9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Confidence

The following is an excerpt from Episode 1 of the “Raising Girl Shaped Flames” podcast. If you’d like to hear the full episode, you can catch it here and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasting goodness!

9 Minutes of Neuroscience with Dr Diane Harner

The difference between self-esteem and confidence:

Well, I thought we might start with defining the difference between self-esteem and confidence. So self-esteem is your overall sense of self-worth or personal value. So, in other words, it’s how much you like yourself.  When we talk about confidence it’s about the trust that you have in your own abilities to succeed in the world.

Is confidence something that can be developed or learnt, or are you just saddled with whatever you got at birth?

So the answer is Yes, we can all develop confidence. Some people are very lucky and that they are born with a level of confidence which is determined by their genetics. But for most of us – and even for those people who are born with a little more get more confidence – confidence is learnt, which means we learn how to be confident and it’s also earned. And what I mean by earned is developing confidence isn’t easy. We have to go through times that are scary times where we don’t want to do things. And it’s the courage that we have in those moments to push through that negative emotion that gets us to confidence on the other side.

What are the kinds of ways people could be training or developing these abilities? Through trial and error? Through risk taking and getting out of your comfort zone?

Yes, so exactly those things that you said – it’s those times when we rise to the challenge. It’s times when we take risks. It’s times when we seize opportunities, when we’re put into difficult situations and we problem solve, and we figure out how to get out of it. When we take responsibility. And these are all very scary situations to put ourselves into. But it’s essential to do that, to be able to develop that trust in your ability to manage yourself in those scary situations.

Now we know that from the perspective of the brain that the brain is very plastic and the way that we learn new skills – including confidence – is by creating new connections between the neurons in our brain. Now, the thing about these new connections when we make them is that they’re quite weak in the beginning. So, if we try something once and it makes that connection, but we don’t do it again, that connection can kind of weaken. What we need to do, to be confident and learn to be confident, is to continuously strengthen those connections, which means we need to practice being confident. We need to practice putting ourselves into difficult situations. We need to practice testing the abilities that we have so we can get better at them and then develop more trust and therefore more confidence.

Are there different levels of perception of success that we should be taking into consideration here, as that would affect what level of confidence you have going into a situation?

Yes, absolutely so everybody’s perception of what success looks like is different and it’s a very personal thing as well. Success to me might be coming fifth in a race because that is what I’ve been striving for. But success to you might be coming first.  So, we need to also have a very clear picture of what success looks like for us, and I talk about this a lot when I talk about perfectionism as well. 

Success and perfection are very closely related. When we talk about perfectionism, my level of perfect is different to yours, which is different to all of the listeners who are listening now.  So, when we’re building confidence; first of all, we need to visualise what success looks like. So we know when we’re there. So we know when we’ve developed those abilities that we’re looking for to help us feel confident.

Is there anything you’d like to leave us with on that big picture definition of confidence that parents are listening? Maybe a tactic they could use to help support their daughter tomorrow when they wake up?

So there’s two different types of confidence. There’s an intrinsic confidence that we get from inside ourselves. And there’s also extrinsic confidence that comes from the people around us when they believe in us on extrinsic confidence helps us develop our intrinsic confidence by giving us that little bit of extra support – and courage – to get through the difficult times, and the scary times that are on the road to developing our confidence.

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