Branching Out: Building Confidence

“If only I had more confidence, then I could do things like ______ and ________. My life would be more _______. Things would be better,” said plenty of people lots of times.

It was a theme for me too, for so many years, and it is a place I still occasionally find myself. I can still look back and see all of the ways that confidence, a shift in my temperament, would have helped me. It would have helped me in graduate school – seeing myself as just as deserving as my peers of my place in my program. It would have helped me in college and high school in trusting friendships and not needing so much affirmation through romantic entanglements. There is no question in my mind that more confidence would have changed my experience as a professional musician.

But I did not develop that confidence until much later because I had a fundamental misunderstanding about how confidence would come. I thought that at some point, someone in a position of some authority would recognize something good in me – would tell me that I was great at whatever. I would be acknowledged for the good things and THEN, having earned the needed recognition, I could be confident. The stories of Hollywood starlets being discovered at the lunch counter sounded just about right to me. Someone was going to find/see/acclaim my good qualities and then I could act with confidence, do things I dared not do otherwise.

It took me a long time to discover that my thinking was absolutely backward not on one, but two, counts.

In the first place I came to understand that true confidence has nothing to do with anyone else’s recognition of your gifts and good qualities, but lies in your own ability to see, claim, and appreciate those qualities.

bar-blue-business-533347Childhood lessons on humility made it difficult for me to recognize, claim, and celebrate my gifts. It was good to be good at things but not good to make too much of a fuss (or expect too much of a fuss) about them. The fantasy of someone else “discovering” me would let me get around the moral minefield of bragging – my genius would be pointed out by someone else. Aside from the obvious drawback that lunch counter discoveries of talent are rare indeed, they also put all of one’s sense of being enough in someone else’s hands. They put a tremendous amount of personal power in the hands of strangers.

The other thing that I had all wrong was the relationship between confidence and doing the things I wanted to do. I thought the confidence had to come first. It never occurred to me that I had the capacity to develop that confidence by taking action on my own behalf while I was still unsure, unsteady or even scared to death. I didn’t understand that waiting until I was “ready” to do the things I most wanted to do was really just me delaying BOTH those experiences AND the opportunity to develop my sense of confidence by taking risks, by taking action.

All of those steps I was delaying seemed too big to me, too scary. I was all caught up in a story that I didn’t have what it took to complete them, that I needed something else first. What I really needed first was a belief in my value as a human (worth conferred at birth by the way) and the willingness to act while afraid.

I needed the strategy of breaking big steps forward into tiny micro-steps so I could build confidence in my capacity and trust that 1) I will do what needs doing and 2) I will be okay even if those things don’t go well or create the results I am looking for.

adult-beautiful-close-up-936065-2I have those tools now. And I know I will be okay. I see that I have something to offer and I am building confidence every time I act in courage – taking steps when I am afraid. The fear doesn’t really go away if I keep reaching and growing but my increased confidence allows me to gather that courage and do it anyway.

Taking those steps, no matter how small, feels like reaching out with root and branch in a burst of self-supporting growth and bloom. It seems to me that the best parts of our life do this; they look like expansion and nourishment at the same time, and they are holy, sacred, and available to all of us. Even me. Even you.

Get It All Out, Get It All Done

I’ve been talking a lot about our stories lately, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about the world. But a lot of our stories aren’t even as big as all of that. We have stories on the micro-level too. We have stories about our day, about our workload, about our priorities. Well, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.

I have one persistent story that shows up often, especially if I haven’t gotten enough sleep. In fact if I made a chart to track my bad sleep nights and mornings I have this thought, I think they’d line up pretty darn well. When I haven’t gotten enough rest, my morning mantra is “I won’t be able to get it all done.” Now when I say it’s a mantra, that makes it sound like I’m doing it on purpose, that I’m choosing it, that it might be helpful. I know it’s not. This story about my day, about my workload, about the next several hours is completely counter-productive, and that’s what makes it such a great example to demonstrate the value of getting it all out. Let me explain.

How to be more productiveThis very morning I was doing that thing. “I won’t be able to get it all done.” Once the thought happened, the anxiety increased and once the anxiety increased I got a lot less clear about my plan for the day. Once I got less clear, I began to lose track of everything I actually did or didn’t need to do and after this went on for awhile (in the background while assembling lunches and nagging 5th graders out of the door), all I really wanted to do was turn on Netflix, pop Facebook open, and drink a mug of tea – the very things that would, in fact, make my annoying thought true. I wanted to self-soothe by numbing out a little to shut that nattering voice up. But I didn’t do that, at least not today (I won’t go so far as to claim that I am completely and permanently beyond that kind of behavior).

Today I whipped out a clean piece of paper. And I wrote. I wrote it all down. I wrote down all of the anxious, nagging, self-confidence killing thoughts that were whizzing through my head. I just kept writing. I got to the end of the thread and my jacked up brain started just repeating itself, wanting to be sure I really understood that I couldn’t possibly get it all done. I kept writing my thoughts and that one repeated three times at the end of a lengthy paragraph, like a needle skipping on a record. And I laughed a little when that happened. What better sign that my brain was stuck in a loop, what Brooke Castillo calls a “thought error” than having it just repeat the same sentence over and over when it was out of other words? I don’t run out of words very often, as you may have noticed, so that kind of repetition is worth a pause. The point of this whole writing exercise was to get it all out, just let my anxious brain have its moment to say it all.

I gave voice to the fear and the anxiety and in doing so, it lost some of its power. I became the observer of my own thoughts and feelings instead of reacting and feeling like I was trapped. I began to see how allowing that set of thoughts was impacting me. I could acknowledge that the desire for a morning off was based solely on the way those thoughts made me feel, well and maybe a little lack of sleep. I got it all out, like one big verbal vomit. And, well to be honest about the analogy, just like vomit, it made me feel better.

Then I was able to look at my day and decide if that thought was true. Was it really true that I couldn’t possibly get it all done? Was there really so much on my plate? If the answer was yes, I would have a series of decisions to make (as described here), but as is so often the case when I’m stuck in this particular mental trap, I didn’t have SO much to do. I did have some important things to do that I hadn’t thought about very much. I had some items that were at risk of falling through the cracks, but had not yet done so. I made a quick list of those items and set it aside.

How to change your moodAnd then I got down to the business of choosing a new thought, one that would make me feel better, that would allow for action beyond the great escape of Netflix and Facebook (I will always drink tea), and that would give me results that DON’T prove the negative thoughts I have about myself. Instead of “I won’t be able to get it all done,” I chose the perhaps only mildly ambitious but totally believable: “I will be able to get everything important done.” It didn’t make me feel like Wonder Woman – because I’m tired and that’s just not somewhere I need to try to go today. But it DID make me feel calmer and infinitely more competent. It also reminded me that some list items CAN be let go in the interest of clear-headed productivity.

I got it all out. I checked out my thoughts. I chose a better one. And that better thought allowed me to feel capable, calm, relieved and competent. Feeling that way allowed me to sit down with my planner and figure out exactly what needed doing and when, making a schedule for myself that I could follow and get results. And you know what happened? I got it all done. I got it all out and then I got it all done.