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Confidence Versus A “Confident Image”

I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently to groups of job-seeking professionals (one reason I’ve been MIA on the internet for two weeks), and predictably I tend to get questions about dealing with job interview anxiety.

But if I get the chance to explore the issue more deeply with people, I often find that they’re not really interested in reducing their anxiety.  Instead, they want to convince the interviewer they aren’t anxious.

I usually discover this when someone asks a question about interview anxiety, and I respond with some ideas from meditation and yoga, like bringing your attention into the body, noticing where you’re restricting your breathing, and so on.  They then give me a puzzled look, and say “but don’t you have any practical advice?”

When I ask what they mean by practical advice, they’ll reply “you know, things like how I should spin bad stuff on my resume, how long I should spend answering a question,” and so on.  In other words, what they really want to know is how to look like a confident, competent person.  Their own feelings aren’t important — only the interviewer’s view of them matters.

Image Obsession Creates Anxiety

I think this attitude is in keeping with the conventional wisdom in our culture.  For any situation in life involving “selling yourself” — marketing, interviewing for jobs, dating, or something else — most advice out there is about “making” people have the “right” thoughts and feelings about you.

The trouble is, in my experience, this attitude is actually a big source of anxiety.  The more deeply we’re concerned about our image, the more scary and exhausting relating with people becomes.

For example, suppose you went into a job interview having memorized ten questions you’re “supposed” to ask, five “confident body language” tips, seven “interview mistakes” to avoid, and so on.  Wouldn’t trying to remember and follow all these rules create stress for you?

But that’s not all — suppose you also went into the interview believing that “how I feel doesn’t matter — only this interviewer’s feelings about me are important.”  In other words, your sense of self-worth is riding on the interviewer’s opinion of you.  Don’t you think that might cause some freak-out as well?

What Do You Want?

So, if memorizing a lot of interviewing tips and obsessing over your image isn’t the key to overcoming interview anxiety, what is?  I think all the techniques I usually talk about regarding breathing, focusing your attention, and so on are wonderful, but here’s an even more basic starting point:  try focusing on what you feel and want.

That is, instead of going into the interview worrying about what the interviewer will think, see if you can get curious about questions like:  is this job in keeping with my career goals?  Does this seem like the kind of working environment I’d enjoy?  What would I need to know to feel comfortable taking this job?

If you’re in the job market, one thing I think you’ll immediately notice about this attitude is that it actually allows you to have an informative, and even enjoyable, dialogue with the interviewer.  Focusing on what you want out of the job helps you to ask questions you’re actually curious about, rather than parroting canned questions from some interviewing book that don’t really matter to you.

Although I’ve been talking about job interviewing, I think the attitude I’ve discussed is useful for any “selling yourself” situation.  I’ve found that focusing on our own wants and feelings, rather than getting caught up in strategies for manipulating others’ experience, can help make these situations easier to endure, and maybe even fun.

23 thoughts on
Confidence Versus A “Confident Image”

  1. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now

    This post hit the bulls eye. When we worry about how we are perceived then we worry about what we can’t change. This worry develops into fear and we stop reacting from our heart. This is the worst thing we can do. Being in an interview should not be about how much someone likes us, but how much we might enjoy the potential job.

  2. Duff

    This is great advice for interviews. The strategies we use to overcome anxiety are usually the very strategies that cause the anxiety. Mindfulness is the first step (and sometimes the only needed step) to cutting through these kinds of looping behavior patterns.

    I do have one caveat though–sometimes people can take the “focusing on what you feel and want” too literally, ignoring the needs of others or ethical and moral limits.

  3. Evan

    Hi Chris, all true. But sometimes people need to get jobs in order to earn a living. And it is others who control the access. I’m saying that perhaps anxiety is an appropriate response not a symptom to be done away with.

  4. Joey

    Hey Chris,

    I like the distinction you make between wanting to reduce interview anxiety and wanting to appear confident during an interview. That’s a distinction too few job seekers make when they try to figure out what’s wrong with their job search approach.

    Focusing on your own wants and feelings can definitely strip away a considerable amount of anxiety. You stop stressing out as much about what the other guy thinks.

    Confidence will also sky rocket if you really know your top selling points, can prove your best skills, and have some solid knowledge about the company and industry.

    Great work, keep it going.

    -Joey
    http://www.joeyweber.net

  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Karl — I like that way of putting it — that, when we take responsibility for someone else’s perception of us, we’re holding ourselves responsible for thousands if not millions of factors beyond our control.

  6. Mark

    Chris,
    You make some interesting observations. I have found that the best interview is when you don’t focus on the outcome. My best interviews were accomplished when I didn’t “have” to get the job. When I am not focused on the outcome, I am more relaxed and therefore more likely to be myself and bring that energy into the interview. This means that the person doing the interview feels more at ease because I am not coming across as needy or desperate and in turn I am not making verbal or non-verbal mistakes that can quickly torpedo an interview.

