Please stop telling people to build confidence. It isn’t helpful.

When we suggest to others that they need to build their confidence, it comes from a good place. It comes from the place of remembering how confident we felt once we stopped feeling whatever way it was that we felt before – unsure, lost, uncertain, confused, hesitant.

But confidence is not the problem. Contribution is the problem.

When someone outwardly displays what appears to be a lack of confidence, what’s really happening is that they don’t see how they fit in. In their role. In their team. In their company. In the world.

They already feel unsure, then you go and suggest that they build some confidence. And it makes the problem worse. For someone already doubting their place, they now know that you see it. And this can make them feel further exposed.

For those that have heard it a hundred times already, they might accept the lack of confidence as an inherent problem that they need to fix. They then become so fixated on how to gain this confidence that they don’t actually do the that would help them stop feeling unsure: take action.

This not a problem only for young people. This is not a problem only for women – although we are quicker to point it out in both young people and in women. Women in general receive this advice more than men, and putting the focus on confidence means the focus isn’t on thing that matters – such as what they want to accomplish.

I’ve seen men in their 60s and women in their 50s who were once quite confident show up seemingly lacking confidence. Often when this perceived lack of confidence shows up later in life, we can slip into thinking that the person missed a step earlier in life during which they were supposed to build confidence (as if it were a one-time event), or that the person just isn’t very confident overall.

This “uneasiness,” imposter syndrome, or lack of confidence – whatever you want to call it – can show up in any stage of life. And it is more likely to surface during a time of major transition.

If This Is You

For people that are experiencing this, some combination of the below is happening:

1. You’re trying to figure out where you can contribute.

This happens any time change occurs, such as moving to a new role or a new company. It’s going to take time to discern which of your current skills transfer, which of your skills aren’t as obvious to others yet, and which skills you may need to build.

Solution:

Take note of the activities you complete each day and separate your actions into three buckets to answer these questions:

  • Which of my skills can I use here?
  • Which of my skills aren’t as relevant to my new goals?
  • Which relevant skills do I need to communicate more loudly, through words or action, so that others understand the value I bring?
  • Which skills do I want to deepen to be even more successful?

2. You’re focusing too much on what you can’t do instead of what you can.

It’s not your lack of skills, but what you are paying attention to. In times of change, many things will feel unnatural and difficult. This isn’t because something is wrong with you. It’s because there are more new things being thrown your way. New takes time to absorb and process.

Solution:

Prioritize doing one small thing you are good at every day so that you don’t lose sight of the skills you’ve already built. Break the other tasks into smaller pieces so you can better see micro-wins and get a sense of your own progress as you absorb new information. Remind yourself that anything new feels difficult, and allow yourself the space to not feel competent.

3. You’re coming out of a situation where you were consistently undervalued.

Perhaps you worked for someone that repeatedly told you the areas in which you were not enough. Perhaps you were in another type of relationship that told you that. This feedback can’t help but be internalized to some degree, particularly if you were in the situation for a long time.

It’s going to take time to rebuild those positive pathways in your brain. Those tapes are likely to play ten times louder than they should, and drown out much of the positive aspects of the current situation or of situations prior to it.

Solution:

Document compliments from others – the times others comment on where you have contributed, the value you bring, or something that made life better for them or the team. Be your own cheerleader and focus on where you have made progress. Revisit your collection of positive feedback to help rebuild the positive pathway in your brain instead of reinforcing and replaying old tapes from that past situation.

4. You are in the wrong role.

If you’ve just gone through a transition, it’s unlikely this is the case. Most people have doubts after a change, as they underestimate the time it takes to adjust, learn, and build new skills. If you have small doubts, those are common and are likely to fade as you adjust to the new situation.

When you are truly in the wrong role, it can feel like a five-alarm fire. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling that can’t be explained, and one that you try to rationalize with arbitrary rules around a certain amount of time passing or certain financial goals. Other times, it’s more of a slow creep, where you recognize that the skills you bring to the table don’t match the role you’re in, or will never be valued due to a clash in values or priorities.

Solution:

Make the decision. Recognize that there is a mismatch, and stop leaning into the illusion that you might change the person or environment to fit you. This might require you to acknowledge that you made a wrong decision, and that you have learned new information that will help you make a better decision in the future. It may simply be that you and the environment have “grown apart.” Focus your efforts on finding a role that better matches the value you offer.

How to Help

If you’re trying to help someone through a situation where they seem to be displaying a lack of confidence, you can help – not by telling them what to do and how to change, but by helping them connect the dots between their actions and their impact.

You can help them break down projects into smaller tasks to identify wins. This will help them see the progress that has already been made. You can tell them the specific qualities that you appreciate in their work. And you can also ask them:

  • What projects do you get excited about working on? Why?
  • Do you see how <your specific action> helped us do <a specific thing>?
  • Is there something you’d really like to work on that you haven’t had the chance to?

These questions not only help you learn more about a person’s interests and goals, but they force the person to think it through for themself.

What we really want people to display is gravitas, and for a person to do that, it requires them to see where and how they are making a contribution.

Confidence is not the problem. Contribution is the problem.

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