How do I develop self-confidence and embrace risk-taking, generally?
January 16, 2014 7:51 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to reverse my deeply rooted low self-confidence, and to become more willing to take risks?

I have a lot of insecurities and low self-confidence, and it permeates every aspect of my life -- expressing opinions, proposing new ideas at work, disagreeing with coworkers or staff (I am a new manager), even choosing what restaurant to go to and planning events with my friends. It really, really sucks, and a recent three-sixty-degree work evaluation brought it home to me, and honestly scares me as its the demon i've been battling my whole life (however, i recently have greatly improved my depression symptoms and am up to a much better level than i've been in for a loooong time.) I recently discontinued therapy because what i originally went in there for several years ago -- classic depression/non-functioning/crying/ideation/etc is really mostly resolved and i wanted to focus time and money on other things like weight loss. Is there something more targeted I can be doing to work on my self-confidence and improve my willingness to take risks? I wish there was a bootcamp or immersion process for this, but i guess it doesn't really work like that (but if there is one, please let me know! :))
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I wish there was a bootcamp or immersion process for this

I went to a good therapist who actually sort of worked this way. Like, I was absolutely petrified to ask a guy out, and he basically gave me homework of asking out a guy on OKCupid. His support got me doing things I'd never been able to do before. You could ask some therapists and see if you can find one who would do this sort of thing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:01 PM on January 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

The answer is therapy. But as you've indicated you're not willing to do that, try this. Keep in mind I'm not a professional.

Make a list of things that scare you. Maybe it's jumping out of airplanes or interacting with snakes or talking to a room full of people.

Pick one of those things, and commit to doing it by July 1 of this year. You've got almost six months to get used to the idea of it, to learn how to manage the risks, to do it safely. You've got almost six months to learn how the pros do it.

Then, break it down into smaller steps or find a controlled environment where can dip your toes into the scary experience, and start pushing your comfort zone a little. Not too much. Just a little.

(NOTE: whatever the thing is, if there's any risk of physical harm, like rock climbing or jumping out of a plane or whatever, please have an expert present to guide you. That's just sense.)

It's important that you don't push your comfort zone too much, because then you'll just shut down and power through whatever it is with your eyes closed and you won't learn the lesson. Just push it a little bit, until your inner voice says "no!" and listen to that voice. Let that voice know that you're in control. Notice how you feel when you have to say "no!" to the experience. Let yourself have that feeling. Understand that you're in control, even when you feel out of control. You got scared and you said "no!" and then you stopped. You're in control.

But also, you just dipped your toe in and you didn't die. So know that, too, and maybe dip your toe in again. Maybe go a little further this time, always understanding both that you could say "no" at any time and also that you're doing this risky thing and you're not dead. You're okay and you're in control.
posted by gauche at 8:06 PM on January 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

for risks i would recommend starting small and inconsequential, then work your way up. if you never smile or talk to the cashier while getting groceries, give that a try. once you perfect that go for the small talk. then move on from strangers to people you know. i find for me practice is what helps ease my insecurities. for example sometimes i go to the bathroom and rehearse the bullet points of what i'm going to present to my boss before i actually bring it to him (he can be kind of a scary guy).

another thing - fake it til you make it. sometimes just getting through an event having faked it successfully can make you believe hey maybe i really CAN do this! also you may never know how many other people around you are also faking it too, so just keep in mind that you're not the only one out there unsure about things :)
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:07 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another thing you could do is take a ride on a sailboat under the hands of a skilled sailor.

The reason I suggest this is that, unless you're an experienced sailor, you're going to think that the boat is about to capsize as it gets underway. That deck will tip, and tip, and you'll hold on white-knuckled. And after ten or fifteen minutes you'll notice the sailer kind of quietly laughing at you, because you're acting like you are in danger when you're not. The sailboat is fine. It's built to tip way over like that.

This will teach you that your instincts for danger are not always calibrated to the situation you find yourself in.
posted by gauche at 8:10 PM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could also join toastmasters.
posted by gauche at 8:11 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Small risks can work their way up to bigger risks. If you go to Toastmasters, that will help with the speaking in front of other people. Tell your friends that, on Wednesdays, you're going to pick a place to go or a thing to do, and they should hold you to it. Work your way up and be sure to congratulate yourself for every small victory.
posted by xingcat at 8:28 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not a psychologist and this is not psychological advice, my writing is just an opinion and an offering of information.

