Confidence tricks

Why is it that some of our attempts at behaviour change stick, whilst others fall by the wayside?

What is it that motivates us to push through the discomfort of doing things differently, even when it’s tempting to give up?

I’ve been thinking a lot about questions like these, inspired by this week’s podcast interview with Erica Mohr. In our conversation, Erica introduces me to the concept of self-efficacy and the role it plays in learning to do new things.

Self-efficacy is a term that was coined by psychologist Albert Bandura back in 1977. It refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to achieve their goals.

A person’s sense of self-efficacy can vary according to context. In Erica’s words: “I might have high self-efficacy for presenting a prepared keynote speech, but low self-efficacy for responding to audience questions at the end, for example.”

What we believe we are capable of has been shown to have a significant impact on not only our personal and professional accomplishments but also our physical and psychological health . When we have high self-efficacy we tend to try harder and persist in the face of obstacles, increasing our chances of success. When we have low self-efficacy we are more likely to give up and fail to accomplish the task at hand.

“People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property; there is huge variability in how you perform.”

Albert Bandura

So how can we increase our sense of self-efficacy?

According to Bandura, there are four main sources of self-efficacy. Here’s how Erica describes them:

  1. Performance accomplishments. “As you practise something more, as you improve in that skill, as you have more experience doing it, you feel more confident in your abilities.”
  2. Vicarious experiences. “Watching someone else succeed who you identify with. For example, thinking, If she can do it, I can do it!
  3. Social persuasion. “When a key figure in our life, a mentor, a colleague, perhaps even a parent or a friend gives us encouragement and says, I know you’ve got this – you can do this.”
  4. Physiological and Emotional States. “How we interpret what’s happening in our body and connect that with our capabilities. So if I’m going into a keynote and I feel nervous, do I interpret those nerves as me not being capable or do I normalise them? Of course, everybody’s nervous when they go into a keynote! That’s totally understandable. So how we interpret that psychological state is key.”

Reflecting on our conversation, I realised that all four of these methods were crucial in my personal experience of overcoming long-term psychological distress:

  • A pivotal moment in my recovery was when I saw a new psychiatrist who said: “I’ve seen people like you get better”. (Source 3)
  • Once I had a sense that recovery was actually possible, I actively sought out role models, reading everything I could find that had been written by people who had overcome the same kinds of challenges I was facing. (Source 2)
  • Having found information about the kinds of skills I needed to learn, I started practising them actively. It took a while, but little by little, my confidence grew. (Source 1)
  • And on the days when I felt disheartened, when old symptoms returned and I felt as though I was going nowhere, I learned to normalise my feelings rather than catastrophising. I came to understand that learning is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of an experience and that wobbly days are simply part of the package. Developing a simple mindfulness practice helped me to cope with uncomfortable feelings, rather than trying to suppress or run away from them. (Source 4)

What we think is possible, what we believe we are allowed to experience – these things matter. 

By seeking out role models, surrounding ourselves with supportive people, actively practising new behaviours and learning to normalise and cope with fears and discomfort as they arise, we can create the possibility of lasting, positive change in our behaviour. And with each tiny accomplishment, we can help ourselves recognise that we are capable of more.

Little steps, repeated over time.