The Confidence Myth

primal fearIn survey after survey public speaking (or public performance in general), is rated as our greatest fear — even ahead of death.

But why do we fear it so much?  Psychologists suggest that this fear is not so much about the act itself, but the consequences.  What we fear is the rejection that comes of it, for at a primal level we equate rejection with ostracism — being cast out of our tribe.  Our primitive ancestors, faced with the threat of large predators, only survived by being part of a larger group.  A single individual was easy prey, so ostracism from the group was a death sentence.

So if going out on stage is the most frightening thing we can do, how much more so to do it with no script!  Improvisation is surely the very pinnacle of terror.

I remember the fear very well.  When I first started to improvise I was so terrified of the audience I would try to block them from my mind, even going so far as to turn my back on them.  My stage craft was absolutely terrible.  Using a mask (physical or imagined) proved something of a shield, but even then I could feel my body reviling against this thing that I was doing, and I certainly wasn't the only one.  It was a well accepted fact that before a show, the toilets back-stage would be working overtime dealing with the... um... "output" of nervous young actors.

I looked at the more experienced actors in the group and longed to have the confidence that they had.  They assured me it was just a matter of time, that I just had to keep doing it and it would become easier, that my confidence would grow.  I hoped that they were right.  I wanted to believe them, but when I looked inside myself I couldn't seem to find this thing that they called "confidence", so I could not imagine how something could grow from nothing — and yet I persevered.

In years to come, I found myself more and more in the role of a teacher or mentor.  I was working with young actors who were smart and talented, who had so much potential, all they lacked was confidence.  I wanted to tell them to "be more confident", but even though I thought myself more confident, I had no idea what that really meant, or how they could even do it.  I resorted to telling them what I had been told — "Just give it time.  It will come."  But at some level it felt like a lie.

You know those puzzles or riddles that seem completely unsolvable?  You agonise over them, and then finally someone tells you the solution.  You can hardly believe you hadn't seen it, because it was so obvious.  Well, a few years ago, it suddenly hit me — There is no such thing as "confidence".  It doesn't exist.  It it a myth.  If you are searching for it, you are chasing a fairy-tale.

This thing that we call "confidence" is nothing more than a lack of, or a reduction in, fear.  That may seem really obvious, almost a dictionary definition of "confidence", but the difference in application is what matters.  If you see "confidence" as a thing that exists, a thing that you need to find inside of yourself, and your goal is to "have more confidence" or "be more confident" — How do you do that?

On the other hand, if your aim is to "have less fear" or "be less fearful",  to me at least, that is infinitely more doable.  That is a choice I can make. That is something I can explain to a student.  That is something against which I can apply my understanding, my training, and my will.

I cannot look inside myself and find a thing to call "confidence", but I can find this thing called "fear", I can see it for what it is, and I can overcome it.  In doing so I set myself free.  There is no sabre toothed tiger waiting in the wings.