This is part 3 of a series about confidence. In Part 1 of this series, I talked about meaningfulness. In Part 2, I talked about security. The introductory section is repeated so you don’t have to read them in any particular order.
External validation is not a reliable antidote to self-doubt. It can help, but only if it validates something you are already pretty confident is true. If your confidence is low, you extend your self-doubt to the judgements others make. Your gremlins are perfectly capable of telling you that the journal made a mistake in accepting your article (and that scathing criticism is now going to rain down on you), or that all the students that gave your course a high rating were just being nice (amplifying the voice of that one student who absolutely hated it and let it rip in the evaluation forms), or that someone made a mistake hiring you and there is no way you’re ever going to get tenure, or … or … or … I’m sure you can add your own examples.
So where does the confidence come from that can then be validated externally? It seems to me that there are three things that contribute to confidence:
There is a deeply personal element to what makes things feel meaningful, secure, and supportive. External validation can either strengthen or weaken your confidence depending on how it interacts with those internal elements.
Support is not the same as external validation
External validation says “Yes, this is good work.” Support is more about helping you deal with whatever has knocked your confidence, identify the opportunities to improve, or find a way to not do a thing you aren’t good at so you can focus on your strengths. That support may be as simple as encouragement or reassurance so you can get back on the horse, as the saying goes. It may be a workshop, a peer, or a mentor who can help you figure out what you need to do to improve, or teach you a new skill, or provide knowledge that will help you. It may be someone who is willing to share resources, introduce you to someone who could help you, or recommend you for something that would help you develop the necessary skills, knowledge, or networks.
Being able to ask for and receive support involves a shift in mindset.
Instead of seeing the setback of evidence of failure, you see it as an opportunity for growth and learning. No one comes into a job knowing how to do all the things the job requires. Nor should anyone expect to. Your PhD trained you in how to do specialist research and write a long-form academic output that makes a contribution to scholarly knowledge. It may have given you other training or experience relevant to your academic career. You will still need to learn how your particular institution works. You will develop your skills in both research and teaching throughout your career. As you progress in your career you will also need to develop various skills that may be broadly called leadership or management. You will need to learn various bureaucratic and technical systems to do your work.
Not being able to do something you have not done before is not an indication of weakness or failure. Needing to learn new things is inevitable. Looking back on your earlier work and seeing limitations or flaws is evidence of how much you have learned. Sometimes what you will learn is what you are not very good at and where it is more effective for you to work with others with complementary skills. Learning is often frustrating, something I’m sure you reassure your students about regularly.
Perfectionism can sabotage your ability to get support
If you suffer from perfectionism, you may have real difficulties asking for support. You will find it hard to admit to others that you don’t know something or that you are struggling with something. You will also have difficulty hearing criticism even if it is offered in a constructive and supportive manner.
Sometimes the support you think you need isn’t really what you need, either. You need to be able to hear suggestions that something you hadn’t thought of or had dismissed as irrelevant might actually help you. Or that something is going to be more difficult than you’d hoped.
Perfectionism is not striving for excellence. It will manifest as a lack of confidence and feelings of failure. Counselling or therapy can help. Group therapy focused on self-esteem will be relevant, if available. I’ve also linked to a good series of articles about this here: Perfectionism.
There is lots of support available
Your first step is to shift your mindset to focus on what you need to learn rather than what you are not good at. You may need to learn how to ask for support effectively. It will not always be obvious what sort of support would be helpful.
You probably already have a network of peers, mentors, and others who can provide support. Your institution or your scholarly association probably offers different types of support for specific things. You may need to extend your networks and investigate what’s available. You may need to reflect on whether the people you normally go to for support are as supportive as you’d like.
Sometimes what you really need is some honest criticism or a bit of a kick in the pants. Sometimes you need a gentler approach. If seeking support leaves you feeling less confident, consider whether there is a personal issue (like perfectionism) that you need to address but also determine whether a different source of support might be more helpful. It may take some work to figure out how you prefer to receive criticism and advice so you can ask more clearly and identify potential sources more effectively.
This article is a revised version of a newsletter sent on 16 November 2018 to those interested in hearing about my individual coaching services. The coaching newsletter also contains prompts for written reflections. You can sign up for the newsletter at JoVanEvery.ca/newsletters.