Those who are prone to feeling nervous in social situations, or at work, frequently spend time admonishing themselves. They give themselves lectures about being stupid, or maybe they play tricks like pretending the situation isn’t really happening, or they force themselves to think happy thoughts. More often than not such activities are little more than imaginative and largely ineffective distractions. Yet, despite their ineffectiveness, the same patterns of thinking will be returned to time and again largely, I believe, because of a perceived lack of alternatives.
The main problem here is the assumption that confident behavior will follow confident thinking. Well, this isn’t wrong but it’s only part of the truth. The reality is that confident behavior is often the first step in feeling better about yourself and boosting self-confidence. What’s even more interesting is the fact that regulating your behavior is actually easier than trying to regulate your emotions.
Like me, you’ve probably watched well known actors being interviewed. Some of these people portray the finest, bravest, most thoughtful and eloquent people around, yet when the focus is on them as an individual they become very different people. Many indeed manage to portray their screen persona off screen, whilst others are fidgety, anxious and inarticulate. We may find it surprising and perhaps even a little uncomfortable, yet it says something about the power of behavior regulation. These actors know how to work with a script. They understand the power of behavior regulation and the effect it has on others. They also know that if they act as though they are angry, happy or sad they will start to feel the same way. In other words, their emotions follow their behavior, not the other way around.
Using your behavior to drive your emotions makes perfect sense. Our self-image is really a composite of different facets. Everyone has a self only they truly know and this may be nothing like the image they portray to others. Some people have a rather low sense of self. They focus too much on what they perceive as their negative qualities. A few rate themselves rather too highly, but the sad fact is a lot of people are low in self esteem and self confidence. The problem is so pervasive that it has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry in self-help and self-improvement. The central message of all these techniques, books and courses, is the development of self-confidence. The more you understand how you tick, the easier it becomes to understand other people.
Our self image is just that - an image, not a reality. Like the actor, if you start to speak and act with authority you will soon start to feel that you are more in control. What may feel awkward and unnatural at first will quickly become integrated into your repertoire of behavior. Before long you will come to realize that your feelings have followed along, stress is reduced and your sense of self-worth and confidence have improved.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.