Intriguingly, confidence is also linked to other aspects of our physical health. Facing a stressful situation but believing you can succeed boosts your immune system. Feeling about your physical performance also increases your strength and endurance, and lowers how much discomfort you feel when pushing yourself, according to several studies. Put together, just feeling confident that you can achieve an exercise routine will make it significantly easier to do.
However, Robertson is keen to point out that having an inflated ego isn’t good for you. Children who go through their early lives at the top of the class, never experiencing difficulties, can build confidence that’s so high they believe they will never fail. When the inevitable setbacks happen they don’t know what to do, and can feel like their world is crumbling, says Robertson. He says that those who have been the ‘golden boy or girl’ throughout their school and university years often find themselves “feeling anxious and pressured” when they enter the world of work. “If you’ve never experienced that, it can feel like something alien and terrifying and strange,” he says.
Parents who show a “healthy attitude to failure” can help their children build a stable and long-lasting form of confidence that won’t be shaken by a single setback, says Robertson. “One of the best things you can do for children is not to be anxious about [failures],” he says. “Parents should say things like ‘Failure is something you learn from’.”
Confidence stems from childhood, but it’s perfectly possible to increase it to healthy levels later in life, says Robertson. There are several ways to do this: firstly, when you fantase about the things you’d like to do in your life, try to also imagine the practical steps you’ll take to achieve your goal. This is a practice called “mental contrasting,” says Robertson.
“When you fantasise about some desirable goal, your brain responds [as if you’ve achieved] that imagined outcome with… a boost to the brain’s reward network,” he says. “People sometimes are stuck never quite getting things done because the brain treats that as if they’ve achieved it.” Instead, you should “start thinking through the practicalities” as soon as a fantasy pops into your mind, he says.
And what about that research that showed that “power posing” – spreading your arms and legs wide to create a feeling of physical size – can increase your confidence? Possibly, says Robertson. “Previous meta-analysis has shown that doing a big power pose will not raise your confidence, but doing a contracted pose will reduce your confidence,” he says. So if you have an important presentation coming up, there’s no need to stand with legs akimbo, but avoid hunching your shoulders or crossing your arms beforehand.
If you lack confidence, Robertson recommends you listen to yourself speak and see whether you’re always apologising, even when you haven’t done anything wrong. This may sound something like: “I’m sorry if I’m boring you,” or “I’m sorry I only brought chocolate biscuits.” If you lack confidence, cut this type of apologising out, says Robertson.
Unconfident people apologise a lot because it “produces a temporary reduction of anxiety” as you get assurance that you’re not offending others, says Robertson. But long-term, these self-deprecating comments make others less likely to believe in you, which in turn can make you feel less confident. “If you don’t believe in yourself, [others] will not believe in you either”, says Robertson. “Confidence is contagious.”
How to boost your confidence
Think about something that is very important to you, like your relationships or religious values, and think in detail about a positive memory connected to it, says Robertson. For example: if you choose relationships, think about a genuine conversation you recently had with a friend or a hug with your spouse.
Nothing is fixed – not even your best talents
People who have ‘fixed’ mindsets – believing that you are born with talents or weaknesses – can have problems with confidence. What’s much better is an active mindset of believing that you can achieve a range of things, if you set your mind to it and put in the necessary work.
Power posing might not be as effective for boosting confidence as research first suggested. However, adopting small, hunched body language can drain your confidence fast. You don’t need to have your legs far apart, but straighten your spine and uncross your arms if you have to do a task that requires confidence.
Set small tasks
Building confidence is best done bit by bit, by setting yourself tasks that gradually get more difficult: over time you will prove to yourself that you are able to achieve. Confidence is like a muscle that gets stronger with use.
Make a plan
Keeping your mind open many possibilities, what Robertson calls a “deliberative” mindset, caning your confidence by swamping you with too many options, which makes you unsure of which path to follow. What’s better is to practise an “implemental” mindset: pick out tasks one by one, and think clearly through the practical steps needed. Taking action builds your confidence over time, and planning in advance for setbacks strengthens your resolve in the face of adversity.
This article has been updated with the latest advice.
Does confidence have a big impact on your life? Let us know in the comments section below