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The science of confidence

Why do some people appear more confident than others? Deborah Golend offers a few simple techniques to boost your confidence today

Confidence: you either have it or you don’t, right? Wrong. The idea that confidence is a fixed personality trait, dividing those that take on the world from those of us who wrestle with self-doubting demons, is a myth. In reality, confidence comes in all shapes and sizes. Confidence in our bodies, our sexuality, our skills at work, our ability to trust in relationships. We have varied levels of confidence in different situations and our levels of confidence can change over the course of our lives.
But what causes these fluctuations? We know our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves are very powerful. They can propel us to action or paralyse us with doubt. We are most vulnerable when asked to put ourselves forward, so having the confidence to do so means we have to trust our ability to act. We can’t afford to be diverted by an inner judgmental or critical voice that demands perfection and deems us ‘not good enough’ when we fall short. Too often, this inner voice that believes we are not really good enough and will be ‘found out’ has roots in early childhood experiences. But, as if that was not bad enough, we often continue to give weight to this critic by using any current day setback or disappointment as evidence and confirmation that this voice is ‘right’. A phone call to a prospective employer that doesn’t go well becomes proof that ‘no one will employ us’.

Neuroscience developments
Developments in neuroscience now show us that this critical thinking doesn’t only make us feel bad, it actually changes our brains.
In fact, it is not only our thinking. The principle of experience dependent plasticity means that all our experiences, our lifestyles, the food we eat, the quality of our sleep, even the way we move, all influence our brain chemistry via our neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that pass messages across the synapses between neurons. As these messages pass from one neuron to another, neural pathways are strengthened or weakened. For example, studies have shown that taxi drivers who learn ‘the knowledge’ have more developed hippocampi, the area associated with mapping skills. Hence, the often-used expression: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’.

Neurotransmitters
The brain has three main neurotransmitters which help us act confidently: Serotonin, which calms the nerves and helps us to think clearly; Oxytocin, the love hormone which promotes our sense of being connected and open to others; and Dopamine, which encourages us to explore and take risks. If we are calm, and feel open and receptive to others and have drive and energy to take a risk, we will be in a confident state, ready to trust our ability to act.
Knowing this, we can now change the picture and provide our brains with different experiences. These experiences can weaken the neural pathways that lead to anxious and critical states and strengthen the neural pathways that lead to more confident and compassionate states.
So, what are these confident-enhancing practices? Meditation and mindfulness soothe the nervous system and increase our Serotonin. Many psychological techniques, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and other trauma-based therapies, focus on silencing our inner critics. Other very simple changes to our lifestyle can also have a profound impact, such as reducing stimulating foods like caffeine or changing our posture.
So the next time you feel your confidence waning, try practicing some of the following techniques and start to rewire your brain.

Confidence boosting technique

  • Look out for your inner critic and practice talking to yourself like you’re your best friend instead.
  • Pick one daily activity such as brushing your teeth and do this mindfully. Stay present with the experience, paying close attention to the smells, textures, sounds and sensations.
  • Keep a gratitude diary, writing down three things each day for which you
    are grateful.
  • Make one change to your diet, cutting out sugar or reducing caffeine.
  • Practice sitting up and smiling before making an important phone call and notice the change in how you feel.
  • Increase your physical activity, join a yoga class, take regular walks.

Deborah Golend is a clinical psychologist and runs workshops in London for women designed to boost self-confidence, called ‘MeUnlimited’. 

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