I have a lot of insecurities and low self-confidence, and it permeates every aspect of my life -- expressing opinions, proposing new ideas at work, disagreeing with coworkers or staff (I am a new manager), even choosing what restaurant to go to and planning events with my friends.

Do you see the common component in this list? You are afraid of being wrong (in the eyes of others) about something or anything. In social psychology this need to be accurate is a central construal (others being the need to belong and the need to feel good about ourselves). Often these construals are in conflict and can prompt behaviors that aren't even necessarily beneficial. [For example, giving in to peer pressure or the overwhelming desire to be RIGHT in an argument - thank goodness for wikipedia on the phone now! and people do crazy things to feel good about themselves].

I don't think that you can change these urges overnight. Here are some tools that I'd like to offer you to help with handling things now.

1) Awareness

If there is a behavior you'd like change or improve in some fashion, just start measuring it. Don't do anything else - just measure it. A funny thing happens when you start to quantify a behavior, it improves - things just start to get better.

If you can't measure it, but you have an idea of when this behavior is going to happen try

2) Mental Contrasting with Implementation intentions

This technique is absolute magic. I don't know why this MC w/ II isn't being shouted from the rooftops - it works.

And finally -

3) Self-Kindness.

Be kind to yourself. Have you ever been a better person because you beat yourself up over doing something stupid? Hating yourself over a past mistake is a horrible prison. Remember, people that go to jail don't become better people, they do however become better criminals. It's ok to be wrong about things - you aren't your mistakes.
posted by Brent Parker at 8:43 PM on January 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

Something only feels risky when you feel like you have something to lose. When you're really depressed, you feel like you have nothing to lose because you're already at bottom. You feel bad, anxious, lonely, whatever before. After you get rejected, you're still feeling bad, anxious and lonely. There's really no functional difference whatsoever.

The problem right now is that you actually do care. You've just started feeling better, so of course you're afraid to mess anything up. You have achieved something- a fragile balance of mental health- and you're terrified you'll lose it. Well, you lost it before and you crawled your way back out of it, didn't you? Don't let that dark place have power over you. You got out of it before, and it's very likely you can do it again. Trust your ability to cope and power through. Really give yourself credit for the toughness you've displayed so far. A lot of times, people don't. They think, oh, my luck just turned, my life just got better. But I bet if you think about, you actually made that happen for yourself. Pat yourself on the back a little bit for that. No minor rejection can send you back to that place, and even if you did go back there, you've already proven you can get out.
posted by quincunx at 10:11 PM on January 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

CBT and EMDR were essential to me overcoming my profound feelings of worthlessness.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:18 PM on January 16, 2014

There is an immersion process for this - it's called life! ;op

The issue is two-fold. You have to develop inner resilience. And, you have to take risks (small, calcuated ones are best). You need both. You develop inner resilience by treating yourself a bit like a child - be as supportive and as nice to the child as possible; be patient, forgive your mistakes, the child is learning - but also understand that the child has to learn and grow (so no stagnating). And take small risks as gradually as possible, knowing you may make mistakes, some you can fix, some you cannot. Keep taking risks. Keep making mistakes. Keep learning new things. Keep experiencing new things. Try to have fun with it. You'll learn more about yourself and what you can do and this will build your resilience and allow you to take more risks. :o)
posted by heyjude at 12:12 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Exercise with a goal can be a HUGE confidence booster and a great forum for thinking. I would suggest getting into running through a couch to 5k program, running without music ( it's SO meditative) and then pick a spring road race to run as a short term goal. Focus on this goal and train your butt off. It's amazing what completing a race can do for your psyche. Then, of course you can always try a longer distance if that worked.
posted by floweredfish at 1:02 AM on January 17, 2014

You could also try finding a private space to do two minutes of power posing before walking into any situation you expect to be stressful.
posted by flabdablet at 1:57 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me, 'working up to things' and doing things like Toastmasters has often been a fun ride on the Anxiety Express. Often times, what has helped me do things I'm fearful of a little more often is to treat them like icy swimming pools and do them thinking about them beforehand as little as humanly possible. The more time I have to think about doing the thing I'm afraid of, the more freaked out I get. Start small and work up.

And maybe this is a shallow self-confidence principle, or somehow not real, but 'making goals and achieving them' is helpful to me.

One other thing I've found helpful is 'building stuff'. It doesn't have to be literal hammer-and-nails type building, it could be building anything.

These things don't have to be like bungee jumping or building a summer home. They're actually better if they're numerous and small, like I built an organizational shelving unit for our front hall closet and got someone to install a lighting unit, and I rode high on that thing for like two months.

Not to imply I'm not anxious and insecure. I am, I own it. But I've found some of the above useful.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:34 AM on January 17, 2014

Oh one other thing: permission to get the occasional D+.

There's an aspect of my professional life that I'm historically bad at, and in order to get better at it I've accepted I need to suck at it for a while so I wrote a D+ on a Post It to remind myself when that thing comes up that a D+ is a passing grade and I should shoot for a D+ instead of an impossible A, which I wouldn't get and would beat myself up for. So I've been shooting for the D+ as I work to get better.

It helps with avoidance behavior.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:37 AM on January 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Rejection Therapy!
posted by DarlingBri at 3:14 AM on January 17, 2014

I asked this question
a while back; you might find some of the answers helpful.

In particular, my colleagues have found the book "The Charisma Myth," by Olivia Fox Cabane useful. It offers concrete suggestions and exercises for raising your internal comfort level and making a better impression on others (which leads to better results, which improves self esteem, etc.).
posted by rpfields at 7:11 AM on January 17, 2014

I struggle with this too and for me intensive mindfulness practice really helped me notice when I was doing this "in the moment" and react with wisdom/kindness. Over the summer I was doing mindfulness meditation for about 45 minutes a day and I noticed that I'd begin noticing my thoughts and reactions much more clearly. Like this is kind of a crazy example, but there was a particular moment where I noticed almost as if in slow motion the following happen: 1. I reach to pet my cat. 2. The cat runs away from me. 3. Guilt. The cat is running away from me because I am bad. When I noticed it so clearly it seemed absurd and I could see it exactly for what it was, which was a kind of messed up script or broken circuit in my processing. Then when it happened in high stakes situations (like at work - I make a mistake and think, "I am bad") I could more clearly see it for what it was and just let it blow over. But I came to it through mindfulness and it was very much an experiential realization. If I had just read a book that said, "Just because your cat runs away from you, you are not a bad person" it clearly wouldn't have had the same impact.
posted by mermily at 7:49 AM on January 17, 2014

The people that I've known who suffer from this kind of paralysis are perfectionists. They can't possibly waste money, time, effort, or risk looking bad. They think there's some kind of objective "right" answer out there, and I am telling you there isn't one.

There is no right answer to life.

There's only one way through, and that's through.

Go out for lunch. Go somewhere new. Don't read a yelp review. Pick a new dish. If the restaurant sucks, well who cares, it was only $15.

You develop confidence by making a decision and seeing what the result is. If it's good, great I made a good decision. If it's not, ask why not, and do it differently next time. See what I did there? It has nothing to do with you as a person. It's just the scientific method. Stimulus A gave result WQZ; try a different stimulus next time.

And remember there are very few "make-or-break" decisions. The big ones are: What job to do, where to live, who to marry. The rest are in decreasing importance. Ask yourself: will this decision matter in 5 minutes? 5 hours? 5 days? 5 months? 5 years?

You develop confidence by a pattern of "good" decisions. And shrug off the bad ones.

PS. They gave you the manager position because you're doing something right! If you were an idiot who made shit decisions, they would give it to someone else.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:54 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

choosing what restaurant to go to and planning events with my friends (and I'm applying this also to "planning events with my work team" since you are a manager, and all my work teams have quarterly bowling-type events)

I have trouble making these decisions, too, and I finally figured out a trick: once there is a short list and all the options are acceptable:
1. It doesn't really matter which one you pick because they are ALL GOOD choices.
2. Pick one, then write the others down on the calendar for next time. BONUS - next time, you don't have to go through the indecisiveness - it's already decided!! Of course you can change it if someone really wants Thai food and is willing to decide on a place - just move the list to the next time.
posted by CathyG at 10:23 AM on January 17, 2014

I often recommend "The Nice Factor Book" by Robyn Chandler and Jo Ellen Grzyb. It has some scenarios and scripts for timid people to handle stuff without having to instantly transform into some kind of BAMF.

Gradually, you need to coach yourself to speak and act with power, and that is something you can do from the outside in.

I am not sure how important "confidence" is; oh I must attain confidence! I must attain inner peace and live in a state of zen and outwardly radiate my inner calm! That turns confidence into something unattainable. It makes more sense (to me) to try to be reasonable and to not do things that signify weakness while I'm doing it. has good tips for this as well.

I often have transient attacks of self-loathing and have to force myself to do stuff, so I think carefully about how to talk about it and force myself through that too. There seems to be no practical difference between that, and confidence.
posted by tel3path at 10:53 AM on January 17, 2014

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