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True confidence takes time to earn

True confidence takes time to earn but it can last a lifetime, and you may just find it in the Army.

You wake up. You check your phone. A few more likes for that Instagram post the night before.

You take a shower. You rub on some fake tan.

You check the mirror. You get dressed and choose something that you can wear with your new trainers. You check your phone again.

You do your hair. You apply some extra product because it’s not quite looking how you want it.

You wolf down some breakfast – let’s be honest, it’s actually a protein-branded snack bar – and take the bus into town, scrolling through your social feed all the way there. You pick up another like and a new follow. Result.

You meet your friends. Someone comments on your hair. Someone else remarks about your trainers. You feel good. You get on with the rest of your day.

We live in an age where we are surrounded by quick-fix confidence boosts, and we’re not shy about tucking into as many as we can. Whether it’s that pre-drink with friends before heading out for the evening, or trying to perfect that beach body ahead of the eagerly anticipated holiday, we all spend a lot of time – and money – trying to feel good about ourselves.

And who could blame us? We live in an age where Love Island and TOWIE are some of the most popular TV shows, with their bevies of beauties bursting onto any one of our many screens. Check your Instagram feed and see more stunning humans, all looking at their amazing best and apparently having a great time. Why wouldn’t we want to be a bit like them, to emulate them in some way, in order to replicate their looks and obviously massive reserves of confidence?

But is everything really as it seems? Is it that easy to give ourselves a little bit more belief and swagger?

Quick fix boost

On the surface, of course it is. You buy a new top or a pair of awesome shoes or trainers, and you do feel good in them. Good enough to take on the world. And if you get loads of likes for a picture of yourself in your new clobber, you double your fix and double your self-belief at the same time.

But dig a bit deeper, and it quickly becomes clear that this new-found confidence may not stand the test of time. It may not even last the day.

The truth is that for some of us, inner fragility is ironically far stronger than our confidence, and certainly way more powerful than any of these quick-fix boosts in which we like to indulge.

Psychologist Dr Emily Lovegrove says this is part of our genetic make-up as humans. 'We all need to feel good about ourselves, it’s a basic human need,' she explains. 'And we also all compare ourselves to other people and that’s just part of being human. We look at other people and we say ‘Well, I’m not as good-looking as them but I’m better-looking than that one. So we’re always looking to see where we are in the pack because essentially we’re herd animals. We know that we’re safer in a group, although it would be nice to be one of the people at the top of that group.'

In addition to that, our urge to make ourselves feel good also comes from our learnings at a very early age, according to Dr Nick Rout, who provides talking therapy in the Student Services Wellbeing Team at the University of East Anglia.

'From a young age, we are taught ways of soothing ourselves when we feel bad,' he says. 'Often this is confused with having something nice to eat like an ice cream to boost how we feel, or getting a toy. This doesn’t allow us to learn to manage our emotions, especially if we are taught that the way to do so is through ‘things’.'

And these ‘things’ are everywhere, with ice cream and toys replaced by alcohol, drugs and phone swipes. 'Pre-drinks has become a way to boost confidence, and feel more comfortable,' adds Rout. 'Drug taking is also another way individuals seek a quick fix to feel confident and boost their sense of self, together with meeting their immediate needs. Social media and posting images in the anticipation or hope of getting lots of likes, hooking up and engaging in one-night stands, and swiping right are all means in which a confidence boost is sought.'

Rout thinks the roots of this behaviour lie in what we see from our parents or older siblings. 'We learn from what we see from those around us. If we see the significant people in our lives using objects, alcohol or other quick fixes to manage their emotions, then why would we not do something similar ourselves as we grow?'

snap shot of social quick fixes
The proof is out there – a recent Prince’s Trust survey found that 54% of 16-25 year olds believe a lack of confidence holds them back, and 46% think comparing themselves to others makes them feel inadequate. Which begs the question, why do we go for these instant lifts if they ultimately make us unhappy?

Social pressures

Certainly when it comes to how we look, with reality TV and social media stars appearing all around us, we’re under more pressure than ever before to live up to high expectations with a complete disregard for managing our emotions.

'The way you look has always been important,' adds Dr Lovegrove. 'It’s always been the case for women, but once you started having cinema in the 1920s, it also applied to men. For instance, the plastic surgery that was developed during World War One to help soldiers who had disfiguring injuries, was then made available privately to American film stars. So people like John Wayne recognised that by altering his chin or nose slightly, he was more likely to get parts in the cinema.'

 While major movie roles may not be that realistic for many of us today, the confidence that is gained from looking good cannot be underestimated, which is why the male prestige grooming and fragrance industry is worth £972million per year in the UK, and the female beauty industry a staggering £13billion.

And that feeds into a Love Island view of life, where fabulous-looking, semi-naked bodies are there to be admired, envied and copied as legit ways of making your mark on the world.

'To young people these are often people without academic qualifications who have the way they look and their ability to make noise as all that is going for them,' says Dr Lovegrove about Love Island. 'That is what appeals – if this is what we show and promote, that’s what they see.'

 Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are all seeing all the time: images of so-called perfectly sculpted bodies, happy faces and apparently self-assured and resolute characters within those muscular, toned frames. The results are entirely predictable.

'I think increasingly young men are told that they need a six-pack, and their hair has to look good,' says Dr Lovegrove. 'Increasingly now, it doesn’t matter how many qualifications you have, it won’t necessarily lead to a job. So I can sort of see the appeal of just saying ‘Well, I’ll look good.’'

