The Secret Saboteur of Confidence at Work and In Interviews

career self-leadership Jun 30, 2023

David was in his 30s and had already achieved more than his years in terms of career success. On paper his resume looked great, he had worked hard for a prestigious degree and had been hired by a top-tier consulting company. But David's hands would sweat when he needed to give a presentation or sit for an interview, he had a secret saboteur.

This saboteur was stealthily undermining David's confidence, making him feel miserable, and behaving in inauthentic ways. Eventually, David reached out to me for help, and today he is free of the saboteur and said to me, 

"Thank you for reminding me of who I am"

If you find yourself struggling like David, having your confidence drain away at crucial moments, and not reaching your full potential, then read this post and take a moment to reflect. 

Symptoms of the Saboteur

The secret saboteur operates subtly. Here are some signs that it might be undermining your confidence:

  1. Persistent Self-Doubt: An ongoing internal dialogue that questions your abilities or worth.
  2. Over-Indexing Mistakes: An unhealthy focus on past errors or an intense fear of future ones, causing you to play it safe.
  3. Difficulty Accepting Praise: An inclination to dismiss compliments or attribute achievements to external factors.
  4. Sensitivity to Feedback: Perceiving feedback as a criticism of your value, and playing the feedback over and over in your mind.
  5. Overworking or Perfectionism: A pattern of working long hours and trying to make everything perfect to avoid criticism.

These symptoms can dramatically impact how you perform at work, present your ideas, and show up in interviews.

Confidence Isn't the Real Issue

The saboteur is usually misdiagnosed and labeled as having a lack of confidence, but David and many of my other coaching clients can be confident in many situations but when they feel intimidated they 'lose it'.

The foundational cause is actually self-esteem. Self-esteem is our internal gauge of self-worth, the value we place on ourselves. It's crucial to our psychological well-being and directly impacts our level of confidence. Low or conditional self-esteem is the secret saboteur that can make us doubt our abilities, fear failure, and even prevent us from taking on new challenges or opportunities.

The issue starts with our earliest experiences. We learn to connect who we are and our intrinsic value with how our world measures performance and success. 

Imagine a child, Simon, in a Kindergarten class with all the children drawing. The teacher sees Chloe's drawing and comments on how good it is and how clever Choe is. Simon worked really hard on his drawing but didn't get any praise from the teacher. Simon's young mind concludes that he is less valuable than Chloe, and this can drive him in two directions. He can just give up on drawing and perhaps other things because he feels like a failure or, he can work harder at drawing and other things to get external validation.

Whilst this is an oversimplified explanation, I hope you can see that Simon's value as a human being is no more or less than Chole's, however, it is easy to draw the conclusion that we are less valuable against the world's criteria. This pattern can persist into adulthood. David had chosen to work hard to get the validation that was provided with a top-class degree and a position at a prestigious consulting firm. The problem was the consulting firm provided constant feedback and so David had to work insanely hard to feel any self-value.

Self-leadership Silences the Saboteur

David has tried to disarm his secret saboteur with self-reflection and positive mindset quotes but it persisted until I helped him practice self-leadership. 

"Self-leadership is the practice of intentionally influencing your thinking, feeling, and actions, toward your objectives (Bryant & Kazan 2012)"

With self-leadership, we create a boundary between ourselves and the world. I call this the Me-Not Me Boundary. 'Me' is everything I am responsible for, not me is everything else, including other people's judgments and perspectives. By engaging in exercises that strengthen the Me-Not Me Boundary you can stop needlessly comparing yourself with imaginary criteria and focus on finding or remembering your authentic self.

I started my coaching with David, by helping him to accept himself without any judgments or comparisons. I then helped him appreciate all of his talents, skills, and contributions and then invited him to be in awe of what he could become.

Since David liked motivational quotes, I shared a mantra that many of my clients have found useful:

"I have nothing to prove, only things to improve"

The mantra is powerful because it allows us to be humble (grounded) and does not trigger hubris or arrogance.

The transformation in David was visible, tangible, and inspirational. Once he accepted himself, he realized that he had been working in an environment that had made him constantly fearful of making mistakes. By practicing self-leadership he was able to be honest with himself and that provided both confidence and gravitas.

At the time of writing, David is through to the second round of interviews for a senior role where he can more effectively use his skills and passion, and his hands aren't sweating anymore.

In Summary

Whilst it is not possible to solve for all self-esteem saboteurs in one blog article, I hope that if you resonate with how David was feeling and you recognize that you have been connecting your self-esteem with other people's judgments of your performance, then you have options.

  1. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, particularly when you stumble. It's okay to make mistakes – it's part of being human.
  2. Regularly note and review your accomplishments. This practice can provide a much-needed confidence boost, especially before an interview.
  3. Don't let the saboteur's voice go unchallenged. Question the validity of self-deprecating thoughts and replace them with positive affirmations.
  4. Building confidence is a gradual process. Start with small, achievable goals and work your way up.
  5. Regular feedback can help you understand your strengths and areas for improvement. Don't be afraid to ask for it.
  6. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep can improve your mental health, including self-esteem.
  7. If you're finding it tough to overcome low self-esteem, consider seeking help from a qualified coach or psychologist.

If you would like to learn more about self-leadership and explore my online resources for executive presence, then go here

If you would like to engage me as a speaker for your conference or convention, then go here

If you found this blog post helpful, please share it with others who might benefit from it. Stay tuned for more insights on personal growth and career success!





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