Low self-esteem plagued me until middle age. From feeling like the dumpy one at the back of the games class, the less-wanted sister, the odd one out because I wanted a career (that was unusual in my peer group), and then though years of trying to balance motherhood and running a business which leaves us all perpetually wracked with guilt and inadequacy, I came to know exactly what it's like to have zero confidence. Networking gave me nightmares. Social occasions reduced me to palm-sweating paranoia. One of the few advantages of age is finally having conquered the lot. But I wish I hadn’t spent all those hours agonising for absolutely no good reason.
If you want to start working on your confidence, here are a few lessons I've gleaned over the years:
You're not alone
If you belong to a networking group on social media, admit to being nervous with other people or at networking dos. You will be astounded how many people will be heaving a sigh of relief and happy to immediately admit the same thing. Others, who have been there themselves at one time or another, come out of the woodwork with offers to help. Believe me, you will not be laughed at or despised but welcomed as another human being.
Look at the reasons
Grab and pen and paper and write down the reasons you feel you have no confidence. Perhaps someone laughed at you when you stuck your head above the parapet earlier in your life. Maybe you believe that you're no good at something. Ask yourself when these feelings started. Then challenge the belief with logic. Are you really the worst public speaker in the world? What evidence do you have for that? What facts do you have that prove you won't get that job you're after? Most of our fears are based on inaccurate beliefs; challenge those beliefs and the fear lessens.
Smiling is scientifically proven to make a difference to the way we feel. Make a resolution to smile every day, even when you do something simple like the washing up or having a shower. Smile for 10 minutes and it will be virtually impossible not to feel happier. Happiness breeds positivity and positivity breeds confidence.
Get familiar with failure
We fear the unknown. The more familiar you are with the fear, the less power it will have. People with low self-confidence go in a mental circle of believing that they will fail and then failing through lack of belief, but they also believe that only 'failures' fail. The reality is that everyone fails. Look behind every great success story and you will find innumerate failures from Edison to Dyson. Write down the worst possible thing that could happen to you if you fail. Ask yourself if you would even remember in a year. And if you do fail, just say to yourself, 'I am human. I messed up. And that's ok.'
Do something different every day
This builds up tolerance to doing new and potentially frightening things. If you feel able to go fire walking on the first day, fantastic. If not, it could be just volunteering for the coffee run, saying hello to a stranger in the pub or ringing a new customer - but build these up to bigger things over time. Put visuals of your successes up where you can see them and remind yourself of them daily.
Come to our Inspiring Women in Business conference. Edinburgh. 15th May: Get tips and advice from Britain's most powerful businesswomen. Hear from Skyscanner, Clydesdale Bank, CBI Scotland, Atkins and more. Guest speaker: Dame Cilla Snowball.
Come to our Young Women in Business conference. London. 27th June: Super-charge your career with practical masterclasses on everything from presentation skills to tackling budgets. Guest speaker: Dame Helena Morrissey.
Look after yourself
When we are tired or stressed, our confidence goes down. Recognise it and take some 'you time'. Block all those inner voices of doom until you have eaten well and rested well. You could even be really devilish and go for a massage or meditation. They all take the stress levels down, which help you to see clearly. Studies are showing that foods high in amino acids build confidence, so pack in the chicken, cheese and nuts. Smelling certain fresh foods such as cucumber and sharp green apples also allegedly reduce stress. So get sniffing.
Get rid of the doomsayers
Does someone in your life regularly makes you feel uneasy, anxious or pessimistic? Is their constant moaning bringing you down? Get rid of negative voices and consciously find positive people to surround yourself with.
Three hours at the gym each day works for some people. For others, enforced exercise plans are a nightmare. The important thing is to get moving; being slumped in a chair, or curled up feeling sorry for yourself will only make you feel worse. Try little things. You see athletes bouncing up and down before launching off. Do the same thing. Better yet, grab some headphones and have a dance. You can also try out Amy Cuddy's power poses before a speech or big meeting. Remember: body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves.
Drop the ego
Remember that others can be suffering, be it from lack of confidence like you, shyness or problems you have no idea of. Be kind. Start small by being the one to bring treats in for the team or the one who gives up their seat on the bus. By putting others first, you'll immediately feel better and others will feel better towards you. Both are pretty good for confidence.
One of the biggest ways we take away our own confidence is by comparing ourselves to other people. We are not other people. Everyone is different, and some people are better at things than others. As long as you're striving to be like someone else, you will feel uncomfortable and less confident in your own skin. As EE Cummings put it: 'It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.'
Jan Cavelle is an entrepreneur, coach and consultant. She ran her eponymous furniture manufacturing firm, Jan Cavelle Furniture, for more than 20 years and was appointed as one of the first 50 Female Entrepreneurial Ambassadors to represent the UK in Europe. She is part of the team at Women Influence Community.