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Ask A Therapist: How Can I Grow My Confidence at Work?

Anxiety, Career, Ask a Therapist
7 min read

Dear Therapist: My question is how to grow confidence in my work, and in my decisions.  I work for a city parks dept and have managed four parks for the past couple years. I very much feel like a fish out of water here. I'm a nerdy guy who likes games, comics, movies etc. The vast majority of people I work with are very much the hunter, fisher, Mr. Fix it type of guys and while we get along just fine I tend to always feel very inadequate around them. I'll have a question about how to use a certain tool or equipment or I'll ask how to fix something that's broken and the answer seems very obvious to them but not obvious to me. So I end up feeling stupid and its this vicious cycle. I'm sure they aren't even intending me to feel that way.

I just don't know how to begin trusting my work decisions and not feeling this way because I really enjoy my job and love being outdoors. Thank you for any advice.

Frame Community Therapist Tom McDonagh weighs in… 
While at times it might feel like you are the only one who feels this way, questions about how to build confidence are one of the most discussed topics in therapy. So you are in good company. In fact, this happens so often at work that people tend to call it impostor syndrome.  Before we dive deeper into how to grow your confidence, a little background on how the brain works in these situations can be helpful.

The Unconfident Brain
When we experience a lack of confidence, what our “lizard brain” is actually doing is creating the sensation of anxiety. If our brain were a car, then the “gas” that contributes to anxiety is the amygdala and the “break” that helps to slow anxiety is the prefrontal cortex. When we experience a lack of confidence (i.e. anxiety) in the same situation repeatedly, the braking system weakens and it becomes easier to feel anxiety. The good news is that the prefrontal cortex is malleable, meaning it can change and return back to its more helpful “breaking” state.

So how do we do this?

Stress Management
One of the most helpful ways to start is by focusing on breathing when your confidence is lacking. Controlled, deep breathing can help reduce the fight or flight response associated with a lack of confidence. Doing this regularly over time will help associate being in a more relaxed state during low confidence moments. Try breathing in through the nose and out of the mouth for 4 seconds each, 10x in a row. If you can, try to do this three times a day to develop the practiced muscle memory. 

Responding, Not Controlling Feelings
In your question you mentioned you would like to “not feel this way.” It is important to know that we cannot stop or prevent how we feel in the moment. The ability to control how we feel in the now is simply impossible. We can only control how we respond to these feelings. It might seem like a subtle point, but it is important to remember. Otherwise you will end up blaming yourself for something that is out of your control. It would be similar to criticizing yourself for feeling the sensation of water on your hand! Recognizing this AND knowing there is something you can do differently to respond to these feelings helps to improve confidence. 

Stop Comparing Yourself
Finding ways to stop comparing yourself to your Mr. Fix-It coworkers can help improve confidence as well. It seems that the cycle of feeling “stupid” happens because 1) you assume you should know better and 2) you discount what you do well.

Instead of being critical and judgmental toward yourself by saying “I should know better” try to be more helpful by adopting a curious perspective. For example, saying “I’m expecting a lot of myself right now, what is that all about?” or “I wonder how I can solve this problem” are ways to be curious with yourself. Relating to ourselves in this way removes the negative associates that come from being critical. There’s also evidence that a curious mindset increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, improving that “braking” system for anxiety.

Self talk is important when it comes to building confidence, but unfortunately it can go both ways. If you are lacking confidence, the self talk is negative and only focuses on what you are not doing well. However, this cannot be the whole story. If you have worked at this job for the past couple of years, you must be doing something right. What are these things? Make an effort to write them down and rewrite the self-talk script when you are feeling a lack of confidence by reminding yourself of what you do well. 

Opposite Action
Ironically, one of the best ways to build confidence is to do the thing that makes you feel embarrassed. It takes away the intensity of the emotion. Doing the opposite of what anxiety or embarrassment tells us to do is the opposite action skill.

While I am happy to hear you feel confident enough to ask your coworkers for help when you feel stuck, my guess is you haven’t talked to them about how you feel inadequate. I’m not suggesting you have a therapy session with them, but voicing our real concerns to others is a way to engage and overcome unpleasant emotions. Try saying something like “I don’t know if you can tell, but sometimes I have a hard time asking for help. I feel like I should know this and it’s frustrating. I just want you to know I appreciate the help.” 

In summary, while it can feel overwhelming, there are always opportunities available to help improve our confidence. The important thing is to focus on making the attempt to do something different in the beginning and not focus on outcomes too early. Just making the attempt to improve confidence in and of itself is a win. The results will come. 


About the Therapist: Tom McDonagh is a clinical psychologist with a focus in anxiety issues. He co-authored 101 Ways to Conquer Teen Anxiety and is the owner of the psychology practice Good Therapy SF, located in San Francisco, California. Learn more about Tom's practice by viewing his Frame profile here. 

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