The difference between self belief & self confidence and why this is important to leadership

By Sue Congram

I listen intently to my client. She is intelligent, witty and very capable, highly qualified and now a Director in a large global corporation. Described as a ‘high flyer’, she has progressed quickly in her career. It transpires that at an early age she was encouraged to be the best at everything she did. Her identity revolved around what she could do well. She asked to explore a leadership issue and says she has lost confidence in herself, but her story suggests that her capacity to deal with it is limited by low self belief - not a lack of self confidence.

I noticed in this client what I would describe as a system out of balance. This observation may have reflected the organisation she was working in, but that was not my main concern. It seemed to me that the trajectory my client was on would aggravate the issue, not resolve it. The challenge for her now was not to learn more knowledge, but to build her self understanding and self belief, a significantly different intelligence to the kind she was familiar with.

You might ask ‘Why her self belief? It sounds like she has loads of it.’ 
We live in a world that places high value on building self confidence. Our education systems, our jobs and professional work, assess, examine and reward on our ability to get results, to perform well in our field of expertise. With much credibility, prestige and economic value placed on qualifications, competencies and performance, the need to also build self belief has become obliterated. How can we get this so wrong? 

This cultural evolution has resulted in people confounding self belief and self confidence as the same. They are very different. When separated we begin to see that the knowledge and expertise around which we build self confidence, is only part of the story, self belief is very different and we build it in a different way. Who you are as a person, what your values are, what your history is, how you relate to people, what you appreciate in yourself, all contribute to your identity as a whole person, leading to self belief.

Assessing the strength of your self belief

A good test to assess your own self belief is to imagine stripping away all your qualifications, knowledge and expertise, then ask - who is left? Do you find someone who has a personality, has beliefs and knows what really matters to you? Or do you see an empty shell? Who you are as a person, what your values are, your history, how you relate to people, what you appreciate in yourself, your inner emotional world, all contribute to your identity as a whole person, leading to self belief.

For my client it was the latter, her sense of self and self belief were almost absent, her prior attempts to fill that shell turned into more knowledge-building, more qualifications, because she knew no other way. 

Growing self belief

Self belief means knowing yourself as a person in your own right, trusting in your own judgement, your intuitions and sense-making, how your point of view is of value, how you step up to challenges, even if you do not yet have the knowledge. Then, how you understand your capacity to learn, experiment, explore, inquire, to have a go, to imagine success. How you listen to your intuitive self, your embodied wisdom and sense of knowing. With strong self belief comes enhanced self esteem and self worth - feeling good about yourself and valuing yourself in your leadership. There are many ways to grow and develop self belief, described here are a few healthy pointers:

  • Developing an ability for in-the-moment awareness

  • Self reflection and self awareness

  • The art of receiving positive feedback

  • Looking in the mirror and asking the question ‘Who am I? 

  • Knowing what really matters to you

  • Imagining and experimenting

Developing an ability for here-and-now awareness
One of the most insightful processes that I learned in my early training as a psychologist was how to bring my attention to the here-and-now. By taking a few minutes to stop thinking about the past, the future, or what’s going on elsewhere, you bring yourself into-the-moment. A place where you can observe yourself without judgement, or observe your self judgements and simply notice. On seeing yourself in this way, you then become more aware of how you respond to situations and have more choice. This can be life-changing.

Self reflection and self awareness 

Noticing yourself in your world, being curious about how you go about your life, how you engage with others, how you respond or react to situations, all start when you begin to really look at yourself.  You realise that when things aren’t right that trying to change others or blame others can make things worse. To improve is to know your own patterns, how you react to situations, how you address or avoid conflict, what masks you hide behind, how you close down or speak up, what your tolerance levels are, what you love in yourself and what you dislike. Knowing yourself well can help you create the conditions for your success in the future.

The art of receiving positive feedback 

People with low self belief often find it difficult to take in positive feedback, yet this is the one thing that they need to build a strong sense of self. Do you brush feedback away or diminish it by saying; ‘Oh it was nothing’ or ‘wouldn’t you have done the same?’. If so try a simple ‘thank you’ instead and begin to take in feedback as an important nutrient for your self belief.

Looking in the mirror and asking the question ‘Who am I? 
There are two mirrors, the glass one on your wall and the reflective one between yourself and others. Whilst both can provide a way for discovering yourself, the one that I refer to here is between yourself and others. Seeing yourself through others can be powerful. Noticing their qualities, how they live life, how you judge them, envy them, or enjoy their company, all say something about you. Then you might ask, ‘What positive qualities do I see in others that are also in me?’. Seeing yourself in the mirror of others is a rewarding way to get to know yourself.

Knowing what really matters to you 
Ask yourself this question - what really matters to me? Make a list, keep asking the question. You may be surprised at what you find. Every single response says something about your own deep beliefs. When you know what really matters to you, you touch the heart of your whole being, your core self.

Imagining and experimenting
A really inspiring exercise is to imagine a quality that you would like to have, such as bravery, boldness, daring, grace, then gift it to yourself for a day. Keep it in focus, experiment, try out, test it, discover. See what happens. You might be surprised just how easy it turns out to be.

By working on any one of these you will begin to strengthen your self belief. By developing self belief, you will find much greater strength to overcome challenges that seem insurmountable.

My client - with a lot of support, started to build self belief. This took time. Most of all it was hard to trust her intuition and ‘not knowing’. Significantly, she recognised how she had contributed to the problem that had challenged her, by knowing and appreciating herself more, she approached it differently and the problem resolved itself. She needed to do nothing more.

In my next EB Inspiration I will offer further suggestions on how to strengthen self belief, the impact that self doubt has on us and explain how low self belief is also a root cause of an inflated sense of self.

Vicki Gray