The cult of confidence: could positive thinking be making us feel less secure? | Self Esteem

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Believe in yourself. Be empowered. Show up. Love your body. Stand tall. How many times have you seen statements like these on social media? Or used to advertise products? All point towards confidence: a particular c-word that the modern woman cannot get away from.

Being self-confident is the command of our time. At some point in the past decade, women’s media seemed to shift from celebrity mockery and dieting advice to talking about “empowerment”. Parenting books told mums it was OK to be imperfect, wobbly and have stretch marks, as long as they were bringing up self-assured children. Beauty companies and fashion brands started telling us to love our bodies just the way they are. Along with the ascent of social media came a tide of feminism that prioritised self-care and welcomed imperfection. On the surface, we are living in a golden age of female confidence. But how much are we really feeling it?

Women are called on again and again to believe in themselves while gender, class and racial inequalities deepen. By suggesting that psychological blocks are holding women back, is our attention being drawn away from the society we live in? If capitalist enterprises like fashion brands tell us to celebrate our bodies as they are, yet only go up to a size 12, how deeply can we take in the message? Did women really have an innate lack of confidence in the first place, or have we been led to believe we have?

Sociology professors Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad (of City, University of London, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, respectively) think the latter. In 2015, the two friends began making what they called a “confidence basket”. They tore pages from magazines and newspapers, piled up self-help books and had a digital folder of music, social media content, apps and advertising images. All contained a repeated message being broadcast to women: the answer to all your problems is to be more confident. They describe this trend as “confidence culture” – the title of a book they published earlier this year.

‘Some brands still exploit women’s insecurities and sell products that target them’: Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, whose book unpicks the ‘confidence culture’ trend.
‘Some brands still exploit women’s insecurities and sell products that target them’: Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, whose book unpicks the ‘confidence culture’ trend. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

“Confidence culture opens up a way of thinking about gender inequality as something women do to themselves,” says Gill. “Lack of confidence is positioned as a personal defect. When we hear business leaders, politicians, coaches or brands talking about inequality, women’s confidence is always discussed. But we’re letting institutions and wider structures off the hook from making changes as long as we’re saying that women are responsible.”

Body image is synonymous with confidence culture. Brands such as Dove say that “all bodies are beautiful” and feature a diverse range of bodies in their campaigns. Gill believes that “optics and visibility are really important”, but that it is are not enough: “These campaigns often feel cynically manufactured for a particular moment. Brands are rarely rethinking their whole raison d’être. They still exploit women’s insecurities and sell products that target them.” Flattening women’s differences (in terms of race, disability, pregnancy, etc), she feels, “empties the meaning and significance of those differences”.

Confidence Culture references a 2014 Dove advert called “Patches”. Women came to a fake laboratory and were given a “beauty patch” to wear by a psychologist, described as “a revolutionary product developed to enhance the way women perceive their own beauty”. After two weeks, they returned feeling more confident. One woman started wearing clothes that showed off her arms again. The psychologist revealed that the patch was a placebo: any changes were down to a shift in mindset. The message? Low self-esteem can be cured with positive thinking. The responsibility for the damaging nature of beauty culture is on women themselves.

That “confidence” is such an omnipresent word doesn’t help. It is so charged with positivity that questioning it seems ridiculous. As Gill and Orgad write in their book: “The self-evident value of confidence – and particularly female self-confidence – has been placed beyond debate, treated as an unexamined cultural good that is rarely, if ever, interrogated. In this way, a belief in confidence has come to suffuse contemporary culture, like an article of faith.”

In reality, confidence cannot be bought or plucked from thin air. It is a slippery thing, dependent on a person’s environment and the social norms they have been exposed to. When I posted a tweet asking women what made them feel confident, hundreds of replies flooded in. Certain clothes and makeup (red lipstick was common, as were boilersuits) made women feel confident, but so did significant events like childbirth, or surviving a hard divorce. Confidence also seemed strongly linked to validation from bosses, partners, friends and family.

“Confidence is inter-subjective,” says Gill, meaning that it comes alive when other people reflect how we feel. It is also context-specific. I have confidence in my ability to communicate and cook, for example, but less in my ability to drive. For someone else, it may be the opposite. Mantras like “lack of confidence is holding you back” are seductive, but ignore the variability of human experience. Yet they have become a rallying cry within a self-care-obsessed, capitalism-friendly feminism that encourages exhaustive work on the self. If we dig and dig, surely we’ll find the gold. We can pay others to help with the excavation, too.

Confidence Culture examines the coaching industry, which has sprung from self-help ideas that push an individualistic approach to improving confidence. Coaching is also rooted in positive psychology, which is often criticised for ignoring systemic issues. As the journalist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich argues in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America: “If your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.”

Many people credit life coaching with bringing about new perspectives, but there are reasons to maintain critical thinking. The industry is unregulated, yet the millions of Instagram posts tagged #lifecoach show how many people are selling this kind of service. The current trend hinges on terms such as “manifesting” and “magnetism”, which broadly relate to positive thinking: imagine being successful or having more money and you will reap the rewards. Coaches often market themselves on social media, where cherrypicked testimonials and assertive language serve as a demonstration of capability. To an outsider, it can seem quite cult-like.

Increased access to new forms of help is a positive development, but what are the risks? In a 2020 journal, Stanford University psychiatrist Dr Elias Aboujaoude, whose work explores the intersection of psychology and technology, wrote: “Life coaching operates in a regulatory vacuum, with no education, training, licensing, or supervision requirements for coaches and no specific legal protections for any harmed clients. The risk that mentally ill patients may undergo life coaching rather than receive proven psychotherapy treatments raises concerns about patient safety.”

