This article comes from Phoebe Sanders, a Counsellor/Psychologist at UON and a passionate Acceptance and Commitment Therapist.
“Be confident.” How many times have people given you that advice when going to a job interview or presenting a paper at a conference or talking about your research in front of your peers? “Just be confident.”
So how do we ‘be confident’? Realistically, you can’t be fully confident in anything until you are a master of it, and you can’t be a master of something until you have practiced it many times. The question we should be asking is, “How do you appear to be confident when you are freaking out on the inside?”
Well, the answer is: “By being comfortable with being uncomfortable.” (Thanks George Mumford!)
Firstly, control what you can
What can you control about the situation you are in? If you are presenting a paper or assessment item, you must know your content inside out and back to front. Practice reading through the material, then learn it off by heart. Use palm cards if you have to, or use the presentation slides for prompts only (and for information for the audience). Practice, practice, practice. Speak it out loud, sing it out loud. Just know it.
If you are going to a networking event, learn about the topic before you go. Read up on the latest news headlines or current affairs; that will give you some conversation starters. Research who will be attending and be sure to introduce yourself to people who may be able to assist you in the future. Smile, shake their hand and maintain eye-content. Same goes for social events. Practice introducing yourself at home in front of the mirror – or practice on the dog or a family member or flatmate.
Don’t try to control your thoughts, feelings sensations and urges
Yes that is right, drop the control! You can try to control these internal processes (e.g. negative thoughts, feelings of anxiety). This may work for a while, but sooner or later they just come back, right?
Instead, make peace with them, welcome them like a house guest. Yes, anxiety is uncomfortable, but the more you try to get rid of it, the more it just keeps appearing. Instead, learn to be accepting of it, or allow it to be there.
So if I have to speak publicly, I take a moment to slow my breath. Then I scan my body from head to toe; inevitably I find that my anxiety presents itself – usually in my gut – so I say hello to it, give it some space and return to slowing my breath. I then anchor my feet to the floor, look at my audience, smile and begin to “speak confidently”! I can control my voice and what comes out of my mouth – but if I try to control the anxiety or get rid of it – it gets worse!
What can you do to improve performance and appear confident? Try these strategies from evidence-based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy / Training (ACT).
It’s in the breath
You can’t control your automatic anxiety response (sympathetic nervous system ie. flight, fight or freeze) but you can control your breath. Learn to slow your breathing, learn to breathe deeply all the way into your diaphragm to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Put one hand on your chest and one on your diaphragm; ensure the hand on your diaphragm rises and falls. Count in for 6, and out for 6. Practice every day. Use this excellent tip sheet – the Calming Breath.
Learn mindfulness skills – learn to connect with the present moment
Download Smiling Mind or Headspace and practice! But don’t just rely on the app: be curious about the present moment throughout each day. Every time you have a drink of water, notice the sensations in your mouth and as it flows down. When walking across campus, notice what you can see, hear, smell, touch, taste. Prepare your breakfast ‘mindfully’ or have a ‘mindful’ shower. You won’t be able to be 100% mindful for the whole activity, but it is important that you notice or ‘defuse’ from your thoughts when you get distracted (and you will!).
Defuse from unhelpful thoughts
Thought ‘defusion’ is an evidence-based technique that helps you to ‘unhook’ from thoughts. It involves noticing and labelling thoughts: “Ah, there is an unhelpful thought,” or, “Oh, here is the I can’t do it thought again.” Or give your mind a name – just try it. You might say to yourself, “Oh, there goes Gladys again, she’s always making things hard.” Or ‘thank’ your mind. Try these exercises to get you started:
Learn to accept uncomfortable sensations, feelings and urges
Scan your body from head to toe and just label feelings or urges: “Ah, there is anxiety.” If you can’t work out what the feeling is, just say to yourself, “Oh, there is an uncomfortable feeling.” Or you might say to yourself, “Oh yes, I am anxious and that is okay.” See if you can make room for that feeling; yes it sucks, but can the feeling come along for the ride, in order for you to live the life you want?
Connect with the present and take action
Take a moment to slow your breathing down, notice your feet on the floor and then take action by leaving the house to go to social function, walking into that networking room, or opening your mouth to start your presentation.
Taking action in line with what is important to you is what matters most. We can’t control our internal processes but we can learn to relate to them in a workable way.
“Self-consciousness is when you’re focused on how you’re doing instead of what you’re doing. We have to learn how to push and challenge ourselves, but not in an insensitive way. Honing your performance really comes down to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”—George Mumford, coach and author of the Mindful Athlete.
Awesome YouTube clips to watch in conjunction with this article: