If you’re taking chances in life—and we’re hoping you are—then here’s an uncomfortable truth: Your confidence will take a hit from time to time.
Don’t sweat it, though. Living boldly means taking your share of shots—and that means it’s critical to know how to restore your confidence. It depends on three core components: attitude, knowledge, and experience. This constellation of capabilities is the blueprint for true and sustainable confidence.
Here are five ways to put it in to practice whether you’re getting over a break up, just got fired, or just aren’t feeling like yourself.
1. Reframe your failure
Back in the 1960s, an executive lost $10 million of IBM’s money. He walked into the office of CEO Tom Watson, Jr., expecting to get fired.
“Fired?” Watson said. “Hell, I spent $10 million educating you—I just want to be sure you learned the right lessons.”
The true value of failure is a lesson learned. Those losses could keep you on the sidelines, make you feel defeated, and brand you as a failure—or you can choose to see these moments as an opportunity to learn, become better, and rebuild for the future. That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt, but it does mean that your “failure” isn’t the full story. The rest of the story is what you choose to learn and do by seeing the situation differently.
This technique is called reframing, a perceptual shift that allows you to transform beliefs that don’t help you achieve your goals into ones that do. Failure is inevitable. How you process those failures is up to you.
As interviewer Zane Lowe once said to Kanye West, “You win or you learn.” Through that lens, total failure—in which you gain nothing at all—is actually an illusion.
2. Act “as If”
As with most cliches, “Fake it till you make it” has an iota of truth to it. Sometimes, going through the motions as a stepping stone to reengaging turns an obstacle into a reality.
Author AJ Jacobs is a great example of that principle. In an old piece, he writes openly about working amidst his despair over a particularly heavy book project:
My solution? Deception. I tricked my brain. I’d force myself to act in an optimistic way…
And after a couple of hours, it worked. My mind would catch up with my actions. I would start to feel optimistic.
It’s astounding how much the outer can affect the inner, how much behavior can affect your thoughts.
Research confirms Jacobs’ experience. A study from Harvard, published in Psychological Science, shows that body language can influence how confident you feel.
From that view, confidence isn’t something we have, it’s something we do. Acting “as if” should never be a permanent solution to dips in confidence, but done right, it won’t need to be. Once we trick ourselves into going through the motions, our true selves take over. And that’s what restoring confidence looks like in action.
3. Stay in the game
Let’s be honest: Quitting can feel really good. When you ditch a difficult project or avoid taking a risk, a sense of relief replaces a sense of dread. And when you’re feeling particularly unconfident, quitting often feels like the only viable option.
True satisfaction, however, doesn’t come from avoiding blows to your confidence, but from sticking with the opportunities that challenge it. The key is to stay in the game.
So how do you make it difficult to quit when quitting seems like the only attractive option?
One solution is to use a simple accountability system that discourages you from dropping out. As Greek poet and soldier Archilochus once wrote, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Making commitments to partners (on deadlines, deliverables or achievements) can create the accountability we need to stick with our projects.
Another accountability technique is to add stakes, like financial punishment, to your goals. On the positive side, you can have friends keep you accountable, so that anytime you quit your social network will know. You’ll be surprised how far you’ll go to avoid social embarrassment or to honor a commitment to a friend.
Which isn’t to say that quitting is always bad. In fact, it takes intelligence and honesty to know when to move on or shift your strategy. But it’s often our level of confidence that tells us when to quit and when to stick around. And making it difficult to drop out can create the conditions to remain connected to our confidence, even when it seems like we’re failing.
4. Tend to your wounds
True confidence isn’t about suppressing pain or pretending that failure doesn’t hurt. On the contrary: true confidence comes from accepting blows to our ego, allowing ourselves to acknowledge the associated feelings, and finding ways to stay in the game. If we do, we’ll discover that confidence, like a muscle, only grows through challenges.
So how can you tend to your wounds and use them to restore confidence?
Spending time with the right people is important. Discussing your challenges and processing your feelings is a highly therapeutic process in the right company. Friends, accountability partners, family, and significant others are excellent partners for that conversation.
Travel is also a powerful way to heal. Sometimes, getting out of your immediate surroundings (even for a day trip) will give you the space and clarity to reflect. It can also remind you how vast and exciting and significant the world is, which is easy to forget when your confidence dips.
Journaling is also a great process. Self-reflection gives us the perspective to process events as they unfold. Writing them down gives them a degree of objectivity and safety, and helps us realize that our wounds are not always as deep as they seem.
But more important than how you heal is that you heal—that you allow yourself to authentically process your feelings, accept them, and forge ahead.
5. Build on small wins
Most of us think of confidence as an all-or-nothing proposition—you either have it or you don’t.
But the truth is that confidence is less like a switch you turn on and off, and more like something you build one brick at a time. As author and journalist Charles DuHigg quotes in his book, The Power of Habit, “‘Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage’…Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”
And small wins are available in every situation. If you’ve just gotten fired, start your intimidating job hunt by sending out five resumes. If you’re bouncing back from an old relationship, try talking to three new people. If you’ve just stumbled on a creative project, pick a section you can focus on over a weekend, and temporarily put the bigger picture aside.
Every failure can be broken down into components. Those components are the seeds of small wins. And small wins are the stuff of confidence. If you work just an extra bit harder and smarter every day, your minor improvements will accumulate. Life really is a game of inches.
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