I got a message from a young woman who is struggling with a losing streak, which is something I’ve had a good bit of experience with. She knew this, and asked for my advice on how to deal with her lack of confidence. This was a private communication, which I want to respect, so I shared only my answer (my side of the communication) with the intention of reaching others who might be dealing with something similar. You never know when something you’re doing or saying might be meaningful to someone else out there who simply didn’t ask, and I’ve found words and videos that resonate with me at the exact moment I need them and am grateful for the people who put themselves out there in order for me to find those things that I maybe didn’t even know I needed.
Anyway, when I posted my response on my Facebook page there was such a strong response to it that I thought it would be meaningful to write an expanded post on the same issue: how do you be confident under the yoke of self doubt?
Here’s what I answered and then posted on my FB page:
… Something I feel like I know in the back of my mind but don’t always acknowledge when I actually need it is that we’re really bad judges of our own progress. Time and time again I feel totally stunted and like I suck, but people at the gym don’t see it that way. But that feeling is what affects your fight, not whether or not it’s true. So, your goal is to get those thoughts to settle down. They don’t have to go away, but they’re just THOUGHTS… and thoughts aren’t true just because you think them. Secondly, this next opponent has nothing to do with your last fights. At all. You can’t do anything about her size or her training or anything about her, so just stop thinking about her. Focus on what you want to do, regardless of the opponent. Do you want to be more aggressive? Move more? Kick more? Stay calmer? Think and work on those things, not on what she “might” do or be.
I think what was the most profound mental thing for me was reading the concept that confidence isn’t primarily a feeling, but rather it’s an action. You can act confident even if you don’t feel it… and then you do feel it. So how would you act if you were totally confident, at training, at home, with friends, when running? Then do those things that you would do, act as you would act, if you were already confident. And write down 5 things every day that you did well in training. Sometimes it will be hard to think of five – it is for me because I’m hard on myself – but things like, “I got my ass kicked in sparring but I stayed calm and didn’t show it,” counts as a good thing you did. It’s in exercise in giving yourself credit and accepting it… something confident people do 🙂
Let me know what you think after reading this and/or trying it out…
A few people responded with the well known affirmation “fake it ’til you make it” phrase, to sum up what I meant about acting confident prior to actually feeling confident. I think this just comes from it being a phrase that we know and a broad understanding the general concept, but there is some degree to which this phrase is, at least for me, in the way of what I actually mean and what I found is required in order for what I’m talking about to actually work. But the reason I think it’s not quite right is that “faking” is not quite the same as “acting as if,” and even that isn’t the same as expressing the value before it becomes a characteristic. That’s the phrase I’d want people to rattle off to themselves, rather than “fake it ’til you make it,” say, “express the value until it becomes a characteristic.”
How Confidence is like Patience – Internal vs External
So what the hell does that mean? Well, just like confidence is both an action and a feeling, it is both a value and a characteristic – and in both cases it goes in that order: action and value –> feeling and characteristic. But I’m not just playing at semantics, I think these are important distinctions. The idea that you’re faking confidence implies fraud, phoniness, and maybe deceit – at least to me. None of those are things you’d want to claim as values, despite the fact that what you are “faking” is a value that you truly embrace. This is one reason why I had a hard time “faking” confidence in my early attempts at mental training, faking or pretending went against my essential value of being honest both with myself and with others. But, on the other hand, by acting confident, that is acting like how a confident you would act, I believe you are also truly being confident, even if it’s a concerted effort, or your internal feelings don’t quite match up. Take another example, imagine you are being patient. You have to re-explain again and again while someone is either truly failing to understand or simply not listening; inside you may be blowing your lid, wanting to tell this person off, but outwardly you are nodding and listening, expressing a calm and measured patience. You are being patient, even if inwardly you want to strangle someone. You’re not faking patience. Perhaps you carry out patience outwardly and wish that your internal experience could become more aligned with how you act – you want to not be screaming on the inside – that’s great, you can work on that. It’s the same with confidence. You act with confidence to express the value and in truth you are confident, even if inwardly you express your self-doubt. The aim may be to quiet down that inner voice that betrays your self-doubt, but it’s very existence doesn’t mean you aren’t confident. It just means you can work to bring greater coherence between your outward expression (action) and inward experience (feeling).
Take another example, imagine you are being patient. You have to re-explain again and again while someone is either truly failing to understand or simply not listening; inside you may be blowing your lid…
What I like about the exercise in behaving as a confident person would is that anything that comes to mind is going to be within my own concept of the values of confidence. Some people might think, “a confident person would slap you right in the face for saying that!” and maybe I don’t agree with that, but because I don’t agree with it, I wouldn’t think of it and so wouldn’t choose that as my means of performing confidence. When you imagine what a confident you would do, you are expressing values you already have. You’re not “acting” or “faking”, you’re just choosing to behave in the way you think you would behave anyway if you felt other than how you believe you naturally feel. Does that make sense? Okay, another example: if I were feeling shy I would try to be invisible and not draw attention to myself, whereas if I were feeling confident I would present myself among the rest of the group, with energy, and be open to the attention of those around me. I can do either of those things regardless of how I feel, I simply attach an emotional catalyst to one choice over the other to explain why I might behave one way over the other. But neither is a lie, neither is a false action; they’re just theoretically linked to an emotion. So un-link them.
