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Youth Are Asking the Wrong Question about Confidence

Youth all over often ask me, “how do I build confidence … to audition for a team, stand up for myself, travel abroad?”

Their curiosity is good, but they’re often a bit surprised when I politely tell them, “you’re asking the wrong question about confidence.”

Youth know how to build confidence – just like they know how to tie a shoe. 

The confidence building process doesn’t change according to tasks. Strategies used to confidently tie a shoe are the same strategies youth can use to build confidence for everything else, including the hard stuff. 

The Confidence Building Process

Before youth became confident, shoe-tying masters, they asked someone older and wiser to break down the steps for them. They listened. They watched. Then, they followed along. They skipped steps. They messed up, got frustrated, and wondered if tying shoes was really for them. They questioned if they were smart enough to make it happen. “Where are my Velcros?” 

But then they reminded themselves that they really wanted to learn how to tie their own shoes. They listened and focused more intently. And, they practiced on their own until they made their first bow. They repeatedly tied their laces until they felt confident they had it. 

Building confidence involves asking appropriate people for help – people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy. It calls for modeling confident people and following their example. Confidence building also requires attitude adjusting, reminding yourself of your strengths and practicing relentlessly.

So, youth don’t really struggle with how to build confidence. They know how because they’ve done it several times before. (Though, they may have forgotten how to access the information.)  I’ve found, instead, that youth struggle with the pain that is part of the confidence building process. They don’t want the process to hurt.

 The frustration, discouragement and difficulty experienced on the journey to tying a shoe is a similar, yet lightweight, version of the frustration, discouragement, and difficulty associated with the pursuit of goals like standing up, branching out and auditioning for something new. 

According to the psychologist Guy Winch, self-confidence “is built by demonstrating real ability.” But, few people talk about how mentally taxing it can be to achieve that “real ability.” 

The Right Question To Ask About Confidence

The question about confidence youth must answer for themselves is, “Am I willing to endure the discomfort that is part of the confidence building process?” Too often, the question gets masked behind the more familiar “how to” question. 

So, where does this pain, or discomfort, come from?  

It comes from awareness of the seemingly unconquerable space between where youth are and the skills they need to get where they are trying to go. Who likes to be bad at something that they actually want to be confident in? Nobody. A youth who wants try out for the swim team but doesn’t know how to freestyle, would need to publicly or privately admit that they don’t know or fake it like they do. These actions raise internal questions about competence and authenticity, respectively, and can contribute to psychological distress

In addition, this youth would likely need to ask for help, which can also add to mental discomfort because the action is often (yet erroneously) translated to weakness or neediness.  Practice is the greatest indicator of progress but also the greatest reminder that there may be a lot more work to do. And, that recognition can hurt.

Humans are wired to be comfortable and choose the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, the easiest route is often avoidance. It’s why we so effortlessly and automatically retreat to a comfort zone when things don’t feel right. This is the hard realization of building confidence. It’s the part that needs more consideration and conversation to help youth build up the resource.

In order to develop confidence, youth will have to endure distress. Or, in the words of one of my coaches, they’ll have to be willing “to be bad long enough to get good.” That means they’ll have to try, mess up, get frustrated, wonder if they’re making progress, experience cognitive overload, risk embarrassment, battle with ego and more before they reach confidence.  Whew.

The Takeaway

Confidence is a key component of courage. If it’s missing, youth can be sure that they will not be able to act courageously. The question they need to be able to answer about confidence is, “Am I willing to endure the pain that is part of the confidence building process.”

One of my goals is to help them answer, “yes.”

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