Boost your confidence

Fact: confident people are not born but created. Construct a more confident you and break the chains of shyness with this ten-step, self-boosting strategy

Fake it until you can make it – that’s sage advice that relies on the premise that practice really does make perfect.

In the National Geographic series Dog Whisperer celebrity canine behaviourist Cesar Millan uses this tactic to turn a scaredy-cat dog into a more self-possessed pooch. How?

By hooking the end of a lead to the hesitant hound’s tail and keeping it elevated on walks and runs. Millan knows that a confident dog holds its tail up and standing to attention.

So, working in reverse, he shows that by manually lifting the tail he can train the dog to feel more confident. And guess what? It works.

The same principle applies to humans. Even the shyest violet can cultivate real confidence by practising confident behaviour. Here’s health psychologist Helgo Schomer’s advice on faking it and making it real.

In developing your own confidence, the earlier you’re exposed to a self-assured role model the better. But there’s one proviso: that confident role model shouldn’t be self-centred. They need to be interested in you, too.

Let’s say you grow up with a smooth-talking older brother; if his confidence makes him selfish or self-obsessed, you’re more likely to brand it as negative and reject it. But if that brother takes you under his wing, you’ll probably find yourself looking up to him and learning from his socially adept style.

Plan of action:
It’s never too late to get a mentor. Identify a friend, colleague or family member who oozes confidence and has a flair for social interaction – but make sure it’s someone who is humble and has your best interests at heart.

Then watch, listen and deconstruct their actions. Pay particular attention to the way they speak, walk and carry themselves. Seeing confidence in action is the first step to building your own.

Talk with your body
Your body language mimics your mood – if you’re feeling down you’re more likely to slouch, cross your arms or frown. But it also works in reverse: when you close up your body and hold onto yourself (by crossing your arms, for instance), fewer “happy hormones’’ flow around the brain.

Clearly then, your mood can mimic your body stance. So when you carry your body and face in a self-assured way, real confidence often follows.

Plan of action:
Work on maintaining an open stance. Keep your back straight, shoulders back, head up and arms uncrossed. And practise walking with this open stance and a long, strong stride. Why do they teach models to take to the catwalks the way they do? Because it projects a confident air.

For an extra body boost, dress the part. If you look like a slob you’ll feel like one, but if you slip on a redhot number or a potent power suit you’ll automatically carry and conduct yourself with more confidence.

Speak up
Shy people speak softly, as if they don’t really want to be heard. To stir up self-esteem, you don’t have to shout or scream, just project your voice – a little more than you feel comfortable doing. It won’t sound as loud to others and it will contribute to a more commanding presence.

Plan of action:
In any socially challenging situation, pause before you speak and remind yourself that you have something worthwhile to say. Then say it. Loud and clear.

Meet the mirror
It helps to actually see yourself looking confident – especially if your shyness makes you second-guess your social skills. When you have a mental picture of yourself appearing physically self-assured, you’ll feel more comfortable turning on the charm and trying out the confidence boosting tricks you’ve learnt.

Plan of action:
Don’t just glance at the mirror to check your hair; start using it as a confidence tool. Set aside weekly mirror time and experiment with facial expressions and the body stance described above. See how at ease you look when you make eye contact, smile and stand tall. Then call on that image when you feel like clamming up.

Build it up
Don’t throw yourself into the social deep end before you’re ready. There’s no point in hitting on the hottest person at a party if you don’t yet have the aplomb to deal with defeat. In fact, pushing yourself too far too soon is more likely to sap confidence than strengthen it.

Plan of action:
Practise using confident behaviour in progressively challenging situations. Start with the least possible threatening environment (alone, in front of a mirror), then move on to a mildly pressured situation (such as a café) and build up slowly to the most threatening circumstances (such as making a speech or asking someone on a date).

Most important, don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes. Rather reward yourself for small achievements and personal victories.

Just cheat
Sometimes, on a bad day, even the boldest people have to fake it. They’re dying inside, but put on a glowing smile. They chatter away when they feel like ducking under the dinner table. We all have the power to act. And somehow, a confident act makes people respond positively, which breeds real confidence and eliminates the need to pretend.

Plan of action:
Eye contact is vital in projecting confidence but if you’re painfully shy, simply meeting someone’s gaze can be a struggle. To cheat the effect, focus on the person’s forehead. This gives the illusion of eye-to-eye contact without the anxiety of the real thing.

Rehearse rejection
I have a friend who’s confident enough to approach any woman without fear. His secret? He knows that nine times out of 10 he’ll be rejected, but one time out of 10 he won’t. The message: accept the fact that most relationships don’t work out. This is totally normal. So don’t take it personally when you get the boot.

Plan of action:
Remind yourself of the nine-to-one rule before you even make a move. This will keep your self-confidence intact and allow you to get back on the horse again and again.

Start with small talk
Some people are natural conversationalists, while others flounder for words and frequently suffer from foot-in-mouth syndrome. But the truth is it doesn’t take much to kick-start any conversation.

Plan of action:
The trick is to open with something mild that everyone can relate to – like unusually good or bad weather, or the striking décor in a room. After that, if you’ve still got a bit of courage, try a joke. Or employ the magic tactic: give a compliment.

Cut the commentary
If you grew up with a parent or authority figure who constantly criticised your actions you’ll invariably start criticising yourself. But even without external disapproval many of us live with an incessant fault-finding voice buzzing in our heads. What was I thinking?

How could I say that? I’m so stupid. I’m such a loser. Late at night, and in quiet moments, these critical thoughts can become perilous powerdrills that bore a hole in your head. And in social situations they can make you wilt and want to withdraw from others. To silence your confidence-draining commentary you need to stop the thoughts in their tracks. How? By externalising them.

Plan of action:
Take a seat and write down all your selfcritical thoughts. Every single one, no matter how long or repetitive the list. This takes the thoughts out of your head and into the real world. Next, assess the thoughts objectively – are you really stupid, or just human and capable of making mistakes?

Alternatively, get an outsider’s reality check by showing your list to a trusted friend or family member. Do they agree with your internal critic, or are you just being hard on yourself? Chances are you’ll find this process liberating and life-affirming.

Pick the right audience
This is vital: don’t overexpose yourself to people who are hypercritical or who constantly cut you down to size. At a family dinner you wouldn’t choose to sit next to the uncle or aunt who pesters you with questions such as “Why are you still single?” or “When are you going to leave that dead-end job?”

Plan of action:
In all areas of life, aim to surround yourself with people who deliver life energy in the form of praise. Choose the people who are on your team and who buoy up your pursuit of confidence instead of breaking it down.

Work tip:
Focus on them, not you When giving a presentation or making a speech, imagining that the boardroom of onlookers is in the nude is not as silly as it sounds.

It’s a quick reminder that everyone out there shares your fears. They’re all thinking: “Please don’t expose or reject me.’’ Therefore no-one has the right to be hypercritical of you.

By keeping this in mind when you feel intimidated at work, you shift the focus from you to them. This pops the pressure valve and ups your self-esteem.

Helgo Schomer is a health psychologist, motivational speaker and radio shrink on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk.

[This is an extract of an article that originally appeared in the Summer 2008/2009 edition of YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS. The current edition is on sale now.]

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