8 Ways To Cope With A Professional Confidence Crisis (or, Even George Clooney Doubts His Looks Sometimes)

mm Russ Finkelstein

I tend to group crises of confidence into two categories.

You can predict the first. For example, if you are obliged to speak to 200 people about your field of professional expertise in three weeks’ time, and the last time you tried public speaking, it didn’t go well, then a little confidence crisis is quite foreseeable. It may not be easy to manage, but you at least have some time, can talk to people and perhaps locate resources, and make a plan to overcome it.

You can’t predict the second kind of crisis, and these are the ones that really bore through you like a German-engineered confidence-tunneling machine. If you’re not careful, they can be quite dangerous, professionally, in large part because of their capacity to sprawl out of control, giving you the feeling that you’re powerless to stop them.

The good news is that even the most successful people suffer from both kinds of confidence crisis, and there are some coping strategies you can use to manage better, when these things inevitably crop up. Remember, we all have triggers for a confidence crisis, and if we can’t remove them completely, the key is recognizing them in such a way that you can minimize the damage.

It’s quite unusual for people to talk to each other at work about their confidence. That’s because we’re conditioned to mistrust colleagues who confess to not being entirely sure of themselves and fear that we will be perceived as weak ourselves for talking in the same vein. And in certain fields, such as heart surgery, for example, that conditioning, to be wary of a loss of confidence, is there for good reason. I love to watch a medical drama when a doctor comes back from having caused a string of deaths on the operating table. But in real life, I’d rather choose a doctor whose confidence levels have been high and stable throughout their career.

It isn’t helpful to keep quiet about our professional confidence levels, because the silence isolates us from being honest with each other about how a crisis of confidence is all too normal, and often made up in our heads, and most importantly, about how one can be overcome.

I’m all for breaking the mold on this front. So: Here are my hard-earned tips for coping with a professional confidence crisis. It may feel like I am over-sharing but remember, that’s what Clearly Next is all about: Carving out a space for us to explore our professional discomfort so that we can move through it and gain clarity about our next opportunity.


Reach Out When Your Head Cycles To A Bad Place

As a career coach, I can sometimes be brought in by organizations when they are looking to help dozens of their employees during a difficult time. Many years ago, I was hired to coach a dozen people each day, in three different cities, over the course of about ten days. After a full day of coaching I would fly to the next city and coach another group the next day.

I’d been doing well, having productive conversations in the first two cities. But on the first day in the third city, I had a coaching conversation with an employee that just went terribly. Everything we discussed she would say she had done already. Every effort to reframe was rebuffed. When we parted, we were both frustrated.

Rather than shake it off, my mind started to spiral. I thought: “That was awful.” And then: “What if the rest of my day here is going to be filled with sessions that are as awful as that one was?” And then: “What if the next four days in this city are that bad?” And then I convinced myself something had happened to me, that all of a sudden I’d just lost my ability to coach, successfully, that the coach’s Midas’ touch, if you like, had deserted me forever. As though I were an athlete who could no longer execute at the highest level.

This confidence crisis really felt as serious for me professionally as it might be for George Clooney to wake up one morning thinking he had entirely lost his looks.

It was at that point, thinking my entire career may have been premised on a series of accidents and been totally undeserved that I realized, fortunately, that perhaps I may have gotten a bit caught up in a spiraling thought process!

The point is: George Clooney is never going to lose his looks. It’s just not something that is going to happen to him, professionally. Nor will you lose your talents and what has made you successful, overnight, either.

Sure, George might wake up a little insecure, one morning. But then he’ll turn to that beautiful human rights attorney wife of his, or to his agent, or to the many people around him who believe he is truly, uniquely beautiful, and he will ask for, or more likely receive without prodding, reassurance.

This is our teachable moment. I am not trying to say your career success is based on good looks, but that you may sometimes benefit from reaching out to your trusted network for a reminder of the things that do make you successful. Professionally, who are the people you can reach out to, in the same way that George might, during a confidence crisis?

I called one of my support network, a friend, someone I trusted, and explained as calmly as I could, what was going on in my head. He pointed out that over the course of my career I’ve led thousands of coaching sessions. That it had taken so long to have a poor one was itself rather remarkable. Even the most inspiring and accomplished performers have bad days occasionally, and in fact, my “batting average” was higher than anyone should have expected. Sure enough, I got a sense of perspective from the conversation with my friend and punctured that negative though balloon before it could take over my head completely.

In career coaching terms, I was a movie star again.

When you’re starting to feel confused, and your confidence is spiraling, it’s so important to recognize as early as possible that you’ve gotten a little too caught up in your own head, and to reach out to a friend.


Nourish yourself

Most Americans are overworked because they have some fear about losing their positions. They also tend to be a little workaholic, feeling that it’s easier to measure success at work more easily than it might be able to, outside work.

We are often more susceptible to a professional confidence crisis when we’ve gone a while without a vacation, or taken time to tend to our own personal wellbeing.

In the case of my coaching crisis, I had been on the road for several days, sleeping in different cities and hotel rooms, and had not really been talking to my friends or family as much as would have been healthy.

It is so important to take your vacation time and to remember to make space for relaxing activity after work and on the weekends. It’s simple advice, but you’d be surprised at how few people are able to act on it, in our professional culture.


Learn How To Take A Compliment

For years, when people would congratulate me for having helped found idealist.org, I would twist the compliment. Someone might tell me that the site had helped them find purpose in their professional life, for example, and instead of saying, “thank you, that’s very kind”, I would respond with a strange kind of emotional jiu-jitsu.

