“How do I overcome self-confidence issues? I think I have a valuable contribution to make, but I am conscious of being judged or making a mistake.” – READER QUESTION submitted by Emma G.
Putting yourself out there can be scary. Especially when you’re concerned about being judged or making a mistake.
In the early nineties, I went to live in Italy to learn to speak Italian. It was a dream of mine to speak another language and Italian was so vibrant, musical and passionate. I turned up to my new school in Firenze (that’s Florence) excited to immerse myself and start talking.
“Buongiorno, benvenuti alla tua prima classe italiana.”
Um, the class is in Italian?? I looked around the room expecting to see faces reflecting the fear I felt. How am I supposed to learn when I don’t even know what the hell they’re saying?
Welcome to immersion. Not as comfortable as I’d imagined apparently.
So every day, I fronted up to my classes, trying to make sense of what was going on. The other students seemed so confident. Stringing together sentences and conjugating verbs. I was mystified at my own apparent stupidity. I’d never felt so behind in a classroom and I couldn’t tell if I was humbled or just in shock.
I tried talking to the students in the break (in English) about what was going on, and they graciously responded in what was their second or third language.
It was making me feel slightly panicked. Nobody else was struggling? What the hell was going on?!
In retrospect, I can tell you now what it was.
I was terrified of making mistakes.
As a reformed perfectionist, I had no idea that to learn another language, that’s exactly what you have to do. You have to speak, get corrected, and then speak again. I spent hours crafting sentences in my head before I would speak them. I agonised over male/female articles and memorising irregular verbs. And still, I was nowhere close to getting it right.
After every sentence I spoke aloud, I would judge my grammar, my accent, my woeful lack of vocabulary. My basic conversations were so at contrast with the depth and nuance I knew I was capable of my mother tongue that I didn’t seek them out. I shied away from interaction and stubbornly clung to speaking English with my fellow students during breaks.
The fear of making mistakes was a dead weight around my neck. Pinning me down. Trapping me.
Back in the classroom, I became fascinated by the students who were cruising along and making it look easy. Were they studying a lot? How were they learning all of this? What techniques were they using? I had to find out.
So I sought out the standout student in our class, a grungy, German girl with matted hair and flowing hemp pants. She was chatting away after a few weeks as though she’d grown up there. HOW??
I watched from the doorway of the piazza bar as she ordered an espresso like a local. I had to step in and ask.
“How do you speak Italian so well?”
She shrugged. “Maybe I was Italian in a past life.”
I stared at her blankly.
Now if you’re thinking that her nonchalant answer gave me nothing to work with, you’d be correct. It wasn’t until a lot later that I realised she had given me the answer but I just couldn’t see it yet.
So here it is….
She. Didn’t. Care.
She wasn’t paralysed by doubt, or mistakes, she was speaking like a child. She wasn’t overthinking it.
She’d say whatever, get corrected, and then say something else.
The result was learning that was just seeping into her bones.
Like she was Italian in a past life.
I’m not sharing this story to be flippant. Even when I realised this truth, my experience with learning Italian did not get any more comfortable.
I was working against years of perfectionist conditioning and you don’t just brush that off after lunch. Definitely not.
… I was still the bottom of my class.
…I was still humbled by the Europeans who turned up and started speaking immediately, including an 82-year-old grandmother!
…I still cringed every time I spoke and made mistakes and judged myself.
But it did get easier. I learned to put it out there, even though it was uncomfortable.
The height of discomfort was usually when I was with other students who spoke Italian better than I did (I.e. All Of Them).
Strangers didn’t matter as much, but when I stumbled and messed up easy words in front of peers I’d been learning with, that was confronting.
I was embarrassed that they knew more than me, spoke better than me, made fewer mistakes. I let them do most of the talking and I hid behind their confidence.
But you already know who did most of the learning, don’t you?
You know who progressed in leaps and bounds? The ones who gave it a shot.
Several years later when I was back at University in Australia, I enrolled in International Studies. I’d learn Spanish for 2 years in Australia, then go to University in Spain for a year’s immersion.
For two years in Australia, I was surrounded by other native English speakers, and the teacher explained things to us in English. Yes, much more comfortable.
But I asked my questions in Spanish. Well, broken Spanish. I played around with it and I didn’t care if I was using the right words. The teacher corrected me as I went and I didn’t take it personally.
During those 2 years of learning Spanish in Australia, I got top marks.
Yes, you read that right. I was numero uno.
I was the girl who must have been Spanish in a past life.
I was the one who when we arrived in Spain, all of my classmates would go quiet and wait for me to speak on their behalf. I was the one who chatted away and answered questions and looked confident.
I can tell you now. I wasn’t smarter, more talented or harder working. I just gave it a go, made mistakes and got on with it. AND I felt pretty confident.
There is truth in the saying “fake it till you make it.” It’s in the “doing” that confidence develops.
But you’re different, right? The stakes are high for you because you’re in a high powered job and people expect you to know things already.
Let me tell you two truths:
- Nobody is thinking about you, they’re too busy thinking about themselves.
- People expect you to show up and give your best. They don’t expect you to know everything or be perfect.
People are a lot more forgiving than you give them credit for AND we are usually our own worst critics.
Growth comes from making mistakes. If you don’t lighten up and allow yourself to make a few every now and then, you’re limiting your growth.
Confidence will not appear to you one day magically. You will have to practice, and that means feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
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