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5 Lessons I've Learned About Confidence as a Career Coach

Because "faking it until you make it" will only get you so far
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For as long as I can remember, I've had to overcome a feeling of inadequacy. In school, I felt insecure about my looks, fueled by backhanded compliments on my skin color, weight, and hair. I remember thinking, Once I'm pretty, then I'll be confident.

In college, I grew more confident into my looks but found myself insecure in my accomplishments. I was attending a top journalism school, and felt like I was the only student not scoring an internship at the local radio station or a major television network. I remember thinking, Once I have a cool job, then I'll be confident.

After college, I finally nabbed a cool internship at Match.com (this was before Tinder and Hinge, if you can imagine) and began contributing to a couple of big-name media publications as a freelance writer. But as you can likely guess, my insecurities didn't vanish; they were simply redirected toward my love life. Once I have a great boyfriend, then I'll be self-confident.

Over the last three decades, my insecurities have landed me in codependent relationships and friendships, the offices of many therapists, and at war with myself. It didn't matter how many self-help books I read (believe me, I've read them all); I continued to internalize the belief that I didn't deserve to be confident until I filled in the blank.

My journey to becoming confident clicked into place over the last year. During the pandemic, I became a full-time freelancer, working as a career coach and podcast host. In conversations with clients and podcast guests, I'm able to engage in conversations about insecurities, which in turn has given me the vantage point to see my own as an outsider. And over the last year, I've applied what I've learned and believe I'm at a healthy place to share some of that advice. Here are the five lessons I've learned about confidence as a career coach.

I work with clients at every stage in their career, from recent college graduates to executives, who you might suspect are my most confident clients. Surprisingly, it's nearly the opposite.

Truthfully, some of my most traditionally accomplished clients are the ones still running the fastest from insecurity and a feeling of inadequacy. When I think about the clients who have needed the greatest amount of coaching or the clients who held the tightest grip on their emotional baggage, I think of a senior project manager who works for a Fortune 100 company or the mid-level professional in the retail e-commerce space who survived a massive lay-off at her employer and managed to get promoted in 2020.It's because:The longer we wait to work on our confidence or wait for it to magically appear, the longer we'll stay insecure or stuck in our journey to becoming confident.

Not to throw stones from a glass house, as I'm no different whatsoever. As an Enneagram Type 3, I find my worth in the work I produce, and work tirelessly to believe that I am worthy of love and respect regardless of my status, prestige, or accomplishments. Since graduating college in 2013, I've held numerous roles from a post-graduate intern living at home and making $15/hour to a senior program manager reporting to the CPO and Director of HR, making $90,000/year, to now, a self-employed solo entrepreneur making $35,000/year. Want to know which job I was in when I had a nervous breakdown? You guessed it: When I was making nearly six figures. It turns out you can't buy happiness or confidence.

My clients and I have both learned throughout our respective journeys that self-confidence isn't meeting you at the bottom line of a job offer. It doesn't show up and stay once you reach your fitness goals. I've learned that only you can decide when to put in the work to achieve self-confidence; it doesn't decide when it shows up for you.

At work and in life, people will only believe two things: your words and your actions. In most circumstances, you have agency in your actions, the words you choose, and the boundaries you set with people. You are just as responsible for putting yourself down when you get a compliment as you are when you accept recognition at work. It's not a fluke that some of the most visible company employees aren't necessarily the best at their job, but they are the best at talking about how well they do their job.

I've noticed many clients and friends alike will put themselves down as a way to look humble and down-to-earth. The intention behind this is usually harmless but can have unexpected, adverse effects. The problem is that your subconscious can't decipher the difference between your wanting to be polite and humble versus actually believing you don't deserve the praise that is coming in your direction. Even science says so: Words can literally change your brain.

Adopting a new style of speech isn't mastered overnight. I found success in phrases like, "I receive that," or a simple "Thank you" when offered a compliment or praise. Similarly, I've coached clients to use phrases like, "Thank you! It was a team effort, and I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish together." If you're uncomfortable with praise, this go-to allows you to share the spotlight without putting yourself down. A reflective question to pose to yourself: How does the language you use enforce the confidence you hope to have?

Confidence is less about stuffing your mouth with platitude and affirmations that you wish were true and more about aligning yourself with what you already believe. To use a professional example, I know that I care deeply about the clients I take on. When speaking to a prospective client, rather than lead with metrics or flashy numbers, I talk about how I nurture my clients and take care of them. I take pride in the individualistic care I give those who choose to invest in my services. And for a more personal example, I love my shoulders and neck. So I play up one of my favorite features with bronzer, anti-wrinkle cream, and tops that draw attention to my shoulders. If I could, I would migrate the conversation of confidence from "fake it til you make it" to "flaunt it if you like it just a tiny bit." Because I promise you, the energy you get when loving yourself from an honest place is slow but steady. It begins to spread into other parts of you, and over time you'll look back and realize you fell in love with yourself.

As I said before, words and actions matter. To become more confident, you have to take action to uplift you and build your self-esteem. If you're never raising your hand in meetings or taking on new projects outside of your comfort zone, what does that say to others about your relationship with self-trust? More importantly, what does it say to yourself? When we pay attention to our actions, we can better understand the stories we're telling our subconscious.

