: What have you given up? What have you missed out on? What opportunities have you lost because of it?”

Dr Harris says people wrongly blame themselves for a lack of confidence, which prevents greater opportunities.

“It is certainly not because of stupidity, or laziness, or negative thinking, or a deprived childhood, or a chemical imbalance in the brain,” he says. “It is simply because they do not know the rules of the confidence game.”

What is confidence?

There are two meanings – it is a feeling of certainty and self-reliance as well as the less commonly associated meaning of an act of trust or reliance.

“Both meanings of  ‘confidence’ – a feeling of certainty, or an act of trust – are perfectly valid,” says Dr Harris.

Together, they form what could be called ‘complete confidence’, something most of us would ultimately love to achieve; the feeling of confidence with the ability to follow through and confidently trust a situation or person when required to do so, such as a doctor, teacher or even a friend or family member.

A lack of confidence holds you back

There are numerous reasons people lack confidence and they can vary depending on the situation at hand. According to Dr Harris, the top five reasons most people lack confidence are “excessive expectations, harsh self-judgement, preoccupation with fear, lack of experience and lack of skills.”

Coupled with this is the misguided belief that in order to get the results of being confident, and overcome the inhibitions resulting from a lack of confidence, you need to first have the feeling of confidence.

“The trouble is, if you wait for the feelings of confidence to show up before you start doing the things that are truly important to you, the chances are you’re going to be waiting forever,” says Dr Harris.

“Sure, you may be able to cultivate them while you’re listening to a self-hypnosis CD, or reading an inspiring book, or participating in a motivational seminar, or when a friend, coach or therapist says something that boosts your confidence. But those feelings don’t last. Once you get into the real situation they just vanish in a puff of smoke.”

Over-analysing the situation can also lead to over-worrying, which is the natural enemy of confident action, according to Sarah Litvinoff, author of The Confidence Plan.

“When worry gets out of hand it is paralysing,” she says. “This can happen for three reasons: The first is that worry becomes a habit. You look for new things to worry about as soon as other worries are solved. The second is that you don’t identify the action you should take when you are worried about something. The third is believing that worrying is more ‘realistic’ than having an optimistic attitude.”

Action before Feeling

The first step to building confidence is realising that, contrary to what most of us have long thought, the actions of confidence come before the feelings of confidence. It’s not, however, a case of ‘fake it 'til you make it’. Nor does it require you to grit your teeth and behave in a way that is unnatural or awkward.

“If we want to do anything with confidence – speak, paint, make love, play tennis, or socialise – then we have to do the work,” says Dr Harris. “We have to practise the necessary skills over and over, until they come naturally. Each time you practise these skills, it is an action of confidence, an act of relying on yourself.”

It’s also important to assess the results of your efforts positively and make modifications as needed. It’s far easier to affect the way you feel by your deeds than through trying to change the way you feel, claims Dr Harris.

“Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to control your feelings, and the further you go down that road, the more likely you are to feel disappointed, frustrated or hopeless,” he says.


Accepting your thoughts, even the negative ones, is the core philosophy behind what is referred to as Acceptance and Commitment Training, or ACT.

“ACT starts from the assumption that negative thoughts are not inherently problematic,” says Dr Harris. “Negative thoughts only become problematic if we get all caught up in them, give them all our attention, treat them as the gospel truth, allow them to control us, or get into a fight with them. The technical term for responding to our thoughts in this way is ‘fusion’.”

On the other hand, when we ‘defuse’ our thoughts, they cease to hold a great power over us.

“The moment you’ve been hooked by an unworkable thought, acknowledge it,” says Dr Harris. “Silently say to yourself, ‘Just got hooked’.”

Then replay the thought, observe it for what it is then defuse it. There are many defusing techniques. Among the most popular and effective methods is ‘singing the thought’, where you replay the negative thought to the tune of ‘happy birthday’ or another tune of your choice. Alternatively, add the words ‘I’m having the thought that…’ before the negative thought you are focused on. For example, saying ‘I’m having the thought that I’m fat and ugly’ acknowledges the thought but creates a distance so you can then move on.

With the acceptance and defusion of our thoughts comes self-acceptance and the fear of failure ceases to be such a threat.

“What matters most in life is what you do, what you stand for, the way you behave,” says Dr Harris. “This is far more important than the stories you believe about yourself.”


  • Confident action comes before feelings of confidence
  • Practise the skills you want to develop
  • Worrying is your enemy
  • Acknowledge negative thoughts but don’t dwell on them
  • Establish your core values
  • Make an effort to be present and engaged.


Values and Engagement

Establishing our own personal values is an important part of increasing confidence.

“Values are like a compass,” says Dr Harris, “they guide our journeys, give us direction and keep us on track. If we pursue goals that are not aligned with our core values, it almost always leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction. But if we use our values to set personally meaningful goals, the opposite holds true.”

Examples of core value principles include respect, freedom, adventure, courage, flexibility, creativity, romance, humour and responsibility. Design your own top six core values and keep them firmly in the back of your mind.

Lastly, to be truly confident you need to be present and engaged.

“Don’t just do something, be there,” says Dr Harris. “It is impossible to do something well if we are not engaged in what we are doing. If we ‘just do it’ mindlessly, lost in our thoughts, or we go through the motions on automatic pilot, then we probably won’t do it very well.” NH

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The information presented on this website is not intended as specific medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical treatment or diagnosis. Read our Medical Notice.