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What is confidence? I started wondering about this working at a psychiatric facility called Spring Harbor Hospital. One day I told a doctor that I was interested in confidence, and she said cheerfully, “Oh I can help you with that. I have confidence. I am very competent.”

She and I were working together as a team with one of the patients, a teenage boy. He seemed to be suffering from a profound lack of confidence, and when she said this, I realized two things. Firstly, as a culture we largely believe that confidence is something people have or they do not, like brown eyes. Secondly, we think confidence is competence. Over time, I have come to consider these two ideas as problematic. Certainly they were for that young man in the psychiatric hospital. He did not believe he had confidence and he did not believe he was competent.

I propose that confidence is not either or, but rather on a spectrum. I also propose that confidence does not have to be competence.

In 2006, a Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck, PhD, wrote “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” because she was concerned about public school education in America. Her thesis is that we teach children with what she called a “fixed mindset”. By this she meant we teach young people that success means achieving a goal. The goal being, of course, an A on a paper, 100 on a test, winning a game, etc. She suggested that this “fixed mindset” was inadvertently teaching our youth to believe that they were successes if they got an A and failures if they did not. She saw this as unwise and unhealthy because it was creating perfectionism in some and hopeless apathy in others. Dr. Dweck recommended teaching with a “growth mindset” instead. With a “growth mindset” success is achieved by learning.

I practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) both professionally and personally. The basis of CBT is that it is not the outside world that causes us stress, but how we think about the outside world. The practice of CBT is a step-by-step process of questioning our stressful thoughts, and thereby fits naturally with a “growth mindset”. An example might be helpful to show how practicing CBT also naturally fits with building confidence.

A couple of years ago I got a new Apple MacBook Air laptop computer. It had been a long time since my previous computer and much had changed.  I needed to go to the Apple store to get help. The problem was that I seemed not to be contacting the Genius Bar to get an appointment! The very idea of walking into the Apple store gave me a stomachache. I had no idea why. I knew that I found the very groovy employees intimidating, but that did not explain why I was not making an appointment.

So, I filled out a CBT worksheet and discovered that my negative automatic thought, my stressful thought was this: “I should understand how my computer works.” My whole computer! This, for me, was a very stressful thought. The first question in CBT is simply, is it true? No. How do you feel when you believe this thought? I feel my stomach do a very unsettling somersault. Who would I be without the thought? I would be less panicked, more peaceful. What is an alternative thought? I came upon one that galvanized me into action: “I should understand how my email works.” That was not stressful, that was reasonable, that was possible, that I could do! I called the Genuis Bar and made an appointment. I still felt somewhat nervous, but I was able to take the small step I needed.

If one takes a growth mindset to confidence itself, then one can increase one’s confidence. Using CBT we can uncover the stressful thoughts that may be causing our fears. When I questioned my stressful thought I felt a slight increase in my confidence, enough to call the Apple store. Then, when I went into the store and learned how my email worked, I felt another slight increase in my confidence, enough to ask about how one other thing worked on my new computer. And finally, perhaps most importantly, I felt a slight increase in confidence in myself, in my ability to find my stressful thought, to question my stressful thought, and to take a step towards learning how to use technology. However small, I had taken a step, I had grown.

The irony may be that many of us believe we are more liked if we know things, if we are competent. But everyone is not competent in everything. When we share what we don’t know, this makes people around us feel more at ease to share what they don’t know. The doctor who I was working with at Spring Harbor Hospital later shared with me that she felt competent as a doctor but she was a new mother and in this area of her life, parenting an infant, she did not feel competent.

Looking for help with a growth mindset towards our lives asks us to have faith in sharing what we don’t know. This is where happiness is found. We find happiness in the present, in growing, in learning about ourselves and our world.

Dweck, C. S. (2006).  Mindset : the new psychology of success (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Chand, S.P., Chibnall, J.T. & Slavin, S.J. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Maladaptive Perfectionism in Medical Students: A Preliminary Investigation. Acad Psychiatry 42, 58–61.