Why You’re Not As Confident As Your Colleagues

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.

In her new book, Knowing Your Value, Mika Brzezinski tells of the journey she made from trying to succeed by working hard, to working hard and working smart–which she defines as knowing the rules and having the intel needed to assess how to win.  At the end of the day, winning may have less to do with performance than projecting confidence in your self worth. Taken together, smarts, research, and knowledge help create what we’re so lacking when we don’t get what we want in business: Confidence. I call it the straw that stirs the drink: It’s both what blends everything together and the vehicle through which it’s consumed. Any way you look at it, confidence is essential to getting where you want to be, or even to getting heard today in business.

I’m struck in a similar way by the popular piece in the Atlantic called “The Confidence Gap” which has been trending in a big way. In it, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explore the cultural ramifications and the physiological and evolutionary roots of why women hold themselves back. Much of what I read harkened back to what I know about stress and women, namely that women shoulder the worst of the effects of chronic stress.

It’s one thing to encounter stress, and quite another to compound that stress with the belief that you’re not: good enough, smart enough, strong enough to do the job. And I’ve seen far too many women miss opportunities and stunt their own growth simply because they don’t believe they’re capable. There’s a slippery slope to this way of thinking which makes the lack of confidence a barrier to achieving your goals.

Here are some signs that your confidence gap is affecting your stress levels and making your personal and professional life harder than it has to be.

You blame yourself, but not in a productive way. The article authors observe that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. In the Atlantic article, Cornell psychologist David Dunning explains a specific gender difference in the way the students in his Ph.D. program respond to the stressful curriculum: Men tend to blame circumstances for trouble (“This a tough class”), whereas women blame themselves (“I’m not smart enough”).  We call this personalizing, and it robs you of confidence, as it sets you up to continually blame yourself when things don’t happen, rather than analyzing how to manipulate external events and factors to accomplish your goals.

You process emotion differently. For obvious reasons, researchers have been hesitant to draw a gender line with regard to how men and women think and act, for fear of recrimination and accusations of sexism. But based on current fMRI scans, Kay and Shipman say that, in fact, “women tend to activate their amygdalae more easily in response to negative emotional stimuli than men do—suggesting that women are more likely than men to form strong emotional memories of negative events.” You can see how a propensity toward “once bitten, twice shy” could hold you back. The authors also note that women have a larger anterior cingulate cortex (also known as the “worrywart” center) which may have served you well scanning for threats on the African plains, but does little to motivate you to ask for a raise.

Worry is your signature emotion. When worry is your go-to emotion, your default way of interfacing with the world, then you meet all of the stressors that arise with a negative bias. When you assume the worst or waste energy on all the possible things that could go wrong, you compromise your capacity for optimism, which detracts from self-confidence. After all, if you live in fear of what could happen at any moment, how can you present a strong, self-assured front? You can’t.

You think confidence is about being cocky. The most confident people I know don’t brag or lord things over other people. They certainly don’t need to remind you of how great they are; you can sense it when they walk in the room: An air of calm self-possession. Richard Petty,a psychology professor at Ohio State who has spent years studying confidence, says in the Atlantic article that it’s the “factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.” Confidence isn’t a false, sunny veneer you use to deflect from your self-doubt. For it to be real, you have to feel it, and that means you have to start acting that way. When you believe it, so will everyone else.

You attribute your achievement to luck. Simply put, you don’t take any credit for what you’ve earned and accomplished. You chalk it up to a mistake, circumstance, or just dumb luck. You think, “I’m not capable,” “Someone else could do it better,” “I lucked out and shouldn’t be here”—which contribute to the internal conflict that fuels chronic stress and actually inhibits your confidence. Own your successes. This sense of self-possession has a way of opening up opportunities. Think about it: Do you want to entrust lucky people to getting things done, or accomplished and successful people? Nope. You want someone who’s there on purpose and knows exactly how they got there.

Read more about how to you’re zapping your own happiness.