Life coaching has been around for a long time, but the limitations of a stretched mental health system and the powerful connective tool of social media have created an even bigger market for clear-sounding solutions. Those entering the space will have good intentions, but we cannot ignore that this is a market based on vulnerability. Money is exchanged, often small fortunes, and the power dynamic of any client-and-practitioner relationship must be open to criticism. But coaching hinges so strongly on that article of faith – confidence – and creates a strong belief system. Even if the ethics are murky, arguing against improving confidence becomes difficult. Especially when clinical-sounding labels are used.

“Impostor syndrome” is a coaching industry buzzword, particularly relating to women in the workplace. The term has also become part of everyday conversations. Do you often doubt yourself? Think you’ll eventually be caught out? That’s impostor syndrome! But can this term really explain why some women might not trust their abilities?

Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance developed the idea in 1978, then called “impostor phenomenon”, with a study on self-doubt in high-achieving women. “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” they wrote. The study inspired decades of initiatives – conferences, leadership programmes, self-help books – to address impostor syndrome in women. However, as writers Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argued in a widely shared Harvard Business Review article called “Stop Telling Women They Have impostor Syndrome”, the term comes with baggage.

“Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with micro-aggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down,” they wrote. Impostor syndrome as a concept fails to capture all this, placing the duty on women to deal with the effects. “Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power,” they wrote. If businesses offer employees free subscriptions to mindfulness apps, for example, but don’t address issues like salary inequality, women will keep internalising the blame for how they feel.

We often mistakenly equate the confidence demonstrated by white, male leaders with competence. Some years ago, I started an editor role. Upon learning that I was paid less than a male colleague with the same title, I spoke to my (male) line manager. “You should have negotiated better with HR,” was his response. Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey’s argument that “employees who can’t (or won’t) conform to male-biased social styles are told they have impostor syndrome” certainly rings true. In my senior role, I suddenly felt like a charlatan.

Feeling unsure is common, but high-achieving women are told they’re suffering from an ailment. For Dr Jessica Taylor, a chartered psychologist, author and feminist campaigner, the term impostor syndrome is too close to “hysteria”: the historical diagnosis given to women who made too much noise or took up too much space. “So-called impostor syndrome is ‘more common’ in successful women than in successful men because society is more likely to tear down women who become too opinionated, intelligent, educated or assertive,” she says. “Believing that we have a syndrome is the desired outcome.”

Taylor routinely deflects sneers from male peers. “Some male academics talk to me like a piece of shit or like I’m thick, because of my background and experiences.” Taylor is working class and has spoken publicly about her experience of rape, as well as the abuse she received when completing her PhD, which hinged on “someone like me bringing the institution’s reputation down”. She has to push away self-questioning, but says that doubt is “not something inherent” in her. It is because she “is not supposed to succeed.”

The way we hold our bodies speaks volumes about our confidence. Or so we’re told. In a popular Ted Talk from 2012 about power poses, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy said that altering one’s posture – like standing with hands on hips – before a setting like a job interview, can “significantly change how your life unfolds”. For Orgad, the command to “stand tall” is “one of the common-sense ideas we’ve taken for granted about what confidence looks like.” Studies have also shown that power poses alone do not translate into powerful behaviours.

Is there a clear, physical way of seeming confident? Imogen Knight, a choreographer, intimacy coach and somatic experience therapist, spends her days noticing how people move. “In my experience, it’s too fluid and dependent on the context to really pin down. But a lack of confidence can manifest in a person subtly adjusting themselves all the time; their position, hair or bits of clothing. They might also cover vulnerable parts of their body like their stomach,” she says. We are on her sofa and I realise I am holding a cushion to my stomach. “Eye-contact can be difficult, too, but these things aren’t fixed: some days it is easier for people than others.”

Knight runs workshops with feminist theatre company Clean Break, who work with women in the criminal justice system. When women come together in this space, she tells them there is no ideal way to move. “I ask them what feels good. Some women move very little, just gently rotating their wrists. Others move with more electricity. It is beautiful how much women say they love being together. They support each other for exactly how they are, at that moment.” How freeing someone saying “there is no ideal way to be” must feel when your confidence has been knocked again and again by a system that never had your best interests at heart.

Connecting women’s confidence to the patriarchy is crucial. In 2020, Lauren Currie founded the organisation Upfront, a platform offering six-week online courses and community “bonds” that bring women together in challenging preconceived ideas of what confidence should feel or look like. Currie’s approach centres on accepting individual differences and vulnerability. Within the “bonds”, she says that women “unlearn their negative experiences of women-only spaces. Bitchiness and competitiveness is called out for what it is: a product of the patriarchal idea that there isn’t room for all women.” I ask what she feels nurtures confidence the most. “If I had to use one word: community.”

With “anti self-help” media on failure, along with Brené Brown’s work on the power of vulnerability, we have some resistance to the idea of what success and empowerment really look like. As Brown writes in her book Dare to Lead: “Grounded confidence is the messy process of learning and unlearning, practising and failing, and surviving misses.” But we cannot do these things alone. I experienced a crisis of confidence throughout the pandemic, mostly relating to work and the end of a relationship. Nothing ruptured that distress like leaning into my friendships and receiving the message that I am good enough.

The pandemic presented an opportunity to disrupt confidence culture in the ways it exposed inequality and highlighted our interdependence. Well-meaning motifs of self-care, comfort and feelgood media came thick and fast, because people have felt rudderless and afraid. However, many already did under a government that has, through austerity and the stripping away of community hubs, taken a hammer to our soft relationships. Perhaps it’s time we matched the endless calls for women to turn inwards to be self- believing with something much clearer: we need each other.

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