There are some things that we tend to think of as traits, things that you naturally are or aren’t. You can act outside of your natural tendency for a while but after a while it will be too exhausting or feel too uncomfortable. There are some things that psychology has found do tend to be like this: introversion/extroversion, neuroticism, and the other Big Five traits, but it seems to me that a lot of the things we view as traits are emotions plus behaviors. We can’t necessarily change our emotions but we can change our behaviors to gain some of the social benefits of traits we don’t have.
Here’s a thing:
I am not generally a confident, jump in and get stuff done kind of a person. I often seem lazy because if I don’t know that I’m supposed to do something I don’t do it. I wait for instructions, I need some coaching, and I need to know the “rules” of whatever situation I’m in before I feel comfortable making decisions and choosing my own actions. I’ve found that this need for comfort has really gotten in the way of my ability to be the kind of friend/housemate/employee/etc. that I want to be, and so I’ve decided that I want to change it.
Now I can’t just make myself feel confident. I will never be able to choose not to be worried. I will never naturally start doing things unless I really think about it and choose to do those things. But what I can do is mimic the behaviors of confident people. The other day I was playing basketball with some friends. I’m real bad at basketball. But I told myself that I was going to at least try to do things, even if I couldn’t do them well. That meant not pulling myself back if I was going to make contact with someone, running hard, and trying to notice what other people were doing to make myself try it too. I’ve been doing this in all areas of my life. “Are there things that could be done right now? I will do them.”
That behavior of simply going ahead and doing something whether you’ve been asked or not often gets read as confidence, or at least willingness to try (which is its own brand of confidence). I still don’t feel confident, but I’m getting read that way more often. I may not have looked super confident on the basketball court, but I made myself get up and try anyway, which looked much better than my first impulse (which was to hide behind my boyfriend).
It’s important to distinguish between behaviors that are helpful and emotions and traits that are valid. My shyness and nervousness are valid. However a lot of the time they aren’t helpful if I let them dictate my actions. What is helpful is recognizing that I need a few moments to assess a situation. Sometimes that’s even more helpful than having the first impulse to jump in, as I get a minute to figure out what’s going on and analyze things a bit before I start acting.
What I want to specify is that there’s nothing wrong with a lack of confidence when we’re talking about the emotional side. But there are behaviors that are separate from traits that we can notice and change. And each of us gets to decide for ourselves how far we’re willing to go in behaving in ways that don’t feel natural to us.
It might seem straightforward and obvious, but realizing that my emotions are separate from my actions is pretty exciting to me. I’m not required to continue acting within my comfort zone. Of course it takes more emotional energy, but if there’s something that’s frustrating to me about myself, I can do it differently.
Mindfulness has been incredibly helpful with this in letting me notice what’s going on around me so that I can be a little more intentional about what I do. Taking the time to notice what behaviors I find impressive or admirable in others is also helpful. Then I can start to notice the areas where I could do the same. I will never be confident as an internal trait. But I can make myself confident enough that I can do things I am afraid of. And my reflective nature was what helped me see that in the first place.