The Key to Self-Confidence: Use Science to Channel Anxiety into Success

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Self confidence isn’t always easy to feel. Who hasn’t felt anxious around their boss? Afraid they’ll never lose the weight they’ve gained over the last few years? Do you tend to push aside any positive feedback, and focus only on the negative? Guess what? You’re not alone. One of the most frequently discussed topics in my therapy sessions is anxiety, especially in relation to lack of self-confidence.

Anxiety can be confidence killer. Think of anxiety and confidence on opposite ends of a scale: As anxiety goes up, confidence goes down. There is no question that anxiety is behind avoiding action, and this inaction, in turn, begins a vicious cycle leading to poor self-confidence and limited success. Case in point, a foundational element to the Ban Bossy leadership campaign is data collected by the Girl Scout Research Institute in their study entitled, “Change It Up.” This study shows that fears of failure, of being judged, or of losing relationships drives girls’ inhibitions and lack of motivation to lead. Simply stated, fear of rejection is a primary inhibitor of confidence, and can fuel avoidance of risk-taking, especially for girls.

A critical key to building confidence is learning how to deal effectively with fear and anxiety, and managing the negative thoughts that drive them. That is to say, turn anxiety around, and use its energy to work for you instead of against you. Transform a negative into a positive, by recognizing that anxiety – when harnessed for action – can build self-confidence.

This process will take training because our brains are hardwired to store negative experiences more so than positive ones. Initially, this might sound like an uphill battle. You might wonder: How can I turn anxiety into a positive force, when my brain inevitably wants to focus on the negative? In psychology, we call this the negativity bias, whereby our brain’s amygdala “uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news – it’s primed to go negative,” according to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., prominent neuropsychologist and author of several books including Hardwired for Happiness.

To be sure, this negativity bias, just like anxiety, exists in order to protect us. As long as we stay aware of scenarios that could be dangerous, we can avoid harm and stay alive. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that our negativity bias can shelter us from openings for growth, and thus work against our need to adapt and seize opportunities for advancement. This is where self-confidence can serve as a counterweight to our anxieties and our inherent negativity bias. Confidence and positivity increase our ability to take action when life throws us curveballs, whereas anxiety invites resistance and avoidance.

One successful way to turn anxiety into action is to exercise our brains to think positively, which in turn encourages us to feel confident.

Here are three recommended ways to ingrain positivity into our minds and channel anxiety into confidence:

  1. You are in control of 40%. Sonya Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, has found that we can control up to 40% of our experience. She notes that we have a lot of control over how we think and what we do. She recommends that we aim to make a habit of cognitively amplifying positive thoughts and experiences towards optimism, making sure to set and pursue goals, and nurture the relationships that we have in our lives. These are three keys of overall happiness according to her research.
  1. Move positive events into your focus. Similarly, Dr. Rick Hanson recommends that positive experiences be “held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.” When something good happens, take just twelve seconds to ingrain the memory in your brain for long-term access. Include messages that you want to believe, such as I’m good at this. I like this. I know this stuff. When you make positive thoughts habitual, you “bronze” them into your life by creating a storehouse of positivity that you can access at will.
  1. Pretend to Feel Like You Really Want to Feel. William James, the “father of American psychology” posited the so-called “act as if” methodology over a century ago. If you want to feel confident, do things that make you feel confident, physically. Want to feel happy? Smile. Want to feel more confident? Change that slouch to upright posture. Likewise, one of the most viewed Ted Talks is a lecture by social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, equating your own body language with how you feel. In her talk, Dr. Cuddy describes how ‘power posing’—standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident—can impact testosterone and cortisol levels in our brains that increase confident thoughts and behavior that can, in turn, improve outcomes.

Most people suffer from lack of self-confidence and anxiety at some point in their lives. Thankfully, these feelings can be used as catalysts for growth, by using anxiety to jumpstart positivity. Confidence and courage draw on each other, and help provide the resources needed to take action, striving towards growth.

By exposing our brains to increased positivity via repeated verbal, physical, and sensory messages and actions, we begin to reduce our negativity bias and boost our confidence at the neurological level. This is habit formation at work, with one positive decision feeding another and another. These positive connections go on to supply the courage needed to drive further adaptive action, which in turn promotes continual growth and confidence.


Looking for more help in understanding anxiety? Learn more about my book Hack Your Anxiety and access free tools to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.


Alicia H. Clark, PsyD


  1. Cathy B on March 29, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Just what I needed to hear this week, thanks.

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on March 29, 2015 at 10:58 am

      So glad to hear!