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Stop Telling Women to “Be More Confident.” It’s Not That Simple.

When it comes to confidence, there's no one-size-fits-all. Here's why the well-intentioned advice doesn't help and can actually hurt.

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Confidence isn’t black or white

Confidence isn’t a stable trait that someone either has or doesn’t have, but rather, it’s a feeling that can be cultivated and developed in different situations, says Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, author and behavioral expert. “Telling women to just ‘be confident’ is not helpful. What is helpful is assisting women to feel confident through providing affirmation, validation, and support,” she says. Or, suggest one of these science-backed tips to getting a little confidence boost.

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Confidence advice can backfire

“For someone who is already struggling with being confident, telling them to ‘be more confident’ reinforces the fact they aren’t, and can have the opposite effect, making them even less confident,” says Joseph R. Sanok, MA, a licensed professional counselor, business coach, and author of Practice of the Practice. Instead, if your goal is to build confidence, ask how you can support them and then follow through. And make sure you avoid saying these two words completely.

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Confidence may look different in women

“To many women, confidence means self-assuredness. It means striding into a situation, head held high not out of arrogance, but preparedness,” Patrick says. While this may look similar to ways men manifest confidence, the way each gender achieves that posture can be very different, she explains. Women often put a higher value on building relationships, empathizing, and kindness, in addition to being prepared, polite, and firm. Telling a woman to “be more confident” can invalidate traditional forms of female confidence while reinforcing the idea that only stereotypically male forms of confidence—like aggression and assertiveness—are the “right” way to be confident. In truth, both genders benefit from greater empathy. Want to improve your empathy skills? Cultivate these six habits shown to increase empathy.

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Traditional confidence can attract the wrong kind of attention

A woman may feel perfectly confident, but her less than ramrod-straight posture may not reflect that. This isn’t because she isn’t confident in her skills but rather because she wants to be seen for her skills and not her curves—an unfortunate situation that women deal with all the time and that men hardly ever think about, Sanok says. “Women may hunch forward or cross their arms over their chest as a way to hide their breasts and prevent being sexualized,” he explains. This may give the appearance that they aren’t confident, but they’re really just trying to avoid being sexually harassed, he adds. The real irony? Men make sexist jokes because they’re insecure, according to recent research.

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Striving for confidence ratchets up perfectionism

This idea of being perfectly poised and confident at all times plays into society’s stereotype that women must be everything to everyone, Sanok says. “Women are on the receiving end of a lot of criticism—for their bodies, their careers, how they parent—and that can lead to a lot of shame,” he says. “So when you point out another thing they’re lacking (confidence), all they hear is they have one more thing to feel bad about.” Perfectionists are notoriously hard on themselves. Are you a perfectionist? Check out the clear signs you’re a perfectionist (and how it might be ruining your life).

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Being confident does not mean stifling emotion

Many people see obvious emotion or caring as a sign of lack of self-confidence, but women draw great strength and confidence from relating to others, Patrick says, and they can do it without being a drama queen. “Women can make an emotional connection without becoming emotional,” she explains. “Confident women disarm with charm. They smile because they are comfortable with themselves and their surroundings. On a confident woman, a smile is not seen as weak, but engaging.” It’s not just smiling that makes a difference at work: Check out these four emotions that could be affecting your daily productivity.

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Confidence comes from skill and experience

Simply telling a woman to be confident doesn’t give her any idea how to accomplish that or what that even means, as confidence can look very different in the boardroom vs. the bedroom. A better tactic, according to Sanok, is to help her develop the skills that will naturally lead to confidence. “So often what is seen as a lack of confidence is really just a lack of experience and that’s easily remedied,” he says. Do you have these 34 life skills everyone needs?

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Confidence can be mistaken for bossiness

There’s a perception that confident women don’t care what others think and are not above using other people to get what they want—think the “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win” approach famously used by some female competitors on reality shows. But nothing could be further from the truth. This misconception can make women fear appearing confident because they don’t want to be seen as ruthless or manipulative (or they think that’s the only way to show confidence). The trick is in how confident women use interpersonal and work relationships, Patrick says. “Confident women bond through empathy and emotional intelligence, not shared insecurity,” she explains. “They win over others through capability combined with kindness.” Looking to improve your relationships with others? These are the five things you need for emotional intelligence.

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It ignores what triggers feelings of low confidence

If someone has chronic low confidence, it likely stems from something in their past, Sanok says. “Were you told to perform as a child, say as an athlete or musician? Were you raised to be a people pleaser? It’s important to identify where feelings of inadequacy come from and work through those,” he says. Telling someone to “have more confidence” ignores all the root causes of why someone might have less confidence in the first place. Another surprising but super common trigger for low self-confidence these days is social media. Thanks, Facebook!

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Confidence advice actually highlights their weaknesses

Bottom line: Telling someone to be confident is pointing out to them that they aren’t, which can make them feel self-conscious about it. This is especially true for women, Patrick says. “In a culture of insecurities, women gain confidence by recognizing and internalizing their strengths,” she explains. “From professionalism to personality, everyone possesses different gifts and proficiencies. Confidence is built through embracing positive traits instead of focusing on weaknesses—including confidence itself.” One surprising trait that can be linked with increased confidence is introversion, a trait more that 40 percent of women identify with.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.