The Role of Confidence in Health, and How to Achieve It

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Micheal Jordan may have character flaws, but self-doubt isn’t one of them.

One of our children has started to develop the habit of negative self-talk. We’re not exactly certain from where this habit has begun to form: maybe it’s a normal part of teen behaviour, that “this sucks” attitude; maybe it’s that our society frowns on displays of confidence as “cockiness”, and like most persons she doesn’t distinguish between a “felt confidence” and an attitude of cockiness; or maybe some other reason.  Although it was my concern as a parent that prompted this “research”, as a naturopath, I’ve noticed a disproportionate number of people (who consider engaging in positive self-talk corny) consistently, subconsciously, engage in negative self-talk.

Without judgment, it’s a shitty way to spend a life, always putting yourself down, and not being able to take pleasure in your achievements, and while as a parent it’s a mindset/pattern of thinking I want to “correct” in my daughter, as a naturopath, I’ve seen it repeatedly undermine patients success in achieving their health goals and quality of life.

With this in mind, I read the book: The Confident Mind: A Battle Tested Guide to Unshakeable Performance by Dr. Nate Zinsser, to learn how to teach the self-confidence that is the foundation for success.

This book is primarily directed at elite athletes, but the guidance can be generalized to anyone wishing for “peak performance”, or simply “success at achieving a goal” (including a potentially daunting lifestyle change).

To succeed in sport, career or behavioural change, it is essential to first win a “first victory” of actually believing victory is a possibility.

I am reminded of the career of Mike Tyson. At the start of his career he was thought to be unstoppable. At the pre-fight stare-down, even my teenaged self could see his opponents had already lost the fight: they felt no hope of victory, and seemed to be most focussed on survival at best (and most were knocked out within one round).

Until he fought Buster Douglas, a 42 – 1 underdog. Douglas was a talented boxer and trained hard for the fight, but what separated him from Tyson’s earlier opponents was that he hadn’t come “to lay down” (his mother had died 23 days before the event, and the story goes that he had dedicated his performance to her). From the start, it was obvious his intention was to win, and when combining his intention with talent and hard work, he achieved the unimaginable!

The parallel I have noticed in patients when discussing losing weight, embarking on dietary change, starting an exercise program, etc. is that many’s expectation is not to succeed, but to “do their best”. I understand why a person with a busy life who may have been unsuccessful at this in the past may not feel confident committing to a health goal (and the ego risk associated with failure to follow through on a commitment), but now recognize the presence or absence of confidence to “make it happen” as an important determinant of a patients’ ultimate success.

As Yoda said: “There is only do, or do not. There is not try.”

If you think back to any challenge you’ve successfully met, it is very unlikely you entered into it expecting to fail. Even if you did not, at the time, perceive the presence of a “success mindset”, it was there. For those having completed a course of post-secondary or professional study: although I expect most anticipated a challenge, I would be surprised if any planned to drop out of the program, then surprised themselves by succeeding! If you began the program planning to successfully finish, even if it took hard work, you were “confident”!

“The Glass is Half Full” Isn’t a Lie

One “error of perception” I’ve noticed that undermines peoples ability to think positively about their competence and ability to succeed at any task is the feeling that they are being dishonest with themselves if they don’t focus on their shortcomings. That if you have unsuccessfully tried to change your eating habits in the past, to think of yourself as a person who can change their diet is a lie because the evidence you have does not support this belief.

But neither does it disqualify it.

Steph Curry, considered at the time of this writing, the greatest shooter in basketball history, has a field goal percentage of 43.7%, meaning, statistically, he misses more shots that he makes. And yet, most would agree, he has every cause to be confident in his ability to shoot a basketball (to quote the man himself – “Every time I rise up, I have confidence that I’m going to make it”). Missing shots does mean you cannot hit shots.

To view any challenge with optimism is no less honest than to view it with pessimism, but optimism increases your probability of success, and your self-esteem and happiness.

So, if you’re with me so far, I assume you’re interested in knowing: how  do I get to this place of confidence.

What, exactly, do we mean by confidence?

Good question.

When describing a confidence mindset in the context of changing health behaviours (and as a result, health outcomes), I am referring to starting the process of changing your lifestyle with the expectation that you will succeed.

This mindset is achieved by practicing and gaining the skill to consistently think of yourself as a person who is competent, able to learn new skills and persevere through challenges, and recognizing the “evidence for competence” provided by past successes.

Dr. Zinsser organizes his exercises for increasing confidence into two main categories of action:

  1. Gaining confidence, and
  2. not losing confidence

Below I’ve edited the recommendations in Dr. Zinsser’s book to those simply applicable to successfully changing lifestyle and achieving better health.

