Maz, age 7, Nigeria. About to leap.
BUILDING THE CONFIDENCE MUSCLE
Standing at the school gates, in my 30s, twenty odd years ago, with my shoulders hunched around my ears and staring fixedly at a point in the distance lest anyone talk to me, you wouldn’t have picked me out as a particularly confident person. Although as a child I was averagely confident, though not without my share of insecurities, I entered early adulthood with a series of experiences in love, life and work that sapped my confidence to the point where as a young mum with two horrendous pregnancies behind me and no immediate prospect of a fulfilling career ahead of me I was at rock bottom in the confidence stakes. Not exactly timid, just a bit defeated. Self-worth was pretty low as I’d left my job to move with my husband for his promotion. The prospect of interviews and having to settle into a new job was overwhelming, especially with two tiny children in a new area. The inner chatter of my monkey mind never ceased. Self-love was not my biggest asset!
Looking back now this vulnerable young woman seems like a different person to who I am now. What’s changed? Life has continued to throw in its challenges, and yet I feel I’m (on the whole) coping well and confidently; in terms of my newfound art career I feel a strength that I haven’t experienced before. I had a chance to review this transformation recently as I had a conversation with a past client on the subject of confidence that ultimately led to an article in Forbes online magazine profiling how I’d built my confidence muscle.
Where did it all begin to go so right?
As I draw the timeline of my adult life I can see that the confidence curve began to rise as I edged nearer to me owning up to being my real self and not living my life through the lens of ‘the other people viewing (and judging me)’. This was a gradual process, which started, ironically, when the fear of going back to work and the belief that I was worthless as an employee, led me to start the first of my creative entrepreneurial business, in garden design, and though it wasn’t ultimately successful as a business I realised quite suddenly that creating stuff made me happy! Two of my happiest years were spent learning about plants and design, followed by a partnership with a Landscape contractor which saw some fun builds and an award-winning garden at the Malvern Flower Show. Unfortunately though, there’s not much money in sitting at a drawing board, blissfully shading in planting plans, and I hated the contract management side of the business. I was responsible, with my business partner, for building several wonderful gardens but in the end, it still didn’t feel like I was doing the right work.
My next career, portrait photography began slowly and from deep foundations – by which I mean I made sure I knew what I was doing before I launched myself on the world, technically, and creatively. For me, extensive preparation and lots of knowledge shores up my confidence like nothing else. At last, I was beginning to feel I was treading the right path. From small acorns of confidence, the great oaks began to sprout. There’s a feedback loop that occurs when you know you are doing a job well. You receive praise, (and even money!) for your work and this enables you to be bolder and more creatively unique, and by pushing beyond the boundaries the confidence grows- confidence builds on itself like the proverbial snowball. Just start.
A word of warning though. If you depend solely on others to boost your confidence then you become vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the judgment of others. But you know this already.
The first painting I sold.
Having the support of peers and supporters is important though, and I have to say the artist community is one of the most supportive I’ve experienced. Isolation can be a real energy and confidence -sapper. Ditch the negative in your life, and make new friends, if necessary.
I know that a lot of this is down to age and experience. We get older, and hopefully wiser and that brings a confidence. Following a breakdown, it was part of my deliberate path back to wellness, a self-care package that I prescribed myself. Also, you know what, I was BORED with being an also-ran and in the background of other peoples more colourful lives.
Confidence comes with age, if you help it…
I’ve worked hard, through occasional formal therapy and a general interest in self-development, on understanding my limiting beliefs. I have a long term interest Interest in positive psychology- and actively work on my mindset through regular journaling, occasional counselling, and a regular practice of gratitude and mindfulness. Don’t get me wrong- I haven’t nailed this mindset stuff for good, I think its a lifetime’s work, but I know enough about it now to understand that it is a muscle that can be strengthened, and without regular workouts, it will wither.
What other advice can I offer you?
Fear of failure was a massive issue, probably the biggest that I’ve tackled. Fuelled by an almost obsessive comparison with others, to which artists are especially prone, because it’s such a visual medium and we live in this time of Instagram and Pinterest. So many opportunities to bash our own self-confidence. For me, the key to overcoming the fear is to live your purpose; once the fear of NOT doing what you are here to do outweighs the fear of failing, there will be no stopping you.
I’ve learnt to say yes, if not to every opportunity then at least to understand and objectify the reasons why I might say no. Passing on an opportunity may calm our fears momentarily, but it ultimately inflates them. I’ve been guilty of more than my fair share of opportunity avoidance in the past. Now I actively seek them out.
I learnt to deal with the Imposter syndrome, even if I haven’t dispelled it entirely (and wouldn’t want to – it keeps me grounded) Click on the link for a recent blog post about this.
No matter what work you do, understand that you are the expert of your own work. Nobody can bring your unique life experience and insight into what you do. This is a really valuable lesson.
Step into the shoes of the person you want to be. Not exactly fake it til you make it, but by visualising who and where you want to be and acting as if that vision is real, really works. Body language, dress, language, all make a massive impact. (Watch THIS TED talk for some great advice.)
“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Eleanor Roosevelt. Really, I can’t emphasise enough how much the thought that others were judging me caused me to play small. Not any more.
Preparation. I’m still always ridiculously over prepared. I’m not a winger of things. This helps.
Get really good at what you do, keep learning. This is probably my biggest piece of advice. Learning also brings so many opportunities for connection with your army of cheerleaders, too. It helps you challenge the naysayers and deal with any criticism in a more measured way.
Listen to the feedback. If you are lucky enough to receive constructive advice, take heed. Or not! Be realistic about peoples’ motivation for unsolicited advice, and don’t take it personally.
Give back to others. Acknowledge when others are looking to you for advice or information, and notice when you are ready to step up to become the leader or teacher. Not necessarily in a formal sense, but welcome any opportunity to reach an arm down to help those following along.
So yes, I have a level of confidence I could only have dreamed of a few years ago It doesn’t mean I don’t still ‘feel the fear’; believe me, I do. But I’ve grown enough to see far enough over the top of the scary obstacles ahead to see the potential gains in the distance. More than anything else, I have at last identified my life purpose and the pain of not living this life would far greater than failing a few times along the way.
Onwards and upwards!
The star of one of my favourite photoshoots!