“Stop hunching over like you’re trying to fit your body through a tube,” my posture coach encouraged me as I tried to feign confidence in front of the gaggle of strangers watching me.
Since the age of five, and possibly even before, I can remember being told to be more confident. People would encourage me to step into this head-held-high, strong-backboned version of myself – a sort of Anya 2.0, waiting just a few steps ahead. But what they never actually told me was how to get there.
According to a report commissioned by Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, entitled “Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem“, seven in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way when it comes to their appearance, performance in school and relationships with family and friends.
The statistics are equally bleak as we reach adulthood. In 2019, research carried out by My Confidence Matters and the University of Glasgow found that 79% of women lack confidence at work as well as in other areas of life.
Six months ago I decided I wanted to learn how to foster more confidence in myself. I asked confident friends, colleagues, family members and even an ex-teacher what they felt had most encouraged their self-confidence. I ended up with a list of 30 suggestions and, over the next few months, I diligently tried them all. Which is how I ended up at a ‘posture perfecting’ class, ‘resetting my scapula’ so my chest could bloom outwards in what I know was meant to feel like a display of confidence.
I never went back to that class, although my friend Rosie, who suggested it, said it had helped her lead meetings at work. I did however keep moving forwards with the other 29 suggestions. Some were straightforward: get your hair done. Some were exhilarating: try boxing. Others were so terrifying that my stomach curdled in the weeks running up to them (stand-up comedy class, I’m looking at you).
Let’s start with the easier suggestions. These are the ones I saved for days when I felt small, when coercing myself into the bigger exercises (like attending a party alone) was categorically Not Going To Happen.
On these days, I practised low-lift exercises like reciting affirmations, assuming power poses in the mirror and listening to a hypnosis recording (this one from Audible is great). These didn’t require me to step out and roar at the world, instead encouraging a gentle rebellion against my negative self-talk.
I found some success with each one. Although cheesy, reciting affirmations was my favourite. Each morning for several weeks I would think about how I was feeling about myself; far too often it was a variation of I’m not good enough. I would then create a positive affirmation from it; something like I am good enough and I can do anything.
I would write this thought down, stand in front of the mirror, look myself in the eye and repeat it over and over for five minutes. It’s not enough simply to say the words – you need to say them in such a way that if someone were standing beside you, they would believe you meant it.
“Using affirmations can retrain your subconscious to believe something new,” mindset coach Poppy Delbridge tells me. “If you consciously ‘talk’ to yourself in a new way with repetition, you can disrupt old mind chatter by creating new neural pathways (the pathways through which our nervous system communicates and controls our body) in your brain and retraining the way you think, and therefore act.”
How do I look?
Various people suggested changing up my appearance as a way to foster confidence, particularly when it comes to dating or making new friends.
“I always get my hair done when I’m going into something new, whether it’s a date or a job interview,” an old schoolfriend told me, reminding me that the post-breakup haircut is a cliché for a reason. “Who broke your heart?” my hairdresser once asked when I demanded he turn my long blonde hair into a chocolate bob.
Getting my hair done is nothing new to me as a paid-up member of the bleach club, but this time I paid attention to how I felt as I left the salon: the way I swayed my hips more in time with the buoyant swish of my hair, how I stood a little taller and smiled a little wider at other people and at my own reflection in shop windows as I passed.
Did I feel more confident? Yes. Did it last? Yes, it did, for at least a week. “This is why people get weekly blowdries,” my friend told me when I explained the fading feeling of confidence, and for the first in my life I understood why.
We all make snap judgements on first impressions, and we know others do the same to us, so it stands to reason that putting our best foot – or hair – forwards and taking control of our image is the most immediate change we can effect in ourselves.
Reaching out to others
I really connected with the suggestion to help others. It came from a particularly self-assured ex-teacher of mine. “If you can’t do something for yourself,” she told me, “do it for others and it will soon come.”
Of course it’s generally just good to be kind, but the psychology behind her comment fascinated me. Helping those in need activates the mesolimbic system, the portion of the brain responsible for feelings of reward and happiness. So by contributing to the greater good, you can build self-esteem and create a positive relationship with yourself.
Another unexpectedly successful suggestion came from a colleague who recommended I reach out to five people who inspire me and invite them for coffee. And so I did, feeling distinctly like I was about to ruin my career. All five replied.
Bar one who had moved out of town, I met them all for coffee and am still in contact with two. I received several big article commissions from the exercise – one for a publication I’d wanted to contribute to for a long time – and lots of really useful advice about my career.
The most confidence-affirming part of the exercise, though, was that not one of the people I met was the Miranda Priestly-type character I had imagined. Several seemed more nervous than me and almost all of them asked “Was I helpful?” at the end of our meeting.
The deep end
The terrifying pinnacle of the whole process was the stand-up comedy class suggested by my cousin, who used to do small stand-up gigs. “If you can show your metaphorical knickers on stage and get through it, you can show them anywhere,” she told me.
I signed up to a beginners’ course (£75 with The Comedy School) and arrived a few weeks later, wobbling from the mouth down, breathing heavily in terror.
Contrary to what I expected, there was no one waiting to shove me onstage under an unforgiving spotlight. At least not straightaway. Instead, we talked about how to turn a story into a successful anecdote. It was relaxed and friendly – but then the session ended with each of us performing a short sketch.
I forced myself to go first to get it over with and was met with laughs and stunted silences in equal measure. But when my five minutes were up, I realised that I didn’t care how my jokes had gone, I was just thankful it was over.
This was one of my main takeaways from the whole experiment. You can’t control others’ emotions any more than the next person but you should still get up and speak your truth. Trust me, once you’ve stood on a stage and tried to make a room full of people laugh, nothing will ever be as scary.
Perhaps my biggest learning from my quest for confidence is that it’s not about the specific things that you do but how often you do them. Confidence is not something we attain and then bank forever; we need to continually work at it as we evolve, as circumstances change and life bends in directions we never saw coming. It is a relationship that we will work on for the rest of our lives.
Confidence coach Lucy Baker confirms as much. “Confidence can be built relatively quickly but like any form of self-development it is different for each individual and depends on how much work that individual is prepared to put in.” She says it’s important to understand what’s preventing you from feeling confident so that you can “work through what’s holding [you] back, or even eradicate it entirely. Then, from a clean slate, [you] can build confidence up.”
I can’t predict what the future will throw at me or you or any of us, but I do know that doing everything we can to meet it with confidence is better than any crystal ball.
There’s a lot of convincing to do in this world; let’s convince ourselves first.
The 30 things I tried to boost my confidence
1. Joined a posture class
2. Took a public speaking session
3. Attended a stand-up comedy course
4. Practised power poses
5. Recited affirmations
6. Got my hair done
7. Read You are a Badass by Jen Sincero
8. Practised naked yoga (I tried this one at home)
9. Saw a confidence coach
10. Spoke to a comparison coach
11. Went to boxing classes
12. Went to a party on my own
13. Emailed five people I look up to
14. Wore matching underwear
15. Went to a beauty masterclass
16. Wrote down limiting beliefs
17. Read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers
18. Worked to define my purpose – my ‘why’
19. Adopted the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ ethos
20. Wore high heels
21. Signed up to play netball (spoiler: I was rubbish)
22. Took credit for my achievements
23. Accepted compliments rather than batting them away
24. Made lots of eye contact
25. Did something I’d put off for a while
26. Listened to a hypnosis recording
27. Controlled my scroll (identified who made me feel bad about myself on social media and then muted or unfollowed them)
28. Helped others
29. Took dance classes
30. Went on holiday on my own (in the UK)
Credit: Original article published here.