How to Develop Your Confidence – The Simple Truth

how to be more confident
Photo by Ольга Вельская

The simple science behind being more confident and improving your self-esteem

How self-assured are you? Are you confident of your success, in your life, work and relationships? If you are unsure, then you are not alone. 85% of Americans suffer from low esteem, according to research by Dr Joe Rubino. This lack of confidence affects more than just our feelings, it impacts our earnings too. Best-selling author Barrie Davenport observes that,

“One of the main obstacles to financial success is low self-confidence.”

Further studies, such as those highlighted by Francesco Drago, have shown that more confident people earn more. In fact, they earn a lot more; it can amount to thousands of extra dollars a year. Not only that, (and arguably more importantly) having greater confidence improves our relationships and overall wellbeing.

So, confidence is a big deal. The important question then becomes: can we improve our confidence, and if so, then how? 

Can you become more confident?

Isn’t confidence just a character thing? Surely you either have it or you don’t? That is what many people think, and, indeed, some people are naturally more confident than others. But that does not mean that our self-esteem levels are fixed. We can learn to be more confident. 

The evidence is there but I can also speak from personal experience. When I was younger, I was not naturally a confident character. I was introverted, very sensitive to how people perceived me, easily embarrassed, and I did not like to take the lead. Now, having been in various senior management positions and done a lot of public speaking, this comes as a surprise to people. 

One of the things that helped me build confidence in my younger years was acting. School plays allowed me to take on another persona. When I put on a mask or costume, I felt I could become a more self-assured version of myself. I later came to realise that I could do this without having to step onto a stage. Without knowing it I stumbled on a truth that Dr Ian Robertson has explored in his book How Confidence Works.

How Confidence Works

Dr Robertson’s research has identified the two critical psychological elements of confidence, which he calls ‘can do’ and ‘can happen.’  The ‘can do’ part is the intrinsic belief that we can do something. The ‘can happen’ element is the assurance that our actions can make a differ our given situation. 

The combination of these beliefs can lead to four different states of mind:

  • Can’t do/can’t happen. This is an apathetic state where a person believes they are not good enough and anything they did would fail anyway. In other words, they have a fixed rather than a growth mindset. This state of low self-esteem is also linked to low dopamine levels which further dampens energy levels. For example, if someone wanted to lose weight but did not believe they had enough willpower, and that even if they did, then changing their diet would not work anyway, then they would be in this can’t do/can’t happen mindset. 
  • Can do/can’t happen. Here the belief is that an individual can act, but that any effort would be wasted as it would not change the situation. As well as undermining confidence this state can lead to resentment and be expressed by anger at a situation. Using the previous example about losing weight, here a person might believe they can change their diet, but it would not have the desired effect. They might blame their own body, the diet itself or some other factor.
  • Can’t do/can happen. Here a person might believe that something is possible but just not for them. A goal becomes something that other people achieve but the individual’s low self-esteem holds them back from trying. Past failures can invoke this state of mind. When it comes to the example of losing weight a lot of people find themselves in this situation. They have tried to get fitter, and have struggled to achieve lasting success, and this has led to a mindset where they no longer have the confidence to try. 
  • Can do/can happen. This is the optimal state of high confidence. It combines the self-esteem of an individual, confidence that they can do something, along with the positive outlook that a situation can be changed. Using the dieting example once again, in this mindset a person would believe that they can change their behaviours – such as what they eat – and that the resultant change would lead to achieving their goal of losing weight. 

5 factors that affect confidence

Dr Ian Robertson goes on to highlight five things to be aware of to improve confidence, these are languageattentionmemoryimagery, and posture. By embracing the positive aspects of these factors (and limiting the negative ones) we can get into the can do/can happen mindset. Let’s look at each one in turn:


Words are powerful and the words we use of ourselves, both internally and externally, really do matter. Humility is good but not thinking too highly of yourself is not the same as thinking too little of yourself. Negative self-talk, things like “I am not good enough” or a pessimistic outlook such as “things never change in this organisation” undermines the can do/can happen state. Confident language, both internal and external, needs to be positive, even if that is just “I can learn to do this” or “I can make a difference, no matter how small.” 


Our attention is important because we move towards whatever we choose to focus on. It is like driving, you must fix your eyes on where you want to go, even (and in some ways most importantly) when you feel we are skidding out of control. As in life as with driving, if you focus on the obstacle, you are more likely to hit it. Instead, we need to give our attention to positive feelings, thoughts and where we want to go.


Memories can either help or hinder us. Remembering past successes and positive experiences can get us into the can-do/can-happen mode. If we have done something successfully before we can recall that moment and think “I can do this, I know it.” Equally, we can undermine our confidence by bringing to mind our past failures. This is why sports psychologists spend so much time helping players learn to quickly leave behind the last bad stroke, kick or ball, to stop that memory from undermining the next serve, pass or play.


Similarly, to memory, visualisation can be very powerful and is a power harnessed by top athletes. Even if we have not done something successfully before, we can make new connections in our brains that hardwire us for success by rehearsing the events in our minds. Visualisation not only new neural pathways it also prepares our bodies for physical activity. But, if we choose to focus on the negatives and all the possible things that could go wrong, it will have the opposite effect.


As we have seen with memory and imagery, our psychology affects our physiology. This works the other way around too. How we use our bodies can positively or negatively impact our confidence and feelings in general. Many people know non-verbal communication cues such as crossing your arms in front of your body. This closed body language indicates a defensive mindset. But it also creates a defensive mindset. If you stand tall, pull your shoulders back and look people in the eye, your brain will interpret the physical signals. The result is that you will feel more confident.

How to develop your confidence

Scientific research demonstrates that we can all improve our confidence. If we get ourselves into the can-do/can-happen mindset we can think and act differently. To help us, we can use positive language, attention, memory, imagery, and posture to reinforce our feelings or confidence and set us up for success.

Tennis legend Venus Williams summed things up well in her New York Times interview in 2018:

“I feel that I owe my own success to my belief in myself and have found that confidence can be learned and developed. In fact, my own self-confidence is something I work on every day, just like going to the gym or training on the court.”

So, take a leaf out of Venus’ book and work on your confidence today and every day. Become a more confident version of yourself and enjoy the benefits. Confidence can bring wealth and success at work, but also it enriches relationships and will help you to be at peace with yourself.

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