First: Building Your Confidence

The first step in focussing on the positive is to identify the positive. We have all experienced successes in the past, in order to “live in this positive place” we need to have ready access to our successes.

As a first step, take the time to sit down and list five occasions on which you had success in participating in activities that support your health, or even actions or experiences that support healthful decisions.

These successes do not have to be dramatic, simply examples of occasions on which you “did the right thing”, that you can bring your attention to when you doubt your ability to continue.

The time you stopped eating when you felt full, and enjoyed the feeling of “not being stuffed” after a meal.

The time you felt tired, but decided to go for a workout and felt great afterwards.

The time you went to bed early rather than watching another episode on Netflix and woke up the next morning ready to take on the day.

The time you were feeling lazy, but decided to go meet friends instead and were glad you did.

Take a moment to re-visit these successes briefly every morning before you start your day, and every evening when you lie down to sleep.

Once you begin your lifestyle change, conduct a daily “E-S-P (Effort-Success-Progress)” assessment.

Confidence is not a destination, it’s a process. Continue to support your confidence in your ability to succeed by bringing your attention to the positive, the successes of the day.

You worked out today. Great, sit with that and bask in the satisfaction of a goal met!

You avoided high-sugar, high-calorie foods. Visualize your slimmer, more active self moving through life!

You completed the bedtime skincare routine you used to be too tired to carry out. Imagine your healthy-skinned future self!

Spend some time daily becoming aware of how successful you are becoming in moving towards your goal.

Similar to E-S-P, but different acronym (I-P-R = Immediate Progress Review)

You ate your goal of vegetables today. Notice the absence of the fullness heavy meals cause!

You exercised today. Notice how you felt energetic until the end of the day!

You didn’t procrastinate today. Recall the satisfaction of having completed all your obligations and personal goals today!

Use an Affirmation(s)

Affirmations were once the the object of mockery, but have been used for centuries in other cultures (in meditation, the practice of a “sankalpa” exactly describes the following exercise Dr. Zinsser includes in his book), and research into “thinking habits” has validated the idea that if a person predisposed to negative thinking practices positive thinking “with effort” consistently, with time they can develop the habit of being positive.

An effective affirmation has three considerations. It is:

  1. Positive
  2. In the present
  3. “Felt”

For example, a person wanting to increase their confidence may repeat:

  1. “I am confident” (as opposed to “I am not a loser” – apparently the brain does not effectively distinguish between “I am” and I am not” statements, and in general why dwell on the negative?)
  2. “I AM confident” (as opposed to “I will be confident” at some indeterminate time – I do not know the reason for this, but my own sense is that “you are already enough”, you are only using the affirmation to access what is already present)
  3. “Felt” – Do simply repeat the words without awareness. Take a moment to feel the (e.g.) confidence you are moving towards. Every person has a setting in which they feel confident: bring your mind to a place where you feel confident and feel this as you repeat your affirmation.

I have always only used affirmations for qualities I have felt I have complete control over (e.g., “I am patient”), but importantly, research supports the use of affirmations for “wishes” as well. Don’t hesitate to use affirmations to increase your confidence in meeting more “nebulous” goals (e.g., “I am healthy”, “I am successful”).

Then: Protecting Your Confidence

As noted above, confidence is a process, not a destination.

Confidence is also not “absence of doubt”. It is a way of responding to doubt.

A batter in a slump needs to ensure a slump is a temporary setback, not the beginning of the end of their career.

Once you are in the routine of believing in yourself, it is important to not allow “failures” to erode your confidence.

An important understanding of “failures” is to recognize that they do not represent the whole of you or your progress. “Failures” are:

  1. Temporary. A missed shot is just a missed shot. You are starting over with your next shot. A day of poor eating is a day of poor eating, do better tomorrow.
  2. Limited. An unanswered question on an examination is not a failure, continue to the next question and answer that one. Not meditating today does not mean you can’t  meditate tomorrow.
  3. Not representative of you or the sum of your efforts. Raising your voice to your children does not mean you are  terrible person or an uncaring parent, calm yourself, apologize and try to be more patient in future. A missed workout doesn’t mean you are now fated to heart disease – go to the gym tomorrow.
  4. An opportunity to improve. Were you late for work because you thought the 8 o’clock train was early enough? Take the 7:45 train. Did you eat at McDonald’s because no healthy options are available near your workplace? Pack a healthy lunch moving forward. Identify the lesson, correct the action, move on.

Too many words, Doc

I know.

In a nutshell:

  1. To say a glass is half-full is an honest assessment.
  2. Identify successes consistently and bring your attention to them daily.
  3. Remind your self of your intention daily using affirmations.
  4. Understand the limited nature of “failures”, use the lessons they offer, and let them go.
  5. Get out there and go for the life you want!

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