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Duff — that’s nice and concise, I think — the “tips and tricks” out there involving memorized lines and moves are all about overcoming anxiety, but the paradox is that they actually create it. And yes, here’s a disclaimer: if what you deeply want is to blow up the planet, please don’t take my idea of focusing on what you want to the outer limits of its logical extent. :)

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — I agree that people often seek jobs to earn a living, but I’m not sure that means that getting anxious about what the interviewer thinks, and memorizing a lot of techniques to manage the interviewer’s experience, will help them achieve that goal. The conventional wisdom does seem to be that, if something’s important to you, you should worry about it, but I question that idea.

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Joey — I like the way you put it — that the distinction between how we actually feel, and how we want others to think that we feel, is one that we don’t always recognize — and I think it’s useful to keep that in mind in other areas of life as well.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi J.D. — yes, I think that’s true — and directing our attention to what we want, rather than what we think someone else might want or what their opinion might be, seems so much easier to me than, say, telling ourselves that we feel confident or that we’re happy when the opposite seems to be the case.

  11. Chris - Post author

    Hi Mark — yes, that felt solid to me when I read it — that you weren’t coming into the interview with the sense that you “needed” the job, and that affected your way of being in the conversation. And it wasn’t about doing something to convince the interviewer you didn’t need the job even though you did, but simply that you weren’t coming from a place of lack.

  12. Wilma Ham

    Hey Chris, this is touching upon all our life situations, I actually wish it was only job interviews that had us behave like a pawn in other people’s hands. At least we do not have job interviews that often but we live amongst people every minute of the day most days. There were times when as a people pleaser I was constantly gaining my ‘confidence’ from how I could impress others. What a life, NOT.
    I totally lost my inner guide and my self esteem.
    Indeed going into life and going into interviews looking how life, that job fits ME is a far more productive way. Brilliant, xox Wilma

  13. Davina

    Good advice, Chris — “Try focusing on what you feel and want.”

    Concentrate on what you need to know, as opposed to what they need to know, because they are responsible for getting it out of you and you are responsible for getting it out of them. The rest will take care of itself. If you don’t have the information, you’re not the person for the job and there is a better one out there. Worrying what they might be thinking… how do we even know that? :-) We make things so hard for ourselves. I like how you keep things simple.

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Wilma — that’s a good point — focusing on what we want, rather than trying to anticipate what the other person wants before they tell us, seems like a generally useful life skill. Yes, it would be nice in this issue came up only in job interviews and not in every other relationship we have with people! :)

  15. Chris - Post author

    Hi Davina — I think that’s a helpful way to put it — maybe other people can actually take responsibility for asking for what they want, and we don’t need to figure out what they want and do it before they ask. In fact, I think, it actually honors others more deeply when we allow them to speak up and ask for what they want, rather than trying to become what they want for them, because asking for what we want can be such a powerful personal growth experience. :)

  16. Duff

    @Evan,

    This quote from that Onion report sums up some of the dilemmas:

    “You may be a qualified candidate, but none of that matters if you walk into that interview lacking confidence,” he added. “Don’t act too confident, though. And don’t joke around too much. And don’t be overly friendly or ask too many questions. But be yourself.”

  17. Chris - Post author

    I like this Onion article, particularly the paragraph pointed out by Duff, because it illustrates how absurd (and probably anxiety-provoking) it would be to actually try to follow all of the “interview tips and tricks” we find in the career literature — or, for that matter, all the “dating tips and tricks” we find in dating advice, and so on. One of the reasons, I think, there are so many confusing and contradictory tips out there, is that trying to control another person’s experience of you — to make them think or feel what you want — is an extremely difficult and stressful task.

  18. Patty - Why Not Start Now?

    Wow, you really nailed this one, Chris. Everyone wants the quick fix, the magic bullet, but in the end, even interviewing is about inner work. I’m not sure many people want to hear that though, which is unfortunate, because all the tips and tricks are a dime a dozen, and really just another list of confining “shoulds.” What you’re offering, on the other hand, is pure gold.

  19. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patty — in a sense I think it’s unfortunate that inner work should be what’s needed in the context of job interviews, since interviews tend to be so bound up with survival concerns (though sometimes only in the mind of the interviewee, who believes “if I don’t get this particular job, I’ll starve”). And, I think the reality is, like you say, that it *is* often what’s needed. The upside, I think, is that, if the work we do helps us let go of our fixation on our image in the job interview context, that will reverberate throughout other areas of our lives.

  20. Chris - Post author

    Hi Duff — that’s an interesting idea — I wonder if job interview anxiety is lower in Europe’s social democracies than the U.S. This is the kind of thing Mr. Hadkins will probably have stats on. :)

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