Confidence is Just Shorthand for Feeling Safe
Practice building authentic confidence with the 6A Model of Safety.
Think about this for a minute. Confidence is just shorthand for feeling safe.
If I feel safe with you, I’ll speak up and share what’s on my mind. If I feel safe with you, I’ll be okay with making mistakes and being myself. If I feel safe with you, then I’ll look and feel confident.
On the surface, this sounds obvious — but I actually find it very surprising. You see, when I first start to work with my clients on self-confidence, none of them connect the idea to safety. In fact, initially they all connect confidence to the idea of comfort. Counterintuitively, though, solving for comfort doesn’t lead to greater self-confidence. In fact, it usually erodes confidence.
Imagine you have the goal of speaking up more in big meetings. You might have even framed it as “I want to become comfortable speaking up in big meetings.” And right there is the tricky disconnect. Your comfort is not an input into speaking up, because the more you wait for that feeling to show up, and the more pressure you put on feeling it, the less you’re actually taking the action of speaking up. By resolving to speak up despite feeling uncomfortable, though, you give yourself an opportunity to build comfort over time.
To be sure, there can be overlap between safety and comfort. Sometimes, feeling safe can give us a sense of comfort — but they’re not the same thing. In the military, I wore heavy chest plates and body armor when out on missions. It was very uncomfortable, but it kept me safe and I felt safer wearing it. When I work with my clients on developing self-confidence, they challenge themselves to step outside their comfort zone. It’s uncomfortable, but they get to practice learning to feel safe in the process.
This work with clients — focusing on safety more than comfort when it comes to developing higher self-confidence — led me to develop the 6A Model of Safety. There’s nothing complicated about it, it’s just a way of organizing the major themes of growth I’ve observed. It’s a lens through which to see the process of safety learning when it comes to the concept of confidence.
The 6A Model of Safety
The 6A Model is one of many, many ways to view the concept of self-confidence. This isn’t a growth-stage model, although each element builds off of the next, nor is it a prescriptive framework. It’s simply a way to organize and categorize practice and growth when it comes to confidence. It’s a way of breaking down a big idea into smaller, more bite-sized chunks.
The 6A Model is built on three dimensions:
Seeing versus showing. The top hemisphere of the Model is seeing, while the bottom is showing. Acceptance and Appreciation are seeing dimensions, while Authenticity and Assertiveness are showing dimensions. Seeing means self-focused. It’s being and acting in integrity with yourself. Showing means others-focused. It’s being and acting in integrity with others.
Reality versus value. The left hemisphere of the Model is reality, while the right is value. Acceptance and Authenticity are reality dimensions, while Appreciation and Assertiveness are value dimensions. Reality is focused on characteristics. It’s observing yourself with objectivity. Value is focused on qualities. It’s observing yourself with subjectivity, assigning a judgment of worth.
Inward versus outward. The inside of the Model is Awareness. This touches each of the four quadrants in that developing each dimension begins inward, with introspection, reflection, and deeper understanding. The outside of the Model is Application. This also touches each of the four quadrants in that developing each dimension ends outward, with action and behavior change.
But forget all that for a second; all this means is that there are two ways of relating to both yourself and others, one that’s more describing the reality of the situation and another that’s more focused on assigning value to it. This is important because we need both the ability to broaden our perspective and the ability to interpret it in a loving, compassionate way. And we need the ability to do that both with ourselves and, then, in relationship with others.
The cross section of these dimensions — Acceptance, Appreciation, Authenticity, and Assertiveness — are like four legs of a table. We need all four to be sturdy and stable. Let’s dive into these four in particular, knowing that each will have a component of Awareness and Application.
Acceptance, seeing yourself
In a lot of ways, acceptance is loaded with preconceived meaning. Most of us hear ideas of surrender or giving up inside this word. I want to propose that, in reality, acceptance is a very active word.
To me, acceptance means going right up to the line of what you can and can’t control. In doing so, you both practice letting go of the things you can’t control while also taking ownership of the things you can. Interestingly, these two actions are mutually reinforcing. Imagine looking forward to a sunny day when suddenly it starts raining. If we get trapped in a loop of disappointment and resentment toward the weather, something squarely outside of our control, we lose out on spending that energy on something we could control.
Realizing and acknowledging that we can’t control the weather is one form of acceptance. Putting on a raincoat, pulling out a board game, or booking a vacation to a sunny beach, though, are other forms of acceptance. When we turn away from the things we can’t control we are by default turning toward the things we can.
This is easy enough to imagine as we relate to the external world, but real acceptance starts with self-acceptance, in our internal world. In a lot of ways, our emotions are like the weather. We think we can control them, but we really can’t. We can try to bottle up how we feel or distract ourselves, but these are just superficial, temporary solutions.
Think about it: something happens and suddenly we feel an emotion. We didn’t choose to feel that emotion, it just happened. And we can’t suddenly choose to not feel that emotion, despite how much we trick ourselves into thinking we can. This is the same line of control that exists between the weather and our actions in the face of it. We don’t get to choose our emotions, but we do get to choose our behaviors and our reactions to them.
When it comes to confidence, the starting point on the journey of self-acceptance usually begins with the emotion fear. Most of us have trained ourselves into ignoring or fighting our fear, but it’s as ineffective as fighting the rain. We say “Why can’t I just be more confident?” or “I hate that I’m scared to speak up.” As if the fear wasn’t uncomfortable enough, we add onto it by shaming and beating ourselves up.
The great move here isn’t when we finally win the battle against our emotions, but when we learn to have a different way of co-existing with them. I used to think that the trick to self-confidence was to wage war with my inner critic. It didn’t work. My inner critic is just a part of me, a voice that I built in childhood to keep me safe and loved. All I was doing was fighting myself! Realize and accept your fear. Realize and accept that your inner critic is trying to help you, even if the approach is misguided. Only then you can have a different choice for what you do next.
Appreciation, seeing your value
Once we start to practice genuine acceptance, the world starts to look a little different. Suddenly, we’re not wasting all our energy fighting back against reality. Suddenly, we’re seeing the world and ourselves more objectively. Inevitably, a bit more appreciation starts to come through. Once we have a solid foundation of acceptance, though, we can practice