In our culture, we have a fucked up idea of what confidence is about.
We think that confidence means being strong and vulnerability means being weak. We think that for a leader to show confidence, they’ve got to be stoic and have no emotions, reveal nothing personal, and share no weaknesses.
When I first started attending professional development/networking meet-ups, this is what I tried to project. But I struggled to build warm connections instantly.
Months after the fact, I finally learned why: Yes, I came across as cool – but too cool for you. Aloof. Even intimidating.
That was because internally, I felt afraid and defended/walled-up. Since I was a kid, I had become convinced at a deep level that “I’m not cool enough.” I had this mental image of myself as this dorky kid with glasses, braces, and baggy ill-fitting hand-me-down clothes, and it haunted me my entire life.
So because I expected everyone to eventually reject me socially, I behaved in a way that rejected them first. I behaved in an “invulnerable” way. The irony is that it was because I was NOT confident that I struggled to be vulnerable. The ability to be vulnerable is something that develops from being confident.
Things shifted when I hired a social networking coach. In one of our first few sessions, my coach taught me an exercise to practice feeling an internal sense of safety and security even in the face of obnoxious people. In another session, we explored the “I’m not cool enough” belief. We traced it back to the first time I felt like that, which was as a 12-year-old.
I imagined holding and accepting my 12-year-old self with so much love and acceptance. I had never experienced that at that age, and, in a weird way, it was like I was rewiring my memory bank. Suddenly, I wasn’t JUST an outcast kid. I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Even my feeling of ugliness and rejection was also loved and accepted.
Session by session, we worked through deep fears and social anxieties. With these new tools and states of being, I felt the shift immediately. I was no longer in a constantly-defended state against the world. And because of that, people no longer seemed like too-cool people who thought I was a weirdo. They just seemed like people. And I wasn’t as afraid of people.
I could be more real with them. I could be vulnerable. I could admit real emotions. I could tell them I liked them or was happy to see them (and genuinely feel it). Or tell them I was feeling nervous and that was OK too.
The REALLY amazing part was that whenever I admitted something that was vulnerable or authentic, the other person would usually open up too.
I started building quality connections much, much faster than before. The exact same professional meet-ups that previously were a social anxiety nightmare were now a walk in the park. What would take years to develop in the past could happen within a few hours, or even minutes.
Learning to be vulnerable also improved my ability to date and be in a long-term relationship. Relationships can trigger all sorts of scary, deep emotions from your past. It’s really scary when they start coming up. Before, I would just shut down in the face of daunting, negative emotions that felt “weak.” Now, I find that being able to be vulnerable and admit them and talk about them with my partner just keeps improving my relationship.
The truth is, being confident and being a leader has nothing to do how little you reveal. As I learned in one public speaking course:
Wherever you want your audience to go, you have to go there first. If you feel safe and trusting, they’ll feel safe and trusting. And if you feel cold and defensive, they’ll feel cold and defensive.
If you want others to open up, you’ve got to be able to open up too.
This article is a guest post by Jennifer Lowe and originally appeared on . On her blog, she covers charisma, inner confidence, and social skills in more depth.