What To Do When Your Confidence Is Shaken

20.09.20 03:05 PM By Heather Kleinschmidt

Shoulders slumped. Heavy face. Feeling small.

You don’t know what you don’t know.


There’s an interesting thing that happens in life:

The more you grow in one area, the more you don’t grow everywhere else.

In other words, we pick what we’re going to focus ourselves on — and what we’re going to filter out. We make choices about where to invest our life, our effort, our attention. And in doing so, we leave behind all the other things we could become instead.

We develop and improve along our own unique path — but we neglect much more than we take in (because we have to).

This leaves you ignorant and weak in some number of domains — which is a necessary, but painful, truth.

Meanwhile, all the people around us are developing and improving in their own singular way.

When we step back and look at the whole picture abstractly, it’s a beautiful thing. Diversity at its finest.

But in the day-to-day nitty-gritty, it gets really (really) messy…

How the Mess Happens
With every individual becoming more and more singular in who they are, here’s what happens:

A gap widens between you and your counterparts, where they become stronger and stronger in their specific capacity, and your undeveloped weakness becomes more and more obvious.

And vice versa.

This is fine for most technical skills — we don’t feel down on ourselves for not knowing how to write code like a software engineer or how to whip up a baked alaska like a chef. But if it’s something we feel we should know — maybe it’s something relating to home maintenance, handling basic finances, or some soft skill — then it can create some real insecurity.

It’s worse when it’s something critical to your current responsibilities. When you’re called on in a meeting or conversation to address something. And it’s way over your head.

For the most part, you may be able to slide by without it becoming obvious. But inevitably, there will come some moment when you’re put in the spotlight, everyone expects you to come through… and you don’t.


The Reason Why This Is So Unnerving

In society, we take care of each other. But if you’re the weak-link in the tribe, then you know that if the tribe gets into trouble, you’re the first to go.

Your body does a few things in response:

This automatic biological process takes place any time you find yourself not-quite-up-to-par.

What Do You Do Next?
This is the real question —

You only have a few options in the next moment.

And whatever choice you make is going to send critical information back to your brain.

It’s a small moment that plays a big role in determining your ongoing trajectory...

The Conversation You Have With Yourself
Maybe it’s true that there’s something you should have known.

Maybe it’s even true that you had ample opportunity to figure it out, and you didn’t.

But you don’t know it. And that’s the long and short of it. You don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s uncomfortable, unnerving, maybe even humiliating.

Is it the end of the world? No.
Can you move forward from here? Yes.

Therefore, when you find yourself in this moment…

1 | Stand up tall
Straighten your spine. Look forward. Draw your shoulders back. Relax your face. Raise your chin a little. Smile.

There’s more ahead. You’re not done yet.

2 | Receive, & face the discomfort
Acknowledge what you wish you had known. Listen to what you don’t know.

Take the hit, and bear it well.

Acknowledge the failure. There’s something accurate about the corrective feedback.

There’s also something you can do about it. There’s somewhere you can go from here.

It’s not a final judgment.

3 | Move forward
You’re still breathing.

You still have a path of opportunity in front of you.

There’s somewhere you can go from here.

So where will you go?


This is how you talk to yourself about yourself — not with words, but with posture and with behavior. You talk to yourself in what your body does.

What your body does tells your brain how it should feel.

When a hit comes, and you receive it with a posture of dignity and self-assurance, you’re telling your brain that it doesn’t need to dissolve into a pool of despair and shame.

You’re telling your brain that you can walk forward confidently and with joy, in full knowledge of your own shortcomings and ignorances — not in denial of them but just… humble.

This is the place where humility and confidence coexist. It’s not one or the other, but both.


Don’t Fall Prey to These Subtle Mistakes
There is, however, an important aside...

There are a few things to watch out for.

These guys are sneaky deceptions that will try to take over your stance — but you can’t let them.

They’re slight variations on the real thing — but they’re like junk food. They might look, smell, and taste like the real thing… but their artificial makeup eventually reveals itself for what it is. They can’t sustain you in the long run.

Faker #1: Gaslighting

It can be comfortable to gaslight.

Gaslighting is when you know that you don’t know what you’re talking about, but you maintain an air of certainty anyway, causing the other to second-guess their own perspective.

It’s an ego-boosting solution for self-preservation.

It protects you from feeling overwhelmed by insufficiency in the moment when you’re caught in ignorance.

But it also — when habituated — destroys your relationships as well as your credibility. And it doesn’t solve the original problem.

It’s a temporary fix.

It makes you feel better by falsely resolving the issue.

But it neglects humility — and as a result, damages the connections on which you rely.

Faker #2: Puffing Up
Here’s another false assurance.

Puffing up is what you do when you don’t want to admit defeat.

It protects you from the shame of coming up short.

But it doesn’t fool anyone — least of all yourself.

Another temporary fix.

Faker #3: The Victim Card
This guy is the seeming antithesis of the first two, but he’s just as destructive — he may even be the worst one.

This is when you believe the lie that you can’t.

Playing the victim card can masquerade as a false humility. It can appear innocent and down-to-earth.

But it’s cowardly. And it’s damaging. And unnecessary.

It protects you from the responsibility associated with the failures that matter.

It also prevents you from ever overcoming important challenges.

It pathologizes your engagement with life and poisons your relationships.

It takes care of the moment — but this is also only a temporary solution.

Your physiology isn't fooled by any of these three fakers. It can read between the lines. It knows that you don't really buy into it when you enact them.

Walking in Legitimate Confidence (when you know you don’t know everything)
In this moment, what matters is that you have the right conversation with yourself.

Because it’s about more than this moment. Whatever you do right now sends a message back to your brain, which determines much more that comes after this moment.

The right conversation here is one of both humility and confidence.

👉  It’s not: becoming defeated or beating yourself up. And it’s also not: foolishly standing your ground and denying any shortcoming.

👉 It is: standing tall, remaining present and engaged, and learning. It is: walking forward, warts and all.


Living It Out
When you feel yourself doing any of these three ―

  • Gaslighting and looking the other way…
  • Puffing up and steeling yourself…
  • Playing the victim card and shutting down…


Remember that you have an alternative.

And talk to your body the right way.


Remember that old biological system? The one that sends you into hyperdrive when it senses that you’re at the bottom of the totem pole?

In the moment when you’re put on the spot and you come up short, that system starts instantly freaking out. By default, it will reach for one of the three shortsighted dysfunctions that pretend like they’ll make everything better.

That’s the part of your body you need to have a conversation with. And the best way to communicate with it is through your posture.

First, breathe.

Then stand tall, with your gaze (literally) looking ahead.

Embrace the discomfort of being the weakest link for the moment. Recognize it for what it is.

And then learn, and move on.


You Can Be Confident
Confidence is the ability to be open and receptive, even in unfamiliar territory, while still moving forward. Confidence is having faith in yourself, no matter what unanswered questions you face. (The Latin root is com, or “with” + fidere, or “trust, fidelity.” The implication is that you can walk with fidelity toward yourself — you can trust yourself.)

Arrogance, on the other hand, is founded on comparing yourself to others, and it’s the sneaky root that feeds the three dysfunctional responses…

You’re a singular individual. You’ve made choices and gone down a particular path in life, and so have each of the others around you. You can’t possibly expect yourself to meet the same standard of competence on all dimensions as every person you encounter.

And so when you don’t meet a standard you’re proud of, perk up — it’s not over.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, because they’re on their path and you’re on yours.

Just learn, and move on.

Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.

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