When dealing with new situations—giving a presentation in class, hanging out with new people, trying out for the soccer team—confidence is often the last thing we feel. The good news? Science says we don’t actually need to feel confident to be confident.
“Our nonverbal [signals] govern how we think and feel about ourselves,” says Dr. Amy J. C. Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School in Massachusetts who studies the impact of body language on confidence. According to her findings, people who exhibit self-assured body language (i.e., standing in expansive postures) end up feeling more powerful, which can have lasting positive effects on their mood and how they feel about themselves (Psychological Science, 2018). Though her original research on “power posing” was labeled controversial, Dr. Cuddy recently published a large-scale review of 55 studies that provides further evidence to support her theory.
So, next time you need a confidence boost, try spending a couple minutes in a Wonder Woman-like pose, with your feet spread apart, hands on your hips, and chin lifted toward the ceiling.
How to appear confident
Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t born with this innate sense of certainty. Confidence is developed from the thoughts we think and the actions we take. We don’t necessarily develop confidence from our abilities to succeed at something but rather our beliefs in our ability to succeed.
“Having confidence takes practise—sometimes you have to play mind games to get it started,” says Dr. Scyatta A. Wallace, Professor of Psychology at St. John’s University in New York.
“Often, if you don’t feel confident, it’s because your mind is going back to other times when things didn’t work out or you thought you did something wrong or weird,” she says. “To get confidence, you have to trick your mind into thinking you’re all right. Brain games work—your mind is just like a computer and you can override the system.”
You’re reading that right: Confidence can be faked first and felt second. (So the phrase “Fake it till you make it” may have some validity after all.)
“I’ve found that if others seemed to believe that I was more confident than I actually felt, I ended up actually feeling more confident in myself in that situation. I’ve done this a couple of times in professional and academic settings.”
—Chelsea L., first-year undergraduate student, University of New Brunswick
Keep these confidence boosters in mind next time you need it.
1. Make a list of the skills, traits, and accomplishments you bring to the table.
Are you exceptionally good at making study guides to help your study group? Are you a master map reader and can help direct your friends to the restaurant you’re going to? Examine your own strengths. How can they be applied here?
2. Remember that you’re your own harshest critic.
Others are unlikely to notice all the little things you’re dwelling on. Plus, ruminating on the negative is one of the biggest causes of stress and can contribute to depression and anxiety, suggests a 2013 study published in PLoS ONE.
3. Picture yourself succeeding.
“Visualize yourself doing things with confidence,” says Dr. Wallace. Studies show this works. TD Bank conducted a survey of more than 1,100 people and 500 business owners, and found that those who created vision boards or images of their goals were more confident about achieving them.
4. Refrain from negative self-talk and comparing yourself to others.
Comparisons are futile. There will almost always be someone who’s better at something than we are. Strive to do your best, not be “the best.”
“Know that there’s only one you in the world. Tell yourself what you’re worth, and practise a lot of self-talk,” says Georgette S., a third-year undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick.
5. Think of something that made you confident.
“Think about something great that you accomplished, and remember that most of the people you’re with are likely feeling the same as you,” says Karol C., a fourth-year student at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Remembering when you’ve excelled in the past can give you a boost now.
One way to recall past events is to write them down. “Writing it down goes a long way—make a small booklet of all the times you’ve felt proud, accomplished, or happy, and then flip through it whenever you feel down about yourself,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year undergraduate at the University of Victoria. “It’s hard to believe the number of happy moments we forget in life (when things are difficult) until we’re actually reminded of them.”
6. Keep learning.
“Research, listen and learn,” says Anthony Di Monte, Co-founder of SchoolMatch Canada. “Anything that you can do to increase your knowledge can help increase your confidence too. Knowledge really helps to reinforce confidence.”
It sounds weird, but smiling—even when you’re not necessarily happy—can help you feel better by slowing your body’s response to stress in a tense situation, according to a study in Psychological Science.
“Smile and be present in the moment,” says Valerie M., a third-year undergraduate student at Mount Royal University in Alberta.
Remember that confidence is often learned, not innate. “It’s normal to not feel confident,” says Dr. Wallace. “The key is to take your time practising feeling confident in some part of your life. As you start to feel better, you’ll have that confidence to take on other areas where you can practise these tips.”
“Even the most outwardly confident students question something,” says Di Monte. “Know that this is a normal and healthy part of the student experience, and that confidence can be bolstered in time.”
Amy Cuddy, PhD, Professor and Researcher, Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Anthony Di Monte, B.Sc., MBA, Co-founder of SchoolMatch Canada.
Scyatta A. Wallace, PhD, Professor of Psychology, St. John’s University, New York.
Cuddy, Amy J. C. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. TED Talk. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.html
Cuddy, A. J., Schultz, S. J., & Fosse, N. E. (2018). P-curving a more comprehensive body of research on postural feedback reveals clear evidential value for power-posing effects: Reply to Simmons and Simonsohn (2017). Psychological Science, 29(4), 656–666.
Kinderman, P., Schwannauer, M., Pontin, E., & Tai, S. (2013). Psychological processes mediate the impact of familial risk, social circumstances and life events on mental health. PLoS ONE, 8(10), e76564. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0076564
Kraft, T. L., & Pressman, S. D. (2012). Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1372–1378. doi: 10.1177/0956797612445312. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23012270
TD Bank. (2016, January 20). Visualizing goals influences financial health and happiness, study finds. Retrieved from https://newscenter.td.com/us/en/news/2016/visualizing-goals-influences-financial-health-and-happiness-study-finds