'But it’s just exhausting the amount of attention and time that goes into looking good because it may win you some attention, but if you’re still not contributing and a likeable person then the pack will pull you down. You’re there to be pilloried if your only worth is your ability to look good.'


So what do we do? How do we avoid this potential shaming if we have nothing more about us than our social media following and a shiny new pair of adidas Stan Smiths? Dr Lovegrove thinks that a more solid bet for building some longer-lasting self belief is through the acquisition of useful skills that won’t fade away over time like a cheap, fake tan.

'There are not enough adults being good role models and showing kids that what really matters for self-confidence is to have skills. And in particular skills that are useful to the rest of our pack. It can be anything from car mechanics to hairdressing; if other people value what you do then that gives you worth.'

That sense of usefulness seems to be crucial in building long-lasting confidence. And it’s not the only way either, as there’s also a self-belief antidote to the reality television version we’re lead to believe is confidence.

'Confidence does not have to only be shown through extroversion,' says Ali Argo, a colleague of Dr Rout’s at the University of East Anglia. 'There can be confidence in quietness. The most confident person in any given room is not necessarily the loudest person, or the person with the most muscles.'

'Confidence can emerge not only through success in romantic relationships but through any number of areas such as work, education, sports, hobbies, or music. It isn’t only linked with achievement and success either, but can come from a true understanding and acceptance of oneself, including both weaknesses and strengths.'

And if that sounds like a promising prospect, then the good news is there’s more as Dr Lovegrove suggests the building blocks of confidence not only come through the acquisition of skills, but also through the development of resilience.

'Skills are part of being resilient,' she explains. 'The word resilience causes lots of anxiety because people are told you should be more resilient and that’s just useless and appalling advice to give anybody. But actually being resilient means it feels you have agency so you can change things for the good. And so the real meaning of resilience leads to self-confidence.'

 This empowerment via resilience is crucial and Dr Lovegrove has seen it in action, having worked extensively with young people who had major facial disfigurements and suffered from confidence issues as a result. 'For them, learning that sense of resilience and having skills that are valued by others as well as themselves is hugely self-empowering,' she reveals.

Building a sense of purpose is another excellent way to feel more confident, and that can be through many avenues whether it’s skills acquisition or voluntary work, and taking on leadership roles. 'Volunteering offers an opportunity to experience positive engagement with good causes and offers the opportunity to experience giving something back,' says Dr Rout. 'Many find this a validating experience.'

Lasting legacy

And it’s that precise sense of purpose and value that’s one of the essential tenets of an Army career, where thousands of young recruits who might be lacking in confidence, emerge into future leaders as the years pass.

WO1 David Bond is a Sergeant Major in the School of Infantry, and using mental resilience training, he helps develop soldiers into leaders, empowering them in the process: 'If people are resilient, confidence can grow all the time,' he explains. 'You just see them go from strength to strength and then they come back on their different career paths and they’ve stretched themselves to have that confidence – going from young people, who may not understand what that’s all about, to commanding and leading young men and women themselves. So confidence plays a really important part.'

It didn’t always used to be this way in the Army, but things have changed in recent years, especially since Bond first started as a soldier in 1996 when the nutrition plan was sausage and chips, exercise was running followed by more running, and soldiers grabbed a few hours of sleep as and when they could.

'These days, a young soldier gets so much advice and guidance on nutrition, exercise and sleep, it’s really good what the Army does now with young soldiers,' says Bond. 'I gained my first experiences of being a leader and using my resilience on a career course many years ago, and I’ve used those skills to build myself up.'

There are occasions in the Army where resilience is needed in bucket-loads, perhaps more than in civilian life, but the lessons learned and the way the Army now take this responsibility on, can be used by all of us.

'Using mental resilience and trauma management, soldiers understand it’s good to talk, even if it’s just over a cup of tea,' says Bond. 'The British Army is all about talking. It’s like a family organisation in that way, and we have a family spirit in the regiments that ultimately bonds everybody together.'

The way the Army prioritises the essentials of exercise, sleep and nutrition can be mirrored in civilian life, as these are all vital ingredients for us to help build our self-esteem, and to feel good about ourselves in the long term, according to Ali Argo – just don’t expect instant results, even if we do live in an instant world.

'It’s so important to remember key aspects of self-care,” says Argo. “Exercise, healthy eating, and positive sleep are all key factors, but it’s important to remember that self-confidence, self-belief and positive self-esteem don’t happen overnight and is something that is likely to fluctuate and differ from person to person.'

There are other practical steps which can also be beneficial to our overall outlook and help us feel good about ourselves, without resorting to a quick fix. “One simple thing that anyone can do, at the end of each day, is to keep a positive log or diary of anything you feel you have achieved or done well that day,” says Rout.

'This doesn’t just have to be the big things but the small things too; from surviving a difficult shift at work, delivering a presentation at university, having a meaningful conversation, doing something kind for a stranger or managing to do something you’ve been trying to avoid.'

And while that may seem like another chore to do that might not make much difference, keeping positive notes will play a major role in opposing your negative perceptions of yourself that directly undermine your confidence and self-esteem.

'Over time, techniques such as this help challenge the way in which we see ourselves, stopping us from focusing on the negative and helping us to think more about the positives,' adds Argo.

You finish reading this. You check your phone. No new likes or follows.

Maybe you go for a walk in the fresh air? Maybe you make yourself a healthy snack? You check your phone again. One new like.

Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

DATE: 14 October 2019
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