A lot of people use the words “self-esteem” and “confidence” interchangeably. That’s understandable, especially when a dictionary defines self-esteem as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect.”
But they are actually quite different. Self-esteem is a private evaluation of one’s worth. It is often the result of accumulated input from other people – the approvals and disapprovals you encounter each day. Too many frowns and you’re likely to feel badly about yourself. Too many smiles and high-fives and you get an inflated sense of self. In this regard, self-esteem can fluctuate dramatically depending upon circumstances, making it untrustworthy as a means of self-evaluation.
Confidence, on the other hand, is a sense of being able to handle whatever comes your way. Rosabeth Moss Kanter defines it in her book, “Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin & End,” as “having a positive expectation for a favorable outcome.”
Confidence is born of experience. It embraces mistakes as a necessary means of learning. In fact, the only way to develop a positive expectation for a favorable outcome is to have lots of unfavorable outcomes that point to faulty thinking or behavior. When this happens, you are forced to reconsider the situation.
Well, if you are intent on growing, you are forced to reconsider. If you are bent on saving face or protecting your self-esteem, you’re probably more apt to blame someone or something for the error. You’re also likely to distance yourself from the event and vow never to come close to such a thing again. In this way, learning is curtailed and you get caught in a very small world with a fragile sense of self.
Who wants that?
Confidence that is earned through blunder and learning bolsters you to keep going when you find yourself in unfamiliar circumstances. You realize that in every uncomfortable situation there is something to learn. As you learn, you grow more comfortable with uncertainty. Why? Because you develop a deep sense of curiosity, which leaves little room for fear – even fear of looking silly.
Confidence, when built over time, allows you to go anywhere, meet with anyone, and interact on any topic under the sun with a measure of grace and good humor.
Naturally, as you grow in confidence you like yourself more. Self-esteem, then, is a byproduct of confidence. Interestingly, you often like others more, too, even those who are radically different from you.
So forget about how high or low your self-esteem is. Concentrate on building confidence. A good way to do this is to go someplace new on a regular basis. Try a new restaurant, go to a networking event or arrange to visit a company you’ve been curious about. Listen to conversations you’ve avoided in the past. Accept feedback you’ve previously shunned. If people ask why you’re doing these things, smile and tell them you’re curious. No other explanation is necessary. Your smile will make them wonder what you’re up to. They might even be inclined to join you.
Another great way to build confidence is to keep track of what happens as you leave your comfort zone. Capture moments of discomfort; you’ll want to reflect on them later. Do the same with experiences that are surprisingly pleasant. The more you experience, the more you learn, the greater your repertoire of responses and the calmer you will be in any circumstance.
This ability to control your emotions and learn from the good, the bad and the ugly (yes, even ugly offers lessons) generates power and freedom that boosts self-esteem without separate concentrated effort.
The final aspect of building confidence is sharing what you learn. Not as a braggart, but as an engaged and interested colleague, friend and leader. Speaking up to offer a different perspective or insight is tough for a lot of people, but reframing it as an opportunity to share rather than a challenge to prove that you’re right (or expose yourself as wrong) can ease anxiety. And each attempt provides more confidence-building material. Before you know it, your self-esteem will be just fine without high-fives or trophies.