Is There Such A Thing As Being Too Self-Confident?

January 26, 2018

Being confident isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Self-assured. Unflappable. Confident.

These are just a few words I would never in a million years use to describe myself – and I’m pretty sure no one else would, either.

I may have learned a few tricks over the years so that I appear more sure of myself than I actually am, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fool anyone into believing that I’m naturally self-confident.

I’ve always been very self-conscious about my lack of confidence; I sensed early on that, along with my oversensitivity and fiery temper, it was one of my core negative personality traits. Whenever I read articles about how to improve your self-esteem, I felt personally attacked. As much as I tried to behave as if I was sure of myself, deep down I knew it was a lie. Whether I was born like this or conditioned to be this way, it’s just who I am: frequently filled with self-doubt, reluctant to take the lead, and afraid to stand up for myself.

So when I read a recent article in the New York Times questioning the value of self-confidence, I was all over it. In it, the author argues that compassion is far superior to confidence, as far as personality traits go.

The pitfalls of being a know-it-all

We all know at least one of them, and more likely a few. Maybe you actually are one. They’re the people who are quick to offer advice, but who never ask for it. The first ones to blurt out the answer to a question or correct someone. I’ve never been able to stand a know-it-all, and they usually don’t like me, either. Maybe we sense that we’re polar opposites, on a fundamental level.

The Times article refers to a study that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2007. In it, participants’ confidence levels were evaluated. They were then asked to describe themselves on video, and told they’d be rated on their likability, friendliness, and intelligence. Subjects who had high levels of self-confidence were more likely than other participants to get upset when told that they’d received neutral ratings, rather than exceptional ones. The highly confident participants were also more likely to blame those neutral ratings on outside factors, rather than on themselves.

In other words, know-it-alls have an overarching need to be regarded highly, and if someone isn’t particularly impressed by them, well then, it must be for some other reason, not having anything to do with them.

Fake it ’til you make it?

Okay, so being a know-it-all is annoying. But there’s being overconfident, and then there’s being the right amount of confident. And there’s no question that confidence is a huge factor in being successful. A study published in the journal Plos One in 2014 found that people were more likely to rate highly confident people as smarter and more skilled – even when it wasn’t true. And that same Berkeley study cited above concluded that appearing confident makes others believe you’re more worthy of respect and admiration.

So, if you’re not naturally confident, should you try to change? I’ve always been a big believer in the fake-it-til-you-make-it method of personal growth. And judging by these studies, that’s all you have to do to enjoy the benefits of confidence: fake it. Just be careful not to buy into your own BS.

Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, warns that faking confidence is a slippery slope, and can easily lead to bad outcomes when you overestimate your own abilities. Plus, behaving as if you already know everything can prevent you from growing, learning, and improving.

Another way to be

Rather than trying to be more confident, we all might be better off giving ourselves a break and trying to be more compassionate. Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, told the Times that self-compassion may actually be more beneficial than self-confidence.

“Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness, care and concern you show a loved one,” explained Dr. Neff. People who are compassionate toward themselves, she says, aren’t afraid to admit that they are imperfect people living imperfect lives. Eric Barker agrees, saying that self-compassion gives people all the same benefits as self-confidence, without the drawback of self-delusion. People who are overconfident are invested in hiding their shortcomings, often causing stress and shame, while people who are compassionate toward themselves are able to accept their flaws. “A lot of people think self-compassion is weak, but it’s just the opposite,” says Dr. Neff.

As one who has always tended toward being compassionate, toward myself as well as others, I can attest that people do often view it as a weakness. Or at least, I do. I’ve often told myself that I’m too forgiving, too soft. But maybe Neff and Barker are right. If confidence is about “feeling adequate and powerful despite how adequate and powerful you actually are,” as the Times says, and self-compassion is about being willing to look at and accept reality as it really is, then being compassionate takes far more strength can being confident.

Images via shutterstock.com and giphy.com.

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