Everyone struggles with confidence at least some of the time. While confidence can’t be overly reliant on external validation, negative feedback is always difficult, and it’s tough to maintain your confidence when external validation is slow in coming. Confidence also depends on things you don’t have complete control over: meaningfulness, security, and support. It’s harder to feel confident if you are precariously employed, for example. Furthermore, you probably enjoy a challenge and it can be hard to access confidence when you are moving into a new area, trying a new methodology, or similar. In this post, I want to share a few strategies to help boost your confidence when you are struggling.
The pun in the title is intentional and ironic. I want to be absolutely clear about who is being tricked here. These tricks are about helping you access your own knowledge of what you are capable of. You are trying to calm the gremlins who are shouting “Imposter!” or otherwise blocking you from hearing that inner voice that knows you are an intelligent, capable human.
Look for the positives
When are feeling down, it seems to be easier to see all your mistakes, or the ways in which your work is not good enough. You might also start imagining how things could go wrong, especially if one or more of the three main things supporting confidence is not very strong.
Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and consciously start looking for the positives. List all the things you did right. List all the positive interactions you’ve had with colleagues. Think of potential good outcomes and evidence that leads in that direction. The things you record don’t need to be the kind of thing that would go in your promotion documents. Small glimmers are hope are hopeful.
You may not have control over what happens but focusing on the positives will keep things in perspective.
Lower your expectations
The worst way to use external validation is to allow outliers more influence than they really deserve. That one student who wrote horrible things on the student satisfaction survey doesn’t deserve to have more influence over your own view of the quality of your teaching than the vast majority of students who were satisfied. The one nasty reviewer doesn’t deserve more influence than the two who thought your manuscript had promise and the editor who decided not to reject it but to ask you to revise and resubmit. Those 3 students at the back of the lecture theatre sleeping or looking at their phones don’t deserve more of your attention than the 100 other students who are listening and engaged.
Discount the outliers at both ends. Focus not on the completely disengaged nor the keeners but the ones who are mostly engaging but might also have some struggles that would be reasonable to address. It means recognising that if the editor decided revise and resubmit, the reviewer who thought it was excellent just the way it is wasn’t right either.
Stop judging everything you do against some mythical “best”. And stop telling yourself that good enough is an excuse for poor performance. (I’ve got a pep talk about not doing your best, if that would help.)
Remind yourself that you are always learning and improving
You don’t need to be confident that you can already do whatever it is. You can be confident that you are capable of learning how to do it. You may need to improve your skills or knowledge. There is nothing wrong with that. We are all learning all the time.
You are a researcher and you can use those skills to figure out the underlying problem, brainstorm possible solutions, come up with something to try, and then do it. You have colleagues who might be able to help. Your institution provides support for many areas of your work. Find out what support is provided by the research development office, the centre for teaching and learning, or other central services that provide training. There are also short courses and summer schools offered by a range of organisations for things like methodology. Your institution may have funds available for you to attend.
Do not discount social media and your wider network of colleagues. People can recommend books and other resources to help you learn new strategies. Several people blog about academic writing, teaching, and other aspects of academic work. The fact that someone else learned how to do whatever it is earlier in their career than you are now doesn’t mean that you “missed” it, you were doing something else. You can learn new things anytime.
You may need to complement this strategy with some gentle reminders that learning new things is normal. Once you’ve mastered a skill it feels natural and you forget that you once struggled to learn how to do it. It’s also easy to discount things you find easy as not being “real” skills or knowledge. List things you do well now that you once struggled with. Notice how you got better at them. Remember that you will continue to grow and learn.
Focus on process (rather than outcome)
Outcomes tend to be out of your control. The part you have control over is the work you do. Maybe you haven’t had a manuscript accepted for publication recently, but if you have a regular writing practice your chances of publishing are greatly increased. Teaching is a complex activity that relies on the reactions and contributions of your students. Things that worked last year might not work with the particular group you have this year. The practices you embed in your teaching for noticing how things are going and making small adjustments make a big difference here.
A corollary to this focus on process is to focus on the small things. Confidence isn’t ring-fenced to one area of your work. You may have noticed that when your confidence gets knocked in one area you start to doubt all the other areas. You can harness that tendency in the other direction. Do small things that make you feel confident. I read an article once in which a senior military officer argued that making your bed every morning has this effect: you start the day by accomplishing something with a visible outcome. Making your bed may not be the thing for you, but small things can build a feeling that then permeates to the bigger more difficult things. This can mean starting with the easy bits to build some momentum and confidence before you tackle the more difficult things.
Make compassion about mistakes and lack of knowledge your default
It’s easy to assume that things you find easy just are easy. Or that knowledge you don’t remember learning is just common knowledge. When you notice that other people don’t have this knowledge or these skills, you can default to thinking that there is something wrong with them. Then when you catch yourself not having particular knowledge or skills that you need, you default to thinking there is something wrong with you.
Catch yourself doing this and reframe your judgement. You want your default response to be more like “Hmmm, I guess they’ve never learned that.” Remind yourself that this is a skill or knowledge that you have mastered. It’s not natural. The other person isn’t stupid or incompetent, they’ve just never learned this thing. They have other knowledge and skills.
Building new habits is difficult, but if you are in the habit of being compassionate with others, it will become your default response to your own mistakes and struggles.
Using external validation for a confidence boost
While you shouldn’t rely on external validation for your confidence, you shouldn’t ignore it either. When people tell you that you’ve done a good job believe them. Do not insult their judgement by challenging them even if accepting praise feels uncomfortable. Say thank you.
You may want to keep a notebook in which you make a note of these compliments. This list is for your use only and doesn’t need to have much detail. The date, who complimented you, and what they were referring to is enough. Many people keep a folder in their email to save any email that says nice things about them and their work. When you are having trouble feeling confident or the gremlins are particularly loud, you can look through the notebook and your email folder for a reminder that you do good work.
Like planting trees, if you don’t have one already the next best time to start one is now. Collect the evidence as you go along so you can use it to calm the gremlins when you need to. Remember, this is about you. Small things that seem trivial can be particularly helpful because you probably achieve them regularly, even if they are not always commented on.
Want some support?
My work is all about helping you become more confident and able to do the work that is meaningful to you without burning out.
The Academic Writing Studio provides support for developing a consistent writing practice and feeling more in control of your (often overwhelming) workload.
Guide for the Journey helps you reconnect with why you are in this profession, what your priorities are, and figure out practical strategies for using that vision and those priorities to guide your decisions.
You can do this!
Your imposter syndrome is irrelevant by Katherine Firth at Research Degree Insiders