Sometimes I’m in the ring sparring or clinching, or trying to destroy Pi Nu in padwork, and 90% of the time I’m “faking” something, or some might choose that word. I’ll be faking that I’m not tired – I’m always tired – or that a punch didn’t affect me, or that I’m not about to cry. All kinds of things like that. The truth is: I’m acting, or “performing” (better word) confidence at times that I’m actually feeling confident, just as much as I would be performing confidence at times I don’t feel confident. It’s all drag, you might say; none of it is organic. But it’s certainly easier or requires less concentration when I’m feeling good. It’s the same thing with being polite – polite is not “natural” because it’s cultural and social; you choose to be polite every time you’re polite. At times you have to go against what you are thinking or feeling in order to accomplish this, but sometimes it’s very easy and you don’t think about it much – like habitually saying “please” and “thank you”. You don’t “naturally” say those words, but you’ve trained yourself to do it and most of the time you mean it, so it feels natural. Same with confidence, it’s a value in the same way that manners are a value. It’s not some inherent, inborn and never-requiring-effort kind of thing. Sometimes it’s hard to be polite when someone or something is pushing against it, but because you value politeness, you will still conduct yourself this way. So choosing to act confident regardless of the emotion you are currently feeling isn’t being untrue to yourself, it’s just easier or harder depending on context.
me in a confident performance moment – photo courtesy of Tom Brown Muay Thai Action Photography
As with politeness or patience, you can keep your cool on the outside even when you’re ready to blow your lid on the inside, but eventually if someone keeps pushing you, you will break and stop being polite or your patience will run out. At some point, you’ll just be faking it. If the way you treat people comes from a place of your core values – that every person is deserving of dignity and that even if someone is being very nasty to you it is likely they’re having a bad day and you can take the “higher ground” by remaining cool and collected – then these thresholds will be very high. Because you’re acting out of your values. And so it is with confidence. If you are acting out of your values then the space between how you “really feel” and how you want to act can be brought together; if you are only pantomiming what confidence should look like when someone is feeling it, then you likely will reach a breaking point quickly. I’ll give an example: I have a really hard time with “self-talk” as a concept in mental training. I feel like Stuart Smalley speaking into his mirror with his affected tones of self-affirmation, which isn’t a good feeling to me. I find it embarrassing and because it feels like I’m “faking it” to say, “Sylvie, you’re good enough, you’re smart enough and – gosh darn it – people like me,” I simply won’t do it. So I feel like a fraud and end up not practicing self-affirmations, just like strutting around the gym with an attitude of “I’m the best,” simply doesn’t suit me. However, I don’t feel like a fake to speak to myself the way I would a friend, or anyone who writes to me with the same struggles I face. Saying, “I’m the best,” feels fake to me because I don’t think or feel it, but saying to myself, “I’m the best I’ve ever been right now, including my mistakes,” is something I do think and feel and value. Both those statements could be classified as “confident.” The latter is one I can carry around even when I’m not feeling good about myself; it doesn’t go against my core values and it remains a solid belief about myself even in the face of contradictory self-doubt. The thought “I’m just not very good,” can co-exist with and be over-written by “but I’m better than I was before.” So the task is to look within yourself and find what your core values are about who you are and what kind of fighter you want to be, and then move from the framework of those core values toward the actions and behaviors and thoughts that express them. That’s how you keep from faking; that’s how you bring coherence to acting confident even at the moments that you don’t feel confident. You structure your actions and thoughts on something deeper and more unwavering than feelings – you base your actions on your values.
That’s how you keep from faking; that’s how you bring coherence to acting confident even at the moments that you don’t feel confident. You structure your actions and thoughts on something deeper and more unwavering than feelings – you base your actions on your values.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the person who messaged me acknowledged that I’ve had my fair share of experience with losing streaks – my complete fight record here. I seem to have handled them well and the woman who wrote to me noted that I’ve then gone on to have winning streaks as well. So, I’ve had experience on both sides of the coin. I’ll let you in on a secret that I’ve discovered through all this 140 fights of experience: your losing streak isn’t what’s making you lack confidence. You already have self-doubt and losing the fight or fights is just the excuse we’re giving ourselves to indulge in that feeling. Likewise, if you win a fight or a string of fights, that’s not really why you are confident – you already have confidence, it’s just being linked to the correlating feeling because of those events. I know this because I’ve had those wires crossed. I’ve won and felt exactly as much self-doubt and insecurity as I could if I’d lost; I’ve also lost and felt pretty damn good, regardless. So, you don’t have to win to feel, or be, confident; nor do you have to lose to feel or be down on yourself. The order of things is important because you can’t wait to win your next fight in order to feel confident – you have to access your confidence first.
Keeping Feelings In Perspective
Kevin and I fight about my self-esteem sometimes. I have this bad habit of defending my gloominess or self-effacing criticism because it’s “how I feel,” and in the culture and time I grew up in, giving value and attention to feelings as real things, and defending them and our right to feel them is something we do. Feelings are organic and need to be recognized. I think that’s true, we do need to acknowledge our feelings and our right to feel them (boys can be sensitive and girls can be angry, that kind of thing), but we don’t need to be controlled by them. Think of Peter Pan and how the kids flew around by thinking happy thoughts. Peter never stipulated that they had to be happy to fly, they just had to think those thoughts. Likewise, you don’t have to be confident in order to think confident thoughts, nor do your thoughts of self-doubt have to mean that you are the sum of whatever those thoughts are telling you about yourself. If I think a happy thought, it’s usually a memory of something that triggers the happiness I already have inside me – a kitten video doesn’t create happiness, it sparks your existing happiness. You don’t have to build confidence, you have to remember confidence. I think when we use the phrase, “building confidence,” what that really means is reinforcing the mental pathways that give us access to that feeling with less effort, which is what happens when those thoughts or feelings become “characteristic.” But while we’re working on that we can still express the value of the confidence that isn’t so easily accessed by acting, or “performing” that value.
If you enjoyed this post, you may like this Struggling Through a Losing Streak post on the Roundtable Forum.
Here is an Archive of my Mental Training Articles