A career coach offers tips and tricks on how to appear more confident, deserving and assertive.
Do you remember the first time you felt so embarrassed that you wished the ground would open up and eat you alive? If this never happened to you, or you can’t remember, count yourself lucky. I certainly do remember this. I was eight years old and I had just given my first oral presentation in Dutch (my second language) in primary school. I remember my voice trembling and to this day I can still see the underwhelmed look on the faces of my classmates. My confidence in public speaking took a massive knock and from that day onward I have dreaded doing it.
This fear was so great it stopped me from asking questions or making comments during lectures at university and I would always beat myself up about this afterwards.
“What I did not realise then, which I do now, is that in order for me to build my confidence, assertiveness and truly believe that I deserved more (be it better marks, recognition or personal satisfaction), I needed to Give, Do and Ask more.”
This can be the mantra almost any mama looking for more money, better opportunities or greater acknowledgement can follow. Here’s why.
According to the authors of How Women Rise, one of the things that hold women back in their careers (and one can argue that it’s true of their life, in general) is the so-called “Disease to Please”. This implies that women tend to give a lot more than they ask for in return. This is even more true for mothers, with studies showing that the vast majority of domestic and childcare duties are performed by women (even if they are also working). Why then am I suggesting that women give more than they already do?
“You need to learn to give yourself credit for all you do and value what you bring to the table.”
Being confident has a lot to do with feeling “worthy”. So, if you notice that you exhibit a lack of confidence even with familiar groups (family, friends or colleagues), here’s how you can correct that.
Suggested activity: Write a list of all the things that you are competent at and confident of doing, that have a value add for people (for example, connecting people, cooking, driving, coordinating activities etc.). This will help you understand in what ways people benefit from their relationship with you (instead of expecting or waiting for others to recognise your worth). An awareness of the value you add can also significantly enhance your confidence when meeting new people. Knowing what you have to give is especially useful when you meet those who you might want something from you (for example, at a job interview or at a networking event).
If you take a look at my phone screenshot above, you’ll see just what I mean by “doing”. Although I still feel nervous about public speaking, my confidence in doing this has grown to the point that in the past year, I accepted half a dozen opportunities to speak at events.
“This confidence did not just appear out of thin air. Becoming a confident speaker has taken years of me taking up opportunities to do it.”
To manage my nerves, I make sure that I take as much time as possible to prepare. I also record myself practising my presentation 10, 20 or even more than 30 times before most speaking engagements (that’s me above not being able to get beyond 12 seconds at times!). If you are really keen to gain confidence, you may also have to do more in terms of investing your time, energy and/or money.
Suggested activity: Look again at the list you created of things that you recognise you are good at doing. If you reflect on what it took for you to get to this stage, you will probably see that you got better at doing most of these things by doing them over and over again. Are there things you once felt confident about, but now lack the confidence to do? If so, and if they are things that matter to you, think about what you need to invest to regain that self-assurance. Identify and take the first step within the next 24 hours to start (re)building your confidence in a chosen area of your life.
Note: Sometimes our lack of confidence is due to our overly high standards or our desire for perfection. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells women to stop trying to find the “perfect” way of having both a fulfilling personal life and successful career and instead, focus on doing what is important and sustainable in the long run. Eliminating the pressure of doing everything right can help you complete and enjoy the things you choose to do.
Finally, if people don’t know what you want, they can’t give it to you. Getting things not only requires the confidence to ask, but to ask clearly, assertively and without apology. You need to ask for and be open to accepting what you are worthy of.
“Often what strikes me is how rarely people explicitly specify what their expectations are. Instead, they seem to assume that other people should just know.”
It is very important to remember that our standards are not necessarily the same as those of others. What you think you deserve to get in return for what you do may not be what others believe you should get. Be specific about what you want in return for what you do. For example, if you are expecting to be paid for a piece of work that a friend or acquaintance asked you to do, make it clear from the very beginning. It is much easier to discuss the terms and conditions before you do the work, rather than having to go back after you have completed it.
Suggested activity: Now look again at your list of personal value adds. Are there things you feel that you are not adequately rewarded for? How would you like to be rewarded and have you ever asked for this reward? If not, practise asking for what you want out loud and in the mirror. Do it a couple of times until you feel more comfortable hearing yourself saying it, then ask the relevant person for what you want.
It’s never too late to start building your confidence by raising your own awareness about what you have to give, doing more and asking for more.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2020 and updated in March, 2022.