The Confidence Construct

If confidence came in a capsule I’d pop a pill every day. I’d have no qualms about becoming dependent on a tablet. I’d happily become addicted. If it was available on the NHS so much the better but hell, I’d probably contentedly descend into debt to pay for it if I had to.

I’m preparing to fly to New York for a week to attend a big festival of new musical theatre. My stomach is flipping over every five minutes, my heart is racing, I’m having low-level panic attacks and I couldn’t sleep. It’s not the travelling, I don’t have a phobia about planes (watermelons, yes, but that’s a whole other blog) and I love New York almost as much as I love London – so what’s causing the anxiety? It’s the thought of attending an event where I might have to, you know, talk to strangers.

Somewhere along the road of the last 45 years I picked up the message that I’m the least interesting person in the room. I feel like an impostor in my own life, like I’m constantly pretending to be something I’m not. I’ve convinced myself that I’m dull, uninteresting and pretty useless. I lack self-confidence. I tell you, if confidence came in a capsule I’d pop a pill every day. I’d have no qualms about becoming dependent on a tablet, I’d happily become addicted. If it was available on the NHS so much the better but hell, I’d probably contentedly descend into debt to pay for it if I had to. I wish I knew what it was like to feel comfortable, to be at ease in my own skin.

Over the last few years I’ve had a number of people tell me that I have built up their confidence and helped them to believe in themselves again. I’m always wary of believing in statements like this because I lack self-confidence, remember? But also because the one thing I do know about confidence is that no-one can ‘give’ it to you; if it doesn’t come from within it’s ephemeral. Still, there’s something to be said for the confidence kickstarter – that initial burst that makes you feel on top of the world. However, it has to be built on, it’s like starting a fire, the spark might get it started but if you don’t tend to it it won’t becoming a roaring furnace.

I’m sure we’ve all been suckered in by false confidence; a great job, good audition feedback, a bit of praise, a nice review. We feel, briefly, invincible. Our brain gets buzzy and excited and we feel good, right? It’s chemical. The chemicals in the brain responsible for the feeling of confidence are serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine. Now, what else activates those chemicals? Well, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin – to name a few. If you’ve tried any of those you’ll know that after the initial high comes a crashing low. It’s the same with confidence, after that feeling of invincibility comes a feeling of not being good enough. The higher the rise, the harder the fall. That’s how we become addicted to drugs, after all, we want that high again, more so after we’ve experienced the resulting low.

The danger of addiction to confidence boosters, particularly in our industry, is that we run the risk of seeking out friends whose sole purpose is to boost our confidence “Darling, you were marvellous!” This type of confidence is a false construct, it does not come from within, it isn’t lasting, it’s a fallacy. There’s a difference between having a circle of support and a harem of sycophants.

Bernice Milburn Moore published  ‘Self-Confidence For Competence’ in 1952. She wrote: “Self-confidence without competence is of as little use as is competence without self-confidence.” Put simply, you become more self-confident as you become more competent at what you do. Darius Foroux expands on Moore’s theory and charts the confidence/competence continuum like this;

You’ll see from this that those self-help books telling you to use mantras every day “I am confident, radiant, worthy” are pretty much bullshit – you can’t develop lasting self-confidence without first developing the skills you need to get stuff done. “If you can dream it, you can be it” – well not without a lot of work first. You could dream about being a world-class skier but if you’re not developing your skills you’re going to end up with a fair few broken bones. Don’t you feel better about an audition when you’ve had time to prepare, when you go in knowing that you’ve done as much as you possibly could? I notice that my clients who come out of auditions saying “I know I did as much as I possibly could” don’t ask me for feedback nearly as often as those who come out saying “I was working late and I didn’t really have time to look at this properly.” No judgement by the way, I get as frustrated as you when a client is given a days notice to prepare pages and pages of material. The difference between how the two groups feel afterwards is interesting, it’s as if the first group knew that they had worked as hard as they could on developing their competencies and so felt less need to be reassured; they didn’t need a confidence booster. Foroux distills this into a simple plan;

  1. Improve your competencies

  2. Put them into practice

  3. See results

  4. Grow more confident

  5. Repeat

Easy, eh?

So where does this leave me, about to board a plane, crippled with self-doubt, feeling dull and uninteresting, wondering how best to “be myself”? Change doesn’t happen overnight, sadly, and that magic pill hasn’t been invented yet so all I can do is control the controllables and focus on improving my competencies. I’m prepared, I’m planning on being more interested in others than interesting to them, and I expect I’ll use the old trick of imagining people in their underwear.

Essentially, right now, I only need to know my direction and not my destination. I am who I am, I can be no more than that.