It’s hard to imagine that we can sap or build our confidence simply by talking to ourselves – but think for a moment about the impact talking can have on other people.
For instance, imagine that a little girl called Mary has just started school. She is as happy and enthusiastic as any other five year old but, for some reason, her teacher really doesn’t like her.
As Mary tries to learn, the teacher – we’ll call her Ms Down – ignores her successes but is quick to point out every failure. Anything less than perfect is roundly criticised. Mary regularly hears that she is stupid and a failure.
By the end of the first year, Mary is way behind the rest of the class. She has come to believe she’s stupid because her teacher has told her so, so what’s the point in trying when she’s inevitably going to fail? She’s had every last drop of confidence drained out of her.
The following year Mary gets a new teacher – let’s call her Ms Good. Ms Good has a very different attitude to learning, and to Mary. She recognises her true potential and is determined to help her express her talents and abilities. And she’s kind to her.
Ms Good begins by encouraging Mary to take on tiny tasks – things she can’t help but do well. She then rewards her every achievement, however small. When Mary makes a mistake it’s treated as an opportunity to learn. Ms Good constantly encourages her with gentle words and positive statements.
By the end of the second year, Mary is doing as well as anyone in the class. She is confident that she can succeed.
A running commentary
We don’t have to be at school to be at the mercy of a Ms Down. Sometimes she’s there in our own head, commenting on everything we do.
Many of us aren’t aware of that voice. I wasn’t until a counsellor pointed it out to me. Then, once I started tuning into it, I could hear her being quick to judge and a very harsh critic indeed. It was shocking to think of how many years I had been feeding my subconscious with an unrelenting stream of negativity – telling myself that there was no point in trying, that nothing ever went right for me, that I was bound to be disappointed. That, even when things appeared to be going well, something terrible was sure to be lurking around the corner. Little wonder I had spent my life feeling inadequate and overwhelmed.
Old news for athletes
I could also see that, whenever I tried anything new, or a new opportunity had presented itself, I prepared myself for disaster by rehearsing the worst case scenario over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with arming yourself against disappointment and developing a Plan B but, by visualising disaster so often, with so much intensity and in such detail, I was actually shutting out the possibility of success.
The idea that we can use our thinking to build confidence is old news for most athletes. Just think of two equally-talented sprinters who are about to run in the same race. One has spent hours visualising a perfect start, then running faster than she’s ever run before to take first place. She is absolutely confident that she can win. The other has decided to protect herself by getting ready for disappointment. She has spent the same number of hours visualising how she will cope if she stumbles at the block, or trips while she’s in the lead. Trainers know who is more likely to succeed.
Learning to be kind to myself
So, just like Mary, I’d had my confidence chipped away – but, in my case, I’d done all the chipping myself. But the good news was that, as I was an adult with Ms Down in my head, I didn’t have to sit back and hope that a Ms Good would appear. I could simply conjure her up whenever I wanted.
When I heard that negative voice in my head I started thinking about what Ms Good would say. At first, speaking kindly to myself felt incredibly confronting – not only because the words themselves sounded silly, but also because I didn’t feel worthy of such compassion. But, with the encouragement of my counsellor, I persevered to the point that it’s become almost automatic. I still catch myself being harsh with myself from time to time but, as soon as I become aware of that, I think about what Ms Good would say and do my best to follow her advice.
I still don’t have the confidence to stride into a gathering of strangers and work the room, to travel the world alone or even to parachute out of a plane. I’ll never be as brave and adventurous as so many of the women I admire. But I am able to do a job which involves writing and speaking in public. And I no longer feel inadequate, or overwhelmed by everyday life. For me, that’s the essence of confidence – and talking myself into that has truly changed my life.
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