Ask Dr. Amy: How to Be More Confident Dealing With Life’s Challenges

Strategies and tools from elite performers to help us sustain ourselves as we deal with life’s challenges.

Dr. Amy Athey

BY DR. AMY ATHEY​​

2020 has been one of the most challenging years that many of us have ever faced.

2020 has been one of the most challenging years that many of us have ever faced. Not only are we dealing with a once-in-a-generation pandemic, we’re also trying to adapt to massive political and social swings. We may be homeschooling our children, or dealing with job loss or financial insecurity. We’re trying to make our socially-distanced, virtual world feel as real as our in-person one did.

Believe me, I’m dealing with these issues as well! The single parent journey took on new heights with homeschooling for a middle and high schooler, abruptly pivoting to remote work, and trying to still find a little “mama” time. Our family’s 2020 motto has become “Roll with it!”

While many things are out of our control, there are some strategies and tools we can learn from elite performers to help us sustain ourselves and become more confident as we deal with life’s challenges.

How can I take life's punches and get back up, without laying on the mat for a while first?

The challenges we’re facing right now feel much bigger than a lost game or round of golf. Life right now is throwing out punches of physical illness, violence, economic hardships, and uncertainty. I don’t blame you for wanting to lay face-down for a while — I certainly do!

One of the traits that differentiates elite performers is that they find a way to bounce back from the punches and find a way through the tough times, rather than giving in. They do this through practicing resilience skills. There is not one “magic pill” that allows us to be resilient. But a significant antidote for resilience is social connection. Connecting with others and relying on social support helps us each to foster resiliency for when we really need it.

Self-compassion also aids our ability to recover from the punches. Are you overly critical of yourself (for example, stating, “you always blow it” when you make a small mistake at work?), or does your inner dialogue reflect a conversation as you would share with a friend? For example, saying, “That wasn’t the best I could have done, but I know I can and will do better next time.”

And lastly, remember — everything is changing. Challenge your perspective in considering that evolution has the opportunity for positive change. Have you been able to cut obligations out of your life you never enjoyed or found helped? Have you reconnected with some friends or family members virtually? Been enjoying some new family habits? We don’t have to “always look on the bright side” to make small shifts in our perspective and become more confident.

"Remember — so much is changing this year. Challenge your perspective in considering that evolution has the opportunity for positive change."

I know I can be negative in reaction to life's challenges. How can I make a shift to help my confidence and performance?

To start, let’s remember that humans are emotional beings. Negative feelings such as disappointment, frustration, and anger are normal reactions, just like joy, excitement, and pride.

What your question suggests is that you are aware of ways in which your negative continued inner dialogue may be diminishing your confidence following an event. And that’s a good thing to notice and want to work on!

First step, be clear — we feel and then we think. It’s normal to feel disappointed if we learn we were passed over for a promotion. Feel it. Take a breath.

Then, when you start to think, consider a subtle shift in the questions you are asking yourself. Instead of asking “Why are you so dumb?” (which only adds fuel to the negative emotion and pulls you down), consider asking “What can I learn from this?” (which then fuels confidence moving forward as you will be even more prepared for the next career opportunity). So the shift comes in transforming the negative thought patterns rather than changing the emotions.

"Remember that humans are emotional beings. Negative feelings such as disappointment, frustration, and anger are normal reactions, just like joy, excitement, and pride."

People always say "be optimistic" during times like this, and it’s a lot to take. Why does that matter?

Optimism is a key tool and trait used by elite performers to help navigate performance challenges. Some people will push back and say “I’m a realist.” Certainly staying grounded is a strength. We’re not asking you to change your entire way of looking at the world! Let’s start smaller, with a slight shift.

To make a shift, first consider it to be just that — a shift. The optimism we’re referencing is active. Not a Pollyanna, passive attitude forcing everything to be seen through rose-colored glasses.

In the image below, you can review the three key practices of an optimist to reframe our thinking. Here’s how it works:

▸ Make it unstable
▸ Make it external
▸ Make it specific

That’s right — U.S.E. it to be an optimist!

As an example: let’s say that the job we interviewed for a few weeks ago sends an email saying they’ve decided not to hire anyone for the role at this time.

Now, we thought the interview went well, and on its surface this could be seen as a setback. Let’s see how our three practices of the optimist could help us reframe:

U – highlight the unstable: they said they can’t hire for the role right now, maybe it’s because of something temporary.

S – highlight the specific nature: they said they can’t hire anyone right now, which isn’t necessarily critical feedback of me, who I am, or how our interview went — it’s just not a match right now.

E – highlight the external: this is probably something to do with the budget or culture at the workplace right now, not necessarily something specific to me.

That could lead to the Optimist’s U.S.E. Explanation: Wow, that’s disappointing; but I’ve made a good connection at the company, and gained experience interviewing. Maybe they’ll reach out to me in the future when things improve for them.

This isn’t about dodging personal accountability. It’s about framing set-backs in very specific ways that boost our optimism and energy going forward and help us become more confident.

"Working to reframe our thinking around challenges isn’t about dodging personal accountability. It’s about framing set-backs in very specific ways that boost our optimism."

More confident with optimism
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Wrapping up!

We aren’t asking for you to change who you are or what you believe. Shifting a perspective is a subtle way of learning more and growing. The glass is both half-full and half-empty. Subtly shifting means getting up and walking around to examine the other side of the glass. Perhaps you have the opportunity to see the glass was an illusion and there was a plastic fill half-way given the illusion of emptiness or fullness. Simply asking “What can I learn from this?” can often start this subtle shift to help your performance and confidence.

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