Lack of confidence is something I experience on a daily basis. Perhaps it is related to my depression, perhaps not. However, I can feel my comfort zone gradually shrinking so that I am reluctant to try news things and risk fresh failure and pain; sticking instead to what I know will not hurt me. This is not going to help me stay well.
Time, then, to tackle the confidence problem, with the help of The Confidence Gap by Dr Russ Harris.
The approach in this book is ACT – acceptance and commitment therapy.
ACT, originally called comprehensive distancing (great name!), was developed in the late 1980s. The objective is not happiness; rather, it is to be present with what life brings us and to “move toward valued behaviour”. It has been described as getting to know unpleasant feelings, then learning not to act upon them, and not to avoid situations where they are invoked. Its therapeutic effect is said to be a positive spiral where feeling better leads to a better understanding of the truth. [source: wikipedia]
Dealing with negative thoughts and feelings
The Confidence Gap starts from the assumption that negative thoughts are not inherently problematic. It doesn’t matter whether thoughts are true are not; what matters is whether they are helpful. The thing with negative thoughts, and ‘unhooking’ from them is to diffuse their power by noticing the thought, naming it and neutralising it. How do you do this? With mindfulness. Mindfulness develops our ability to notice thoughts in a detached way; to unhook them from snagging the mind.
Unpleasant feelings and sensations in the body can feed negative thoughts and lead to a depressive spiral. ACT uses ‘expansion’ to deal with feelings and sensations: again the first step is to notice them. The next is to acknowledge and make space for them. In this way, Harris says, we learn to accept our fear.
Values to live by
These ACT techniques are useful adjuncts to mindfulness practice; they could be applied to many situations where negative thoughts and feelings are problematic. The Confidence Gap suggests another general principle – that of living according to your own set of values (which he defines as ‘desired qualities of ongoing action – how you want to behave as a human being’).
Values play a major role in developing confidence and enhancing performance. Not only do they provide us with the inspiration and motivation to ‘do what it takes’, they also sustain us on the journey…And even when we don’t achieve our goals..we can still find satisfaction and fulfilment from living by our values. Russ Harris, The Confidence Gap
It would not have occurred to me that confidence could be linked to values, but I have found this the most useful part of the book so far, and I will return to the issue of personal values and mental health in a future post.
The confidence gap
The ‘confidence gap’ is when you believe you can’t
- achieve your goals
- perform at your peak
- do the things you what to do
- behave like the person you want to be
– until you feel more confident. Harris argues that people may lack confidence because their expectations are too high, they judge themselves too harshly, they are preoccupied with fear, or they lack experience or skills.
To overcome these:
- Unhook from excessive expectations
- Practice self-acceptance and self encouragement
- Make room for fear – and if possible, use it
- Step out of your comfort zone and get the experience you require
- Practise the skills, apply them effectively, assess the results, modify as needed
My lack of confidence comes to the fore when I am playing the trombone, which is not the ideal instrument for a timid, shy person like me, but it’s what I play nonetheless (that’s me last Saturday, second from right, photo by Tim Lawes).
I would love to have the confidence to play in public (at band practice or at a gig/concert) as I do at home – with the appropriate volume and attack. But I worry too much about making a mistake and cocking it up for everyone, or others hearing how poorly I am playing. And so every band practice or concert becomes a source of embarrassment and self-reproach. Which is ridiculous – it’s my hobby; making music with others is a wonderful thing to do.
So, I have the perfect thing to try these Confidence Gap techniques on. It’s not just about practising the skills, and getting the appropriate experience. It’s also about working with the fear and self-doubt in a smarter way.
Rules of bridging the confidence gap (Harris, The Confidence Gap)
- The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later
- Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear; it is a transformed relationship with fear
- Negative thoughts are normal, Don’t fight them; defuse them
- Self-acceptance trumps self-esteem
- Hold your values lightly but pursue them vigorously
- True success is living by your values
- Don’t obsess on the outcome; get passionate about the process
- Don’t fight your fear; allow it, befriend it and channel it
- Failure hurts – but if we are willing to learn; it’s a wonderful teacher
- The key to peak performance is total engagement in the task