Understanding the Psychology of Confidence

by Thomas J. Schumacher, Psy.D., R-CSW
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Let’s face it -- most people wish to speak to their partner, spouse, family, friends, colleagues and accounts with an air of confidence. They believe that if they project confidence, they will project credibility and the people in their life will heed their recommendations and advice … both at home and in the market place.  Similarly, they believe that if they speak without an air of confidence, then people will be suspicious of them and will withdraw. They believe that not appearing confident is tantamount to inviting attack and criticism. Who would want to be in a relationship with someone, or do business with someone who does not comport himself or herself with a posture of ultimate confidence in what they say?

As a result, many people work hard to craft an image of confidence.  They develop their speech patterns, appearance, clothing and manner to suggest that they know what they are doing.  Any doubts or uncertainty must be banished if the person is to succeed.  Key: Unfortunately, many people are far better at projecting confidence than in being confident. They suppress their private doubts out of fear and embarrassment. Most cannot admit their doubts to their loved ones and/or business associates. Many cannot admit their doubts to themselves.

Note: there are fundamental differences between true confidence and false confidence.  Let’s explore

True confidence is grounded in reality and humility. The truly confident person is always aware of the limitations of their ability to know or to be certain. Their confidence comes from their effort and their care.  True confidence is honed by multiple doses of constructive criticism and humility. Constructive criticism allows the person to revisit some of their thinking, acknowledge errors or misjudgments, and make adjustments as needed. Constructive criticism allows them to always remain humble. News Flash #1: this is a very likable person.

False confidence is grounded in arrogance and wishful thinking. The falsely confident person believes that they are right and must be right. Their “confidence” comes from their desperate need to appear in control. They edit reality to conform to their need and cling to grossly distorted and convoluted explanations and rationalizations.   Key: The hallmark of false confidence is the rigidity with which the person maintains their pose of confidence and omnipotence. They experience criticism as destructive and fear that their house of cards may tumble down if they acknowledge any frailty.   They perceive criticism to be only and always destructive and therefore must ward it off at all cost.  News Flash #2: this is a very difficult person.  Sad reality: False confidence is rooted in shame and humiliation. The person trapped in a cycle of false confidence may well have been shamed about any limitations or imperfections. They also believe that others are harshly critical and waiting to judge them and humiliate them. They then believe they will be abandoned as “not good enough”. Here's the psychological equation: Imperfection leads to shame and judgment, which leads to contempt, which leads to abandonment, which leads to failure.

It is ironic and sad that false confidence stems from an attempt to ward off the shame that the person feels. But they unwittingly promote that which they most fear. It is the falsely confident who are most likely to be unmasked as their “mask of arrogance” and rigidity are perceived as provocative and therefore invite challenge and exposure. The world smells the weakness and closes in.  End result: Often, the person feels like an impostor masquerading as someone who is supposed to be a professional, a partner, a spouse, a leader, a friend, or a parent.

Now lets focus on you … It is important to understand that true confidence is nurtured in an atmosphere of personal candor. Therefore it may be helpful for you to think about your most significant errors and misperceptions. Think of those times and things that you have either denied or not properly dealt with. What errors have you tried to suppress even though you know they are there like an invisible elephant in the room.  Most people know when they have been off base. Far fewer are willing to candidly own up to it and deal with it. But if you are to develop and nurture true confidence, this is exactly what you need to do. Take those emotional ice cubes that you have stored in the freezer and bring them out into the sunlight. Kept in the dark freezer, they will retain their emotional toxicity. They will begin to melt if you allow yourself to bring them out into the warmth of the sunlight. Temperature matters! False confidence is rooted in coldness. True confidence develops in an atmosphere of warmth.  If you are going to develop true confidence, then you need to identify what you have not dealt with and then you need to develop a plan to deal with it. You will need to take genuine responsibility and own up to it. It will free you more than you would imagine.

Now you need to get your inner ducks lined up. True confidence grows from a solid foundation of knowing what you think and feel. Your task here is to identify and develop a set of core beliefs that are true of you and to whom you are true. This is identifying your core identity and it needs to be relatively fixed and stable. Note: Your moods may go up and down but your core beliefs do not. They remain a fundamental part of who you are and are independent of external conditions.

Next step: Transmitting confidence is simply a matter of transmitting your inner ducks. To be convincing, you need to be convincing rather than try to appear convincing. Trying to appear convincing is a posture that is inherently false and empty. If you just transmit your well thought out and accepted core beliefs, you will be convincing.  A colleague of mine recently reminded me of a story he often tells his patients.  It is about Louis Armstrong. Someone once asked Satchmo how he could learn his technique for playing the trumpet. Satchmo replied: “You blows what you is”.

Those who try to appear convincing rather than be convincing are also vulnerable to a blind spot when others speak with them. They will not be able to readily discern when someone is being inauthentic with them. There is an old saying that the easiest person to con is a con man. The more you need to posture, the more you may be taken in by someone else’s posture. The more real you are, the better able you will be at sorting out who is who and what is what.

Listening vs. Speaking: It may seem paradoxical, but confidence building is more often a function of how well you listen than a function of how well you speak. People will have confidence in you to the degree that they feel that you have carefully listened to them and understand them. How you listen often tells them more about you than what you say. What you say needs to be formulated in the context of demonstrating that you have listened. If you are trying to appear confident, then you probably aren’t listening very well since you are more intent on what you are going to say. And although you may have some very good things to say, if the people in your life feel that you have not listened, they are less likely to feel confident in you.  

You also need to “mind the gap”. The gap is the difference between what the people in your personal and professional life expect from you verses what you deliver. Confidence is established by congruence between what you promise and what you deliver. As the gap between the two widens, confidence plummets.  It is critical that you continue to educate the people in your world about legitimate expectations.  As a result, the people you interact with can legitimately expect that you will act in a consistent, honorable fashion.

Lastly, a “crisis in confidence” is normal, episodic, and growth promoting. Bottom line: We are all capable of having an episodic crisis in confidence. Although they are painful and troubling, they do serve a valuable purpose and are not a sign that you have truly lost your way. They are milestones on the path and validate the purposefulness of the journey. You will emerge from the crisis wiser and humbler. I’m confident that you will.


Presented as a community service by Dr. Thomas J. Schumacher.  Individual, Couple and Marital Counseling by appointment only.
404 Jerusalem Ave., Hicksville, NY 11801 Telephone: (516) 681-3104
19 West 34th Street, Penthouse, New York, NY 10001 Telephone: (212) 947-7111

Available from ElderCare Online™             www.ec-online.net             2003 Thomas J. Schumacher