Confidence is a dose of testosterone without the injections. It’s a defining characteristic of society’s most successful men. Without it, there are no heroes. Confidence is the belief in yourself that enables you to lift a weight that seems impossible. It’s what gets you in the game. It scores you the job or the girl. Confidence often separates the winners from the losers.
If you’re like most guys, you’re confident most of the time. But there are times when you don’t feel you’re at your best; times when nagging little doubts and insecurities hold you back. These thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and uncertainties limit your self-confidence, and in turn stop you from attaining your true potential.
Psychologists have a name for this kind of skewed and unhelpful thinking: cognitive distortion. That’s a fancy way of saying that our thoughts about ourselves, the world around us, and our future get off track and become unrealistically negative. Problem is, they take our behavior off track, too, getting between us and where we want to be. Sometimes these inner thoughts say we have to win every time or else we’re a loser and shouldn’t compete (as opposed to realizing that, realistically, we all lose sometimes) or that if we failed once, we will always fail (as opposed to recognizing that we all fail sometimes). Most times these inner thoughts focus us on the negatives (failures) and so we miss the positives (victories). All in all, these distortions block us from moving forward; we tell ourselves it just isn’t worth trying, that we don’t have the energy, the time, the will or the perseverance to accept the challenge. It’s not like we sit down and think out loud “I can’t do this” (although we may). Usually it is sneakier than that and we first see the effects of these distortions in our behavior; we don’t get up in the morning, we have no energy, we sigh for no apparent reason, we start skipping the gym. We just don’t try as hard as we used to. Something is missing!
A fascinating and quite revolutionary observation occurred during the construction of the ten-week transformation program that forms the core of the new book Alpha Male Challenge (Rodale, September 2009, http://www.alphamalechallenge.com/). What the head doctors call cognitive distortion sounds a lot like what exercise physiologists say limits our physical growth: a protein called myostatin. Myostatin limits the size of our muscles starting when we’re embryos, and continues to inhibit our muscular growth throughout our lives.
The recognition that cognitive distortion is essentially myostatin of the mind initially became apparent during a casual conversation with one of the Alpha Male Challenge psychology contributors, Jay Cohen, PsyD. That is, just like the myostatin gene can block muscle growth, this mental myostatin can block psychological growth. Blocking our mental myostatin, just like inhibiting our physical myostatin gene, is the key to unlocking our growth potential. Crush your mental myostatin and you’ll unleash newfound confidence.
Mental myostatin often takes the form of seeing yourself as incompetent to handle certain things. We live in a society where many of the “guy” things are lost to the ages. Learning the skills of changing a tire, fixing a leaky faucet or banging nails into a 2 x 4 are good things to know how to do in order to become more self-sufficient from a practical perspective. But they are also important because one way of crushing mental myostatin is through a sense of task mastery, the belief that you can do those things.
Psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura was a pioneer in the study of human motivation and behavior. He noted that you must believe not only that your actions can work as desired, but also that you are capable of successfully executing them – a belief in one’s own abilities called “self-efficacy.” In other words, you must believe both that replacing a washer will fix that leaky faucet, and that you are capable of replacing it. Of course, successful performance relies on the appropriate skills; you gain both skills and confidence through practice.
This process can affect your exercise efforts and physical performance, as well. In a study of 174 sedentary older adults, researchers at the University of Illinois found that more frequent exercise lead to increased self-efficacy (performance increased confidence) and exercise adherence 18 months later was higher with greater confidence (increased confidence lead to increased activity). Research conducted at the University of Michigan studied 53 male intercollegiate and interscholastic baseball players, finding that past hitting performance predicted higher self-efficacy which, in turn, predicted increased future hitting performance. In fact, a review of 56 studies conducted at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine found that better health is strongly associated with higher levels of self-efficacy, and researchers at the University of North Dakota found that self-efficacy is a strong predictor of athletic performance.
The full package then is that you know how to take effective action, and that you believe in your ability to do so. Of the many ways you can gain these insights, one of the best is through practice, through gaining experience. These experiences do not always have to be risky or extreme, but can often be those mundane daily things that build a time-honored and manly skill set. As times have changed and our lives become more hectic, we have often left doing for ourselves behind in favor of having others do for us. Doing some of those things for yourself, however, can enhance your sense of mastery and confidence.
Here’s a way to master a sense of competence and enhance your body and overall health, straight out of the pages of Alpha Male Challenge: tackle new physical challenges, take on new experiences. That’s right: put yourself into physically demanding competitive or adventurous situations that require the mastery of new skills. You can do it right in the gym. Push your limits, and not with the “same old.” If you’re pretty much a weight-lifter who walks the treadmill for cardio, try something new. Hit the speed bag, heavy bag, or jump rope. Or try something competitive like tennis, racquetball, or basketball. Not only are they great cardiovascular exercises, but they can fuel your self-confidence as you progress along the learning curve. If you usually play racquetball, try playing basketball. Even better, take a kickboxing class or try martial arts. How about a lesson in white collar boxing? Step outside your comfort zone! By doing this you learn new actions and some things about yourself; for instance, a belief that you can master new things and use those skills to meet new challenges. Confront your mental myostatin by taking physical action and making accurate appraisals of your performance. Then get up and go on to face another the next day.
Confidence requires the belief that you can act when you need to, that you know and can do what it takes to master what comes at you. You must believe that you can cope with, survive and, yes, prevail in the challenges that life presents; the way you come to this belief is to try and, thus, learn new things, to experience setbacks and also mastery. We do not succeed at everything we do – there are no guarantees. So confidence comes not from mastering every single one of life’s challenges, but from overcoming the limiting belief that you cannot face it, that it is too much for you. Confidence derives from learning that you can adapt and learn new things. Believing that not only can you act, but you can learn to act. Then you come to learn that not only can you do more than you thought, but you can even face those things you are not sure of, get set back, come back at them again, and succeed. And, although the social learning theorists might call this self-efficacy, or believing we have the skills to face a challenge and do what it takes, for our purposes it simply comes down to walking around town knowing you can handle whatever happens, face the challenge and come back for more.
Switching up your exercise options is a great way to start crushing your mental myostatin and building your confidence. But what starts in the gym will spread to other aspects of your life. What challenges do you face daily at home or at work? Work hard to master the things you do all the time, and feel good about that. Challenge is growth – no challenge is no growth. Often we meet many challenges throughout our day and don’t even notice; we simply accept this as what we do. Stop, take a minute, and note your mastery of those everyday challenges, and even look for new ones to master. Gain both a sense of mastery and a belief in your ability to learn, to adapt. Then carry those experiences, those thoughts with you as you meet life’s other, less-expected challenges.