Under-confidence and over-confidence

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If you are under-confident, you may miss the waves.  If you are over-confident, you may crash.  It’s a balance.  Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

There is a lot written about lack of confidence.  It is often talked about in the same breath as self-esteem, as though personal development were a matter of moving from unconfident to confident, poor self-esteem to burgeoning self-esteem.

Perhaps it’s because most people who self-refer for counselling and psychotherapy feel that they lack confidence.  It is rare for a client to appear and announce: ‘I’m unhappy because I’m over-confident.’  It’s far more common for a client to associate unhappiness with uncertainty, indecisiveness, lack of self-assurance.

OVER-CONFIDENCE CAN MAKE YOU UNHAPPY

But that doesn’t mean that over-confidence does not cause unhappiness.  Someone who is over-confident may well cause themselves unhappiness.  Here are a few of the ways in which an excess of confidence can make life unhappy:

  • POOR RELATIONSHIPS  Over-confidence in manner and speech can lead to poor relationships.  Others can experience you as arrogant and opinionated.  They may shun you because they do not want to be bossed around, practically or emotionally.  It limits their freedom.  You may find yourself lonely as a consequence.
  • DISASTERS  Over-confidence in assessing situations can lead to taking undue risks.  Like an inexperienced driver getting into a sports car, the over-confident individual can find themselves hitting walls in life, and hurting themselves, as their self-assessed abilities don’t match the requirements of the situation.
  • DISORGANISATION  Over-confidence in estimating tasks can lead to allowing too little time to get everything done.  This can cause chaos in a person’s life, as they rush from thing to thing, never allowing enough time to do anything properly.
In this way, someone who is over-confident may end up in psychotherapy or seeking help.  But they will not always know what has brought them there.  They may present as lonely (but blaming other people), hurt (but sure it is not their fault), chaotic (but saying life is a mess, not them!).

UNDER-CONFIDENCE CAN ALSO MAKE YOU UNHAPPY

The relationship between under-confidence and unhappiness is perhaps better understood by the person themselves.

  • STRESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS  Under-confidence in behaviour can lead to being taken advantage of, as others see that there is no resisting force.  Others may be attracted to you because you let them feel in control.  You may, as a result, have lots of friends, but feel exhausted by relationships.
  • FEELING IMPRISONED  Under-confidence in assessing situations can lead to avoiding risk completely.  So activities end up not done, for fear of getting them wrong.  The prevailing feeling may be of opportunities missed.  You may have a strong daydream life, but feel you fail to translate your hopes into action.
  • OBSESSIVE TIDINESS  Under-confidence in preparing for tasks may lead to taking too much time to prepare, and too little time acting.  Everything may be arranged in neat rows, everything organised perfectly, and yet somehow the most important things don’t quite get started, because there is never a perfect time.
In this way, someone who is under-confident may present as overwhelmed by real life, but trapped in a dream life, always on the edge of action, but fearful of acting.

FINDING A BALANCE

In reality, many of us have elements of both sides.  We have some areas of life where we are under-confident, and some areas where we are over-confident.  Sometimes, apparent over-confidence can be a compensation for under-confidence in a different area.  Thus, someone who is afraid of their parent, may exercise power over a younger sibling, as a kind of pressure release.  Or someone who is under-confident at home, can appear over-confident at work.

AN EXERCISE

Think of your under-confident self, and your over-confident self, as two separate people, fighting it out for control over your personality.

Sometimes they don’t talk to each other.  Maybe your under-confident self spends most of the time undermining you, until suddenly, at pressurised moments, you over-compensate by taking dramatic or risky actions.  This pattern is quite common.

Both behaviours are functional in their own way. You may find yourself acting humble most of the time, asking others what they think, because you have learned that this has a pay-off (in particular, it stops people attacking you, and makes them stop and help you).  Equally, your over-confident blow-outs, where you get on your high horse, perform a function in reminding the world you are not to be taken advantage of.  I am not quibbling with the fact that these extreme behaviours have a use.  I am only suggesting that self-knowledge and self-control help you master these emotional signals, and find an effective and happy middle way.

Perhaps, just for today, let both selves speak to each other inside your head.  Let yourself know where you feel strong, and where you feel weak.  It might enable you to take a more realistic middle ground.

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SUMMARY

When it comes to under-confidence, clients who seek psychological help can be well aware of a need to find a more confident self in order to be happy.  They are often aware of feeling fearful about relationships, feeling trapped in a risk-averse life, and being caught in a cycle of perfectionism.

When it comes to over-confidence, however, clients may find it hard to see any direct connection between their behaviour, and the consequences.  They just feel unhappy, and blame the world!  Their poor-quality relationships, frequent disasters, and disorganised lives, just seem to happen to them, and they can’t see the connection between their lack of self-mastery and the consequences.

In reality, you may find yourself under-confident in some areas, and over-confident in others.  A common pattern is to feel under-confident most of the time, and then, occasionally, burst out in a fire of pressure-cooked revenge against the world!

Letting your under- and over-confident selves speak to each other with care and understanding, can help you to achieve a more effective balance in your relationships and your life.

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