As a therapist, I have conversations with people about anxiety several times a day. Anxiety can be a response to a whole range of experiences: from fear of judgment in social settings, to violence and abuse, and beyond.
On more than a few occasions, clients have come to me to find solutions to anxiety related to a sense of not measuring up – fearing they are ill equipped to handle aspects of their lives. Usually, as the conversation progresses, people acknowledge that this has a lot to do with their confidence being undermined. Through this work, I’ve come to see that confidence and doubt can have a lot to do with anxiety in some contexts.
Confidence and Anxiety
Anxiety is an understandable emotional response to feeling as though we may not have the skills to handle the challenges life serves us. Some folks have described it to me as feeling like being tossed into the deep end and being unsure if they can keep their heads above water. There is a sense that on one hand, their water-treading skills are up to the task – but on the other hand, there is a chance that they’re ill equipped. In these situations, anxiety can be likened to a fear response that tells us that our safety may be in jeopardy. This is a feeling that we would not have if our sense of confidence in our abilities was unquestionably convincing.
For the sake of transparency, I’d like to note that I do not believe anxiety to be an inherently bad thing for us to experience. I believe that anxiety is a highly adaptive response to danger and a lack of security (among other things). Although anxiety has our best interests in mind, I do understand and respect when people say that something about their anxiety isn’t working for them - such as those who identify as having an anxiety disorder.
What Supports Confidence?
There is no single right answer to the answer to the question, “What supports us in feeling confident?” From my experience of helping people feel more in touch with their confidence, factors that bolster it have a lot to do with the individual contexts of our lives. In a situation where one person feels very confident, another may feel quite uncomfortable or fearful.
Despite these individual differences, there are a few consistent factors that I find almost universally support people in feeling closely aligned with their sense of confidence:
1. Opportunities to succeed
- When we’re given fair chances to prove our abilities to ourselves and others.
2. Support from others
- When other people act like cheerleaders, affirming their belief in our abilities.
3. Past successes
- When we’re able to remember similar times in which we were able to succeed.
Essentially, when we’re able to hang on to the knowledge that “we can do it!”, we’re able to align more closely with our sense of confidence. When this happens, we’re likely to feel less anxious when we’re tested by adversity.
Confidence Vs. Doubt
Often when I meet with people whose anxiety has a lot to do with their confidence, they’re struggling to hold on to the knowledge that they’ve proved their abilities in the past when tested, and that others have witnessed and acknowledged this. For me, this raises an important question: why?
If confidence is like a sense of assurance that “we can do it”, what is its opposite or rival? Clients with insider knowledge have shown that doubt can be like kryptonite to confidence. Doubt can undermine the knowledge we have about our capabilities and leave us feeling unsure if we’re really up to the task.
What Supports Doubt?
We live in a world that sends us a fairly constant stream of messages about our so-called deficiencies. On top of that, many of the folks I speak with about anxiety and confidence have had other people in their lives tell them directly that they don’t cut it – that they lack in skill and ability. It understandably follows that these people might feel anxious and reluctant to do certain things when they might be labeled deficient if they struggle in the process. In these circumstances, as awful as it might feel, anxiety can indicate a concern for one’s own safety.
In contrast to confidence, doubt is often supported by
1. disaffirming messages about our abilities,
2. receiving judgment or condemnation from others when we struggle,
3. messages that imply that we’re deficient in key ways.
I’ve noticed that negative, doubt-supporting messages often carry more weight for people than their positive, confidence-supporting counterparts. This can make the struggle against doubt particularly challenging. This is a main reason why it can be so hard to feel confident in the face of doubt.
People with insider knowledge about the roles confidence and doubt play in the maintenance of their anxiety show us that it is possible to resist doubt. Doing so makes more room for confidence to inform our sense of ease and security – thereby reducing our anxiety.
Because everyone’s life circumstances are different, there are no hard and fast rules to follow when resisting doubt in favour of confidence. Some people might choose to avoid those who do and say things to bolster their sense of doubt and diminish their sense of confidence. Others might remind themselves privately that they are indeed skilled or knowledgeable in the ways that doubt might deny.
I’ve asked the following questions to clients in the past to help them align more with confidence and less with doubt:
- When do you feel most Confident? When might you feel most Doubtful? What are you doing in either case?
- If you were to personify Confidence and Doubt, what kinds of people would they be?
- Which would you prefer to spend your time with and why? (likely a no-brainer)
- If spending time with Doubt was a bit of a downer, how would you resist it coming around?
- How would you keep Doubt from getting too close to you if you noticed you were feeling down around it?
- If Confidence helped you feel good, how would you hang on to its messages despite contrary opinions expressed by Doubt?
- What might Doubt not know about you that you and your supporters do?
- What lessons could Doubt stand to learn about you and your abilities?
- How could you remind Doubt of these facts when its standing against your Confidence?
In many cases, the bottom line is this: remember how and when you feel confident and do your best to recapture that way of being.
How do you cling to confidence in the face of doubt?
What are some helpful ways that you resist doubt and diminish anxiety?
Looking for solutions to your own concerns with anxiety or confidence?