Cure for Cowardice: Gaining Confidence

Many people could never imagine having courage because they don’t even have confidence. What can you do to gain some confidence?

Few of us will face death in the ways necessary to make fortitude (with regard to death itself) a virtue in our lives. But the virtues connected to it and supportive of it, such as confidence (the habit of assurance and hopefulness concerning great deeds) can be developed every day.

I haven’t found a great deal of explicit information in ancient literature about how to gain confidence except in relationship to the acquisition of skill. But in modern psychological literature, self-efficacy does the duty of confidence.[1] It is belief in one’s own ability to affect the world and one’s control over one’s own motivation, direction in life, and ability to perform tasks successfully.

Albert Bandura, in a fairly famous paper, identified four ways in which self-efficacy (confidence) can be attained[2]:

  1. Performance achievements
    The idea here is that achieving mastery over time will help somebody overcome the fear and doubt that leads to avoiding difficult tasks. The big thing for gaining performance achievements to build your confidence is that you have to slowly build up skill over and over again. I recommend (for number 4 as well) to always be doing some form of persistent progressively difficult exercise. Gaining skill and strength can, over all, help you improve you attitude and courage in other domains because you’ve gotten some serious progress under your belt. One of the results of my bone disorder is that I have a difficult time making a fist with my left hand. So for years my punches in martial arts were very weak with my left hand and my dead lift was never much more than my bodyweight, even when I could squat 355 for reps, I could only deadlift about 155 before the bar slipped. I would avoid ever doing the movement when people were in the gym. Eventually, when I lived in a house called “The Bluff House” I started doing deadlift in the garage where nobody could see. I literally started running a mile as fast as I could before I did the lift so that my pounding head and burning lungs would distract me from my deadlift anxiety and so that I could practice using good form in a state of stress. During a three month time period I got my deadlift up to 315 for three sets of three using no weight belt and baseball rosin for my hands.
  1. Vicarious experience
    The principle of vicarious experience is simple: if somebody else can do it, I can too. This is typically considered less reliable than other forms of confidence building, but it still helps. Obviously somebody can easily psyche themselves out comparing themselves to the best people in the world at this or that skill. A nice corollary to the first principle is that seeing an activity modelled with instruction and good results can help somebody internalize the process and feel the confidence to master it themselves.
  1. Verbal persuasion
    Many of you have tried convincing a friend to just do the thing they need to do to get out of a funk or solve a distressing but simple problem. If they’re afraid or nervous, it rarely works. But verbal persuasion is better than nothing. Listening to motivational talks isn’t cheesy, silly, or stupid if it helps you. Certainly persuading yourself when you’re anxious works better than giving up. A big problem for this method of building confidence is that somebody could listen to you, screw up, and then be even more convinced that they are terrible.
  1. Physiological states
    The main physiological state implied here is emotional arousal. Extreme anxiety or stress from the prospect of difficult change or embarrassing failure can obviously stop a gym habit in its tracks. But positive emotional states of excitement can actually help people feel more competent and more likely to attempt to try to things. I try to take advantage of this by standing with really good posture. The fact of the matter is that standing with more dominant posture can elicit respect from others and help you feel better and more powerful.[3] This is very important for public speakers, lawyers, and salesmen. It is perhaps more important for a nerd going to a job interview, asking a girl out for the first time, or hitting the gym. Incidentally, changing your physiological state in a more permanent way by means of nutrition and exercise might matter more than Bandura ever imagined. This would be another reason to prioritize exercise and diet. Another aspect is learning self-mastery or enkrateia: the habit of controlling your will and being reasonable regardless of your emotional state. Learning to excite yourself in positive ways, act while anxious, or remain completely serene while performing herculean tasks is very important for confidence in verbal conflicts, suddenly dangerous circumstances, or during prolonged periods of stress.

I hope that these four ways of gaining courage can help you. The main thing is the first one. Seriously, do something. If you’re afraid to talk to people and you’re religious, start proselytizing. If you’re not religious, start having conversations with strangers. If you are ashamed of your body, make it stronger and more resilient. But do what it takes and do it often.


[1] While studying self-efficacy I found that I’m not the only person connect self-efficacy with confidence. I figured I wasn’t, but it’s good to have empirical data to back things up. See David Van Der Roest, Kendrick Kleiner, and Brian Kleiner, “Self Efficacy: The Biology Of Confidence,” Culture & Religion Review Journal 2015, no. 2 (June 2015): 17–23. Their article is interesting because it builds tremendously upon the four ways self-efficacy can be achieved in the work of Albert Bandura.

[2] Albert Bandura, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review (1977).

[3] Dana R. Carney, Amy J. C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, “Power Posing Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance,” Psychological Science 21, no. 10 (October 1, 2010): 1363–1368.

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