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Why You Should Stop Trying to Be More Confident

Research shows that mastering self-compassion is a better tactic when it comes to relationship and career success.
Man watching himself in mirror
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Let’s cut to the chase: yup, successful people are confident. And the more successful people become, often the more confident they are. And more confidence provides more benefits. Studies show overconfidence increases productivity and causes you to choose more challenging tasks, which make you shine in the workplace. Overconfident people are more likely to be promoted than those who have actually accomplished more. Just speaking first and often — very confident behavior — makes others perceive you as a leader.

If confidence is so powerful, should we simply pretend to have it when we don’t?

We all have a touch of delusion (everybody’s kids seem to be above average and not many people admit to being a bad driver), but when that goes beyond normal thresholds, things get problematic. Unfortunately, we don’t talk about this problem much. Everybody wants to increase self-confidence. That’s because confidence feels good. Confidence makes us feel powerful. But plenty of research shows that when we feel powerful it can be a slippery slope to denial and hubris.

Across a staggering number of studies, feelings of power have very negative effects on a person’s character. Power reduces empathy, makes us hypocritical and causes us to dehumanize others. Studies also show feelings of power cause us to be more selfish and more likely to commit infidelity. And we don’t just lie more; that power also makes us better liars. Feeling like number one means we don’t stress out about hurting others so we don’t experience stress when we fib. Without those stress cues it’s harder for others to detect our deceptions. We succeed because we don’t care about other people.

Confidence makes us feel powerful. Power reduces empathy, makes us hypocritical and causes us to dehumanize others.

When we’re less sure, we’re more open to new ideas and we’re actively and passively scanning the world for new ones. When we have that confident feeling of power, we don’t pay as much attention, because we feel we don’t need to. A study aptly titled “Power, Competitiveness, and Advice Taking: Why the Powerful Don’t Listen” showed that just making someone feel powerful was enough to make them ignore advice from not only novices but also experts in a field.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says there are two benefits to humility: it’s a reality check and it keeps us from being arrogant. He argues that humility actually drives self-improvement because we can see the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Also, being more competent than people assume we are is much better than not living up to our swagger.

Kinda sucks, doesn’t it? Seems like there’s no easy answer. You can impress people and make them angry or have them like you but not respect you. It feels like a contradiction. So how about this: What if you throw the whole confidence paradigm in the trash?

Smiling woman
Studies show that self-compassion has all of the benefits of confidence — without the potential drawbacks. Hero Images / Getty Images

Plenty of research shows that looking through the lens of self-esteem might be the real reason the debate over confidence is so fraught with grief. But what’s the alternative to self-confidence? University of Texas professor Kristin Neff says it’s “self-compassion.” Compassion for yourself when you fail means you don’t need to be a delusional jerk to success and you don’t have to feel incompetent to improve. You get off the yo-yo experience of absurd expectations and beating yourself up when you don’t meet them. You stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, you focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not.

Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides.

Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides. You can feel good and perform well while not turning into a jerk or being unable to improve. Unlike self-confidence, self-compassion doesn’t lead to delusion. In fact, one study, “Self-Compassion and Reactions to Unpleasant Self-Relevant Events: The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly,” showed that people high in the trait had increased clarity. They saw themselves and the world more accurately but didn’t judge themselves as harshly when they failed. When you check the numbers, there is a solid correlation between self-esteem and narcissism, while the connection between self-compassion and narcissism is pretty much zero.

What happens when you feel good about yourself and your abilities without inflating your ego? People like you. Neuroscience research shows that developing self-compassion leads to feeling compassion for others, instead of the loss of empathy that comes with overconfidence. Under an fMRI, people who were forgiving of themselves had the same areas light up that are activated when we care for other people. With romantic couples, self-compassion was evaluated as a better predictor of being a good partner than self-esteem.

One of the things self-confidence does is make you happier. Self-compassion does too, but without all the negatives: “Research suggests that self-compassion is strongly related to psychological wellbeing, increased happiness, optimism, personal initiative and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, neurotic perfectionism and rumination.”

So how do you develop self-compassion? Just talk to yourself nicely, gently, like Grandmom would. Don’t beat yourself up or be critical when things don’t go your way. As researcher Kristin Neff explains, “Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”

You also want to accept your humanity. You are fallible. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. You can’t be. Nobody can. Trying to be is irrational, and that’s what leads to all the frustrating emotions.

You are fallible. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. You can’t be. Nobody can. Trying to be is irrational, and that’s what leads to all the frustrating emotions.

Finally, recognize your failures and frustrations without either denying them or seeing them as the end of the world. No rationalizing or melodrama. Then do something about them. Studies show that taking the time to jot down nice thoughts to yourself, how you’re a fallible human and how you can see problems without turning them into emotional disasters, made people feel better and increased self-compassion. Meditation and mindfulness paid off too. Throw them into the mix for better results.

Is growing self-compassion gonna improve your life overnight? Heck, no. But with time, improvement is possible as opposed to the confidence/nonconfidence spectrum, which always seems to come with side effects.

From Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Copyright © 2017 by Eric Barker. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.