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Quiet Confidence

Don't mistake introversion for a lack of confidence

A friend of mine is very lively and bubbly.  She talks easily to strangers and does lots of high-energy stuff, often just for the shits and giggles (to use her expression). She is intelligent, has a high profile job. She is a typical extravert.  She exudes confidence.

I was shocked therefore when she started to tell me about the degree of panic she feels when faced with a public speaking situation. How come? I wondered.

Then it occurred to me that I had made a common mistake. I had mistaken extraversion for confidence. We assume that all extraverts are supremely confident, just because they are visible and loud (in the nicest possible way; mostly). They are not. They are no more confident than introverts. Just like the rest of us they have their "beam me up Scottie" moments. Occasions when confidence flees and they'd rather be doing anything other than what they've just signed up for.

From there it was a short hop to realising that if extraverts are not necessarily confident, then introverts are not automatically the opposite. I'm not sure if unconfident is a word, but I'll use it anyway. Introverts are not necessarily unconfident.

This matters to me personally – and I suspect to many like me – because I'd bought into the myth. I am an introvert. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact and all the psychometric testing reinforces it. By the way, I should maybe also say that I'm happy about that. Some social narratives seem to place a greater value on extraversion but I figure every party only really needs one life and soul, and if a bunch of the rest of us are having a quietly curious and interesting conversation in the corner, then everyone's happy.

Happy to be introverted is one thing, but alongside it I'd accumulated the notion that I lack confidence, that the two things go hand in hand. We see a confident person, we assume they are extraverts. We see extravert behaviour and assume confidence props it up. It seems these things aren't necessarily so. A professional speaker told me that although they have absolutely no problem standing up in front of an audience of several hundred people and expounding on their views of the world, they find the "intimacy" of parties, smaller groups of people, more difficult: they too, it seems, would be in the kitchen…

As it happens, if there's music playing, I won't be in the kitchen, I'll be on whatever passes for a dancefloor. I had assumed that this was my one extraverted quality: to be a shamelessly rubbish-but-happy dancer, taking the whole 'like nobody's watching' thing a bit too literally.

It had never occurred to me, that this might be my higher self trying to get my attention. All through my childhood I heard people being told that I was 'shy'. And I believed it. I heard that I was 'touchy'. And I believed that too. Worse, I believed that those were bad things to be. I believed that I was never going to be brilliant because I didn't have the confidence to get out there and do it. I believed I wasn't tough enough.

I believed it so much that I didn't notice that I was succeeding anyway.

Getting qualified and climbing the career ladder did nothing to change this self-image. Being pushed into delivering training and finding that I enjoyed it and was good at it and wanted to do more of it did nothing to change this self-image. Dealing with professionals from many sectors and different countries and all levels on a daily basis did nothing to change this self-image. I still believed that I was a fundamentally unconfident individual.

As much as I could tell my co-workers to channel that nervous feeling, call it excitement, use it…a lot of the time, I wasn't just nervous. I was scared. Inside I felt physically sick and shaking.

Because I believed what I'd been brought up to believe…that I was not confident and outgoing. I completely missed the fact that this was only one of the story-lines I had been fed. My extravert mother's concept drowned out the quieter advice from my introvert father who told me I could be anything I wanted. I absorbed the message that 'confident and outgoing' were one thing. They're not. They're two completely unrelated things.

My dear departed partner, a one-time professional musician, always said: if you're not nervous before you go on, you're not doing it right. He never said if you're still nervous after the first set, you shouldn't be doing it at all. But I know he'd agree with that. Being nervous is normal. It has nothing to do with confidence levels, and everything to do with how much you care.

However, you have to care up-front. You have to care enough to put in the hours, do the work, learn your stuff, becoming the person you want to be will take effort. Hopefully you will never stop doing the work, putting in the effort, learning, learning, learning, but there is a point at which you will know, a point when the evidence will confirm, that you are competent at what you do. Listen to the compliments. Clock the qualifications and the promotions and the feedback. Take it seriously. We are told every day how good we are and 'how good' – if we work at it – will become 'good enough', it will be competency.

And if you are competent there is no reason not to be confident.

In fact you won't get to competent without confidence. Getting there requires risk-taking, mistake-making, recovery, getting up and doing it over. That needs confidence in your ability to take risks, make mistakes, recover, try again. If you care about what you're doing, you will do all that, without a second's thought. It's just part of the process.

Once you realise that. You are already there. You don't need to become a bubbly extravert. You don't need to automatically be comfortable in the face of strangers. You don't need to relinquish the emotional passion that means you might take things a little too personally, because there is the upside of intense joy that goes with that. You can be supremely confident anyway.

Quiet, private, inwardly looking often, but still you can be calm and confident. And, here's the kicker, maybe you already are. Maybe the people who tell you your lack of confidence doesn't show are right. Maybe it doesn't show because it doesn't exist.

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