Confidence and the role of stress in stopping you from doing stuff

What is confidence? It’s a strange concept that many people spend a lot of their time thinking about and indeed waste a lot of their time wanting to do things that they don’t think they have enough confidence to do.

The trouble is that confidence itself is an abstract concept. That is to say that confidence isn’t measurable by science. We can’t weigh it, we can’t check its length or density or even find it using electrodes on the brain.

The Reality Tunnel

Author Timothy Leary in his book 1998 book Neuropolitique, described a phenomenon he called “the self-referential reality tunnel”.

The reality tunnel is a theory that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.

The reality tunnel is your subconscious set of mental filters formed from beliefs and experiences, that guide every individual to experience the world differently

One of my favourite quotes along this line is from Anais Nin – “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

Because we struggle to perceive reality even when we think we are mindfully in the moment. You don’t experience everything there is to see in any moment because you can only see, hear, smell, taste or touch a small portion of the sensory information what’s around you.

Therefore, you have to make a decision on what you are going to look at. The same goes for our hearing and other senses.

How we feel dictates what we see

And what decides what we point our senses at? It’s how we feel in the moment. Which is of course the only feeling we can have. We either feel how we feel because of now, or because we are thinking about past or future things and feeling something about them.

If we are relaxed and enjoying life, we tend to let our senses settle on events around us that sustain those feelings – the sounds and scents of nature, laughter and happiness.

The same is true for even more internally generated thoughts and sensations such as confidence.

So let’s look at how our sensation of confidence is formed. It’s essentially a simple sum:

So if you “think” that a task is relatively straightforward, and that you can “imagine” that you have the skills and attitude to achieve the task, then you will feel confident about doing it.

I think therefore I am

But if you “think” that you don’t have the transferable skills to achieve a task then you won’t feel confident.

Similarly, your confidence also depends on how you “perceive” the difficulty of the task.

Possibly the worst situation is when someone “thinks” that they have all the skills to perform a task but actually they don’t. So that they are probably going to mess it up.

Do you see the theme running through this?

At no point do we objectively measure any part of this equation. It’s all perception. And as we explored, what you perceive is largely controlled by how you feel.

Here’s a couple of examples:

Under Pressure

Remember a time when you were up against it to meet a deadline. You’re trying to focus on something and concentrate. The people around you are busy doing what they do but today their voices are annoying you. It feels like the world is trying to stop you from meeting your deadline and you get that rising fear that maybe you are just out of your depth.

Now shake that out. Even I’m not immune to that sort of thought having an effect.

On the beach

Think of a time where you were all relaxed, maybe sitting on the beach, enjoying the sunshine, listening to the waves lap the shore, the gentle breeze on your face, as you relax. Your mind drifts around possibilities and options, and problems you’ve encountered don’t seem quite so big.

In situations such as this our senses open out and we kind of let information wash over us. We feel more relaxed.

If I asked you to do the same new task whilst you were in the feelings of those two situations, your response is likely to be quite different.

In the first situation you are under pressure, so your neurology feels under threat. Consequently, you will tend to react to situations more conservatively, with a focus on self-preservation. Different sections of your brain will be activated when you feel relaxed.

So how we feel in any given moment affects the mental (and physical) resources available to us to complete a task. Which is why sports psychology is one of the fastest growing industries this decade.

And because we have a need to reflect and rationalise on situations, if things don’t go well, it will likely be rationalised as having a lack of confidence, reinforcing the reality tunnel.

You are what you practice

Over time this rationalisation process becomes a well-worn pathway in the brain. We become more and more skilled at putting situations and negative feelings in to the “confidence” box. Eventually we become so good at this that we turn this thought process in to a belief. It becomes a fundamental part of our identity; an unassailable “fact” that we cannot do things because we aren’t confident enough.

 And in the process, we forget that confidence is a process of feeling derived from assumptions based on feelings about things that aren’t facts.

People speak really, really confidently about how they lack confidence!

And yet it seems real. Because their reality tunnel has made it so.

 So what to do about it?

Well if you’ve stayed with this article so far, there’s a chance that you might just be thinking about your confidence reality tunnel. So let’s explore this a little more.

Reality Tunnels are processes

Reality tunnels aren’t things, they are processes. Much like an assembly line, they need resources. You have to keep feeding a belief the right resources – negative experiences, energy and anxiety are essential ingredients of a well maintained reality tunnel. Take any of those away and the process becomes less efficient. It becomes harder and harder to maintain.

Reality tunnels aren’t things, they are mental processes. To keep it in place you need to feed it.

Here’s some ideas on how to starve the confidence reality tunnel.

1 – Journalling

No need to write War and Peace about the intricacies of your day. Just make a note of your successes during the day.

Try listing 3 things that you are proud of, and make them as small or as large as makes sense. I once coached a client whose confidence reality tunnel was so narrow that making a cup of tea was considered a success, even though she was a Director of a large company.

Fail forward as often as you can

There’s some great apps out there such as Gratitude that lets you photograph or quickly log situations and events that you did well in, without making it a chore.

2 – Manage your state

Overthinking stuff is a side effect of anxiety-ing, so the calmer you can be throughout the day, the less you think. My personal recommendation is to use “Heartmath” twice a day to learn what calm feels like, so that you have that feeling in your toolbox.

Heartmath in action on a Resilience Training Day

Alternatively try a simple breathing practice such as this video on my website:

3 – Get some perspective

Ask people that you trust and respect to tell you what you’re good at. Write it down and then note how your confidence-ing process tries to invalidate what they’ve said.

“You cannot solve a problem from the position that created it” – Albert Einstein. Perception changes a problem. It’s what good coaches do.

Be amazed at how skilful you are at negating positive feedback… And imagine how awesome it will be when you don’t do that anymore!

 These are all things that you can do for yourself that aren’t expensive or time-consuming. If you want to accelerate progress, get yourself a good coach who understands this stuff.

So what now?

If your reality tunnel only lets you take one thing away from this article, then take this:

Confidence isn’t a thing, it’s a process that you are running. Like an app on your phone, it drains your battery and limits your ability to do other stuff. When you’re ready, hit delete and install something more fun!

If you need help, get in touch, we can give you the boost you need.

Get In Touch


Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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