I might say, “thanks,” at first. But then I would say: “Well, it could always be better,” and then talk with them about exciting next projects. While I never said it to them, I had always thought to myself about how much more successful the organization might have been if someone even more capable was in the role.

So, compliments would be a mechanism for me to go into this odd space where I couldn’t just allow the kind words to exist. I’d have to over-analyze, share a particular truth, and then end up in this place where I’d actually be criticizing myself in my head for not being smart enough.

In doing so I would actually, de-legitimize their compliment. I was taking something that should have been nice opportunity for them to share appreciation, and turning it into a reason for me to explore a lack of self-confidence, for some reason. A compliment became a bridge to impostor syndrome and I had to work to take that bridge apart.

The next time somebody compliments you at work, thank the person. And for goodness’ sake, try to just sit with it and let the compliment work its magic on you. If you are someone who routinely suffers from confidence issues perhaps write down that compliment and keep it in a file with affirming emails as a reminder. It’s important to learn to be gracious, and to own what you do well.


Don’t Fear Your Review Process

I have a coaching client who is wildly successful, who confessed to me recently that every single time he has a professional review, he is convinced he is about to be fired. As a result, he tends to reschedule the reviews as often as he can, and avoids regular check-ins with his boss.

We worked on this, and together, got him to commit to attending check-ins on a regular basis, to come up with metrics for success so he knows each year what he is working towards and not to avoid the process. The point was that he was indulging an unrealistic fear about being assessed, professionally, and indeed, the energy he was putting in to the avoidance was also an added burden.

A review process is not about going deeply into your feelings of self-worth, unless you choose to make it about that. It is about ensuring that there are clear expectations for your professional success, and that you, and your manager, have the space and time to communicate about any challenges you may be facing. Knowing as many target goals as possible can reduce that likelihood of anxiety and doubt.


Treat Yourself Like You Would Treat A Friend

I have another coaching client, one who moved cities for a big job a few years ago, but it didn’t work out, and after a few months, she came home. She described the experience as like returning with her tail between her legs, and judged herself harshly for what she described as the failure.

I asked what she might have said to a friend who had returned home in similar circumstances, and she told me “I’d have told them they were brave to have gone for it, and that not everything in life works out.”

So I told her to say that to herself. We are often our own harshest critics, and it is so important to be kinder to ourselves, particularly when we are judging ourselves for a perceived failure. Consider the bravery that led to the disappointment, and offer congratulations for having taken the risk. While I am always a fan of carefully calculating your decisions I also believe that many people spend too much energy revisiting their decisions, once they’ve made them. Nobody’s perfect.  


Don’t Create Personas About People

Often, we are our own worst enemies at work. We can create narratives about our colleagues that are completely fictional and based on perceived sleights, such as the tone of an email, or text, or even a facial expression during a meeting. We have sensitivities and constructs in our heads about why things have occurred, and they have no basis in fact, but more in fear.

There’s a respected leader in the non-profit sector, and we had an awkward conversation on a bus, once, when we first met. I convinced myself this person wasn’t interested in me, and that they were difficult to deal with.

Years later we were thrown together as part of a small group for a few days. During that time we became fast friends, and talked about that bus ride. There was no issue. She’s just a little shy. She is quite a commanding person on a stage, but not as forthcoming if she doesn’t know someone, in person.

I’d created a back-story of this person being difficult in some way, and there was no problem. It was just my insecurity. Watch out for the stories you might be making up.


How Are You Determining What Success Is For You?

I just coached a friend who is a serial entrepreneur. He mentioned thinking recently that it had been a while since he had gotten substantial press coverage.

He’d been seeing a lot of press coverage of his peers in the technology sector and was starting to feel like he may have been left behind, particularly because a few years ago, the New York Times and the big business magazines had featured him more prominently. I reminded him that a few years ago he had taken a conscious decision not to pursue press coverage, and instead, to focus his energy on pursuing projects he was intellectually curious about.

When your confidence spirals, it is very important to have in your head who and what you choose as your model for success. Share that model with people close to you, and explain what you are prepared to sacrifice to get there. When your confidence does take a knock, they can remind you that you once told them you didn’t need to be in the newspapers, for example. And you can more easily refocus, because you are realizing the goals you set for yourself.


Sharing When Things are Their Best Your Success Need Not Be An Act of Self-Promotion

When you are successful, you have a choice. You can either: Step outside the success and be generous to other people, share what you have learned and try to help other people be successful, too; or: Attempt to ‘hoard’ that success and isolate yourself.

Isolating yourself is not the route to continued success, but to an eventual confidence crisis, and of course, to people thinking you’re a bit of a jerk. Most of our professional lives have peaks and valleys, and it is your availability during those peaks that brings others to you during the valleys.

So: I encourage everyone I work with to look for ways to talk with the professionals around them about the struggles they have overcome in order to be successful. Obviously this has value for the people who learn from you, but it’s also an important part of maintaining your own professional confidence.

By only sharing the strong part of ourselves, we deny people the opportunity to support us when we might be feeling vulnerable. And that, to me, is a shame, because it’s important to trust the people we work with a little more than we might be inclined to. It’s what builds stronger teams and drives performance. And ironically, of course, it is what makes us all a lot more confident, in the end.

The sudden crisis of confidence is no one’s favorite visitor. However, they happen to everyone. I hope the tips above make them slightly less frequent visitors in your workplace.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >