There’s a voice inside my head, and sometimes it says really mean things. It whispers in my ear, slowly chipping away at my confidence. Oh my gosh, it says, that was so stupid. Why did you say that? It sucks the air out of my lungs and makes the walls close in so tight around me I just want to scream. What must they all think of you? It punches and kicks and beats the shit out of me sometimes. And I thought maybe--just maybe--once I got a good job, once I got married, once I became “successful”, the voice would go away. Instead I’m beginning to understand that it will never go away, and the only way to shut it up is to practice shutting it up every day.
Four months later
It’s the last week of fall semester at Chico State--you can usually tell by the zoned-out look on some students’ faces and the hushed rush of campus--and I’ve been in my new position just a little over four months. My desk is overrun by hot pink post-its with phone numbers and names and scribbled notes to remind me of things I have to do. There are several stacks of articles I’ve been working through, and The Bedford Handbook--the go-to writing companion for college students by Diana Hacker--sits on my bookshelf with three sticky notes sticking out of the pages, promising more to come.
It looks like I’ve settled in.
But it just looks like that. In the last four months, I found myself several times wondering what the heck I was doing. Have you ever been in a room, surrounded by people who are older, more experienced and more educated than you? Ever feel like your little brain is working its booty off trying to understand what the heck everyone else is talking about? Like you’re constantly trying to catch up?
After a few times doing that, your confidence crumbles. You begin to think that maybe it’s too hard. Maybe you should just leave it to the pros and call it a day.
Then you discover something.
Everything is figureoutable.
That’s figure-out-able. If you have the courage to stay, if you listen, then eventually you will figure things out. And that voice that has been chipping away at your confidence? You learn to squash it little by little, and you begin to fill in those chips again.
Confidence isn’t built in one day. It takes time, it takes courage, and it takes practice. For me, confidence starts out as a performance--chin up, a smile, eye contact and a projected voice. Then daily practices. Because confidence is much like a plant. You have to cultivate it by feeding it and loving it and encouraging it to grow.
Here are six ways I’ve built my confidence in the past four months and how you can do it, too.
1. Change the way you talk to yourself
Damn it, you didn’t understand that word, but it’s okay. You can look it up after he’s gone. Yep. I totally did that, and I'll do it again.
When I changed the way I talked to myself, I changed the way I perceived the situation. I reminded myself that everything is figureoutable.
2. Look at the facts
When I listened to Rising Strong by Brene Brown, one of the parts that stood out to me most was when she talked about using stories to create meaning out of chaos. The problem with this is that we can misuse stories. We can make up stories.
How to combat this? Brene suggests a practice that includes connecting with your emotions and the real story behind those emotions. One phrase that stands out to me in her practice is, “The story I’m making up is…” Using this phrase has allowed me to reframe my interaction with the situation. It has allowed me to look at the facts instead of the story I'm making up.
You can read more about Brene’s practice here.
3. Give yourself time to learn
We’re not computers. We can’t just sit there while information downloads, turning us into experts in our fields. We’re more like really, really dry sponges that are slowly absorbing whatever water we can find. We need to give ourselves time to learn things, to figure things out.
4. Develop a growth mindset
Carol Dweck’s 30 years of research supports the idea that when students believe their intelligence can be developed, they work harder and, therefore, achieve more. We can apply the same research-backed idea into developing our abilities in our jobs.
To start developing a growth mindset, look at failures as opportunities to learn and grow. Become curious. Start adding the word “yet” to every statement that has the word “can’t” or “don’t” in it.
For example, "I don’t speak up at meetings yet."
This implies that one day I will.
You can read more about growth mindset here.
5. Ask for feedback from someone you trust
When you start a new job, it’s kinda like approaching traffic with one eye closed. You can see some of the cars, but you can’t see all of them. You can put in the hours and work hard in your new position, but you won’t completely know how you’re doing because you’re only looking at your job from one angle. Ask a coworker or your supervisor for feedback so you can see another angle.
6. Stay in your own lane
During my third week of work, I learned that my new position required me to sit on a university-wide writing committee with composition experts. For a week, I frantically read through a stack of articles about composition practice and theory. I don’t know what was going through my head, but somehow I thought I could try to become an expert, too. In a week.
I nearly drove myself bonkers. Then someone said to me, “Pa, those people have PhDs. They’ve spent years studying their fields. You aren’t going in there to be the same kind of expert they are. You’re going in there to share your experience as an ESL student and your perspective working with students from a student services standpoint. It’s a perspective they don’t have.”
Lesson? No matter what, you’re already an expert in something. That might be the reason your company or your organization hired you in the first place. Don’t forget that.
Stay in your own lane. You’ll get to your destination faster, and you’ll decrease your chances of an accident.
Some days, confidence is going to be elusive.
Like a unicorn.
I work on a college campus, a place filled with experts in almost any field you can think of. At any one time, I’ll be within a few feet of an expert. That’s just the gosh darn truth. That means some days my confidence might take a hit. That voice in my head might return and it might be extremely mean. But if I keep practicing those six ways to build confidence, it’ll keep getting easier to tell that voice to shut up.
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