Confidence is a muscle. We've talked about building it up; now it's time to talk about maintaining it. Some clients come to me because they've lost their confidence along the way. Maybe they've been out of work for a couple of years, or perhaps they're no longer happy in their job. Whatever the reason, a theme of apathy overshadows them and they've stopped showing up for themselves. We're prone to be our hype person when things are easy to celebrate, yet it's when we're down or disappointed that we need our self-assurance most.

I think about one client all the time, Josefina*. During the pandemic, the entire industry she worked in was turned upside down. Her feelings were only compounded by the insecurity of not graduating from college like many of her peers. When we started working together, she told me she hadn't felt confident since leaving her job in fashion years ago. Over time, that void that once housed confidence was filled with doubt and uncertainty. Essentially, we had to repave her foundation for confidence and cut the strings to the false beliefs she was tethered to.

As much as we would love to "reach the mountain" of self-confidence and just sit at its summit, it's a lifelong practice to continue climbing and seeing real change. In the same way that fad diets rarely stick, the most sustained results for confidence can only come from a lifestyle change. And I've learned the confidence-building "workouts" we need to indulge ourselves in will change with the season of life. What produced a confidence boost at 22, isn’t what makes me feel confident at 30. Currently, the following “workouts” I follow are:

  1. Putting on makeup and a cute outfit. As shallow as it may sound or seem on the surface, this daily ritual allows me to explore my creativity and self-expression. And as a full-time freelancer who can (and did for all of 2020) get away with wearing pajamas all day, I send the message that my existence alone is reason enough to get dressed up. It’s a small way to celebrate me.
  2. Practicing the phrase, “no, because.” This was inspired and slightly adapted from a tip I got from listening to business coach and photographer’s Jenna Kutcher podcast, “The Goal Digger Podcast.” Essentially, people pleasers (like myself) can feel pressure to say "yes" to everything, in part, because we’re not confident enough in our "no." In business and in life, I actively exercise “no, because” when committing to or rejecting projects.
  3. Honoring the commitments I have made to myself. For a time, I never made time for the small tasks that amounted to long Saturdays spent running errands. I always came last. Whether it was cashing a check at the bank, reorganizing my makeup drawer, or getting fresh air for 20 minutes, it always came last if I made time at all. This only reinforced the false core belief that “everyone else is more important than me; I can wait.” Now, I stick to a block schedule that gives me two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon to handle “me” things.
  4. Reflecting on if today was a "good day" or a "bad day" based on my character and actions. I've built strength in being proud of how I handle crappy people, crappy circumstances, and unfortunate news. No one can take away your integrity, and there's something beautiful about that.

Let me be clear, "fake it 'til you make it" is the fad diet of confidence. That said, it does work for some time, but it will often lead to crashing and yo-yo results, and masking or hiding parts of yourself to conform with others or meet expectations. In addition to masking, hollow confidence or a fragile sense of self can be easily influenced by professional or personal setbacks like a job loss or break-up. If perception is reality, our world can be shattered easily if we're operating from a fragile ego. Confidence is tied to the core belief about ourselves.

I am currently working with a therapist who specializes in core belief therapy, essentially unpacking the deepest “why.” Together we've unpacked that I developed negative beliefs about my worthiness and ability to be accepted in my formative years. We work hard to recondition my cognitive road mapping to ensure I live with the core belief, "I can make mistakes and still be loved." Before meetings, I reparent my inner child and let her know, "You deserve to occupy this space," or "you deserve to believe that your friends do like you," before social gatherings. Since working with my therapist, I've seen an improvement in my friendships, social anxiety, and self-confidence.

If you think you're lousy at celebrating yourself, you are in good company. I blame hustle culture, but regardless of the root cause, the result lacks acknowledgment. We're not celebrating small wins or reflecting on everyday moments. My clients often get tunnel vision on their end goal, like landing a new job, but rarely stop to pat themselves on the back when they research a company, update their resume, subscribe to a new podcast, or finally hit send on an email. Wins don't need to be grand gestures or acts of consumerism; they can simply be sitting with yourself for a moment and thinking, "Wow, girl, you're really doing the damn thing." I call them "soul hugs." Be sure to give yourself a soul hug whenever you remember to at the moment.

One of the best "gifts" you can give yourself is acknowledged progress. I love when a client tells me that they feel more secure at work or tell me about the nice dinner they treated themselves to. We do incredible acts each day, and becoming desensitized to it can dull our confidence. Similar to confidence “workouts,” rewards will look different to everyone. However, my current faves include treating myself to a nice (aka more than $5) bottle of white wine, buying or making a “congrats” card and mailing it to myself, walking a long walk around my favorite neighborhood, or texting a supportive friend with an update. Most important is how I speak to myself when enjoying my celebrations. I remind myself of the strength, courage, or growth it took to get to this point.

I believe the key to success, strong relationships, and a healthy sense of self starts with confidence and security. We're entitled to live a life where we accept ourselves, and I hope one of the lessons I've learned can serve someone else out there. Self-love can't be bought or measured, but I've seen from my clients that it can change the quality and trajectory of your life.

*Name changed.

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