Job interview? Sales pitch? Big date?
Psychologists know that when you change how you perceive a challenging situation, how you present it to yourself, your performance can improve.
No need to feed yourself pep talk or lie to yourself, says Jessyca Arthur-Cameselle, psychologist and consultant at the Center for Performance Excellence at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. That doesn’t work.
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Instead, think rationally. Focus on facts. Remember past accomplishments: a date laughing at your joke, positive feedback after a work presentation, an athletic endeavor in which you achieved your goal. Dig deeper to create a complete mental picture of your best performances.
To help, keep a file of positive notes and thank-you letters you receive. When someone compliments you, write it down and toss it in the file. When you doubt yourself, dip into your file. Athletes, musicians and actors can pull out videos of their best performances.
How can you remember past accomplishments if you’ve never given a speech before a huge audience or tackled some other challenge of new and larger scope? Reach into your memory for similar events. Maybe you practiced your presentation in front of your colleagues and got good feedback. Maybe you gave it a month ago to a small group, and people told you afterward they enjoyed it.
Preparing material is an obvious confidence-booster, but if you’re tense and edgy even after that, try:
Imagery. Think about yourself performing well. What does it look like? How does it feel? What will you look at, in the audience, to center yourself? How does it feel to hit a solid golf swing or close that sales pitch? Imagine it going the way you want. Linger in that mental picture. Studies show imagery stimulates neural pathways in the same way actually doing the task does.
Find a model similar to your ability level. Watch someone near your ability give a presentation successfully or interact smoothly socially.
Examine your self-talk. What negative tapes play in your head: I’m old and outdated; I’m young and inexperienced; I’m scared I’ll mess up? Write them down. Flush them from the cover of subconscious into the light of day.
Look at them differently: I have years of valuable experience; I have youthful energy; I finally get the chance to show what I can do.
Focus on what you can control. You can’t make a client buy, but you can do killer research and preparation. You can’t make a date like you, but you can be present, engaged and interested.
As for your bad performances, don’t pretend they didn’t happen, says Arthur-Cameselle, who credits the work of psychologists Albert Bandura, Aaron and Judith Beck, and others. Instead, reframe them – accurately. A student may get a low grade for a paper that’s littered with sentence fragments. Don’t hone in on the thought, “I’m such a poor writer, I might fail this class.” Don’t ingrain it into your psyche. Reframe it rationally, “Now I know what to do. Next time, I’ll read my writing aloud to catch sentence fragments before I hand it in.”
Low-confidence people approach challenging situations with the expectation they might fail, says Arthur-Cameselle, who presents confidence-building workshops around the country. “If you walk in thinking it’s not going to work, that increases tension. Then you actually don’t come across well. It’s self-fulfilling.” People with normal confidence approach the exact situations as opportunities, not threats.
Confidence flows from success, says Adam Price, a psychologist with offices in New York and New Jersey. Success comes from trying, learning and trying again. Performance confidence rests on your tolerance for uncertainty. You’re not confident about the outcome, but know that if you keep at it, even in the face of failure and self-doubt, you will eventually succeed.
The brain changes as you learn new things or develop new skills, Price points out. Psychologists call it plasticity. For that to happen, you have to tolerate the anxiety of not knowing, or failing, until the new skill is learned.
“Become a fearless mistake-maker,” Price says, “knowing that each mistake pushes you further down the road to success.”
It never helps to label yourself in a negative manner. Once you do, you only see things that reinforce it.
Ditching negative expectations takes practice. Try imagining your particular challenge with someone else in it. You’d coach him to think rationally: Yes, you flunked one exam, but didn’t you get three A’s last semester? Yes, this date turned you down, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never have a relationship.
To others, we speak more rationally, Arthur-Cameselle says. Show yourself the same courtesy.
Try keeping an awareness journal. People often aren’t aware of thoughts that trigger doubt and failure. They say anxiety comes out of nowhere. “Not likely,” Arthur-Cameselle says. “The thought flashes across your mind so quickly, you don’t realize it’s there.”
Find helpful cue words or phrases that work for you, in the moment. An athlete might think, “attack.” A public speaker might think, “hang loose,” “now” or “enjoy.”
“If you’re repeating a word to yourself, it’s hard to think negative thoughts,” Arthur-Cameselle says. “There’s no room!”
Understand the value of putting yourself in challenging situations. The longer you avoid something that scares you, the scarier it becomes. “Some students ask, ‘Are there presentations in this class?’ and if there are, they drop the class.”
“Every time you leave the party, you’re teaching yourself you can’t handle social interaction,” Arthur-Cameselle says. “Or you tell the coach you don’t want to be a starter. You convince yourself you couldn’t handle it. Avoidance works, to reduce anxiety, for a short time. Then it limits your life.
“Face your fears. Sometimes it just takes a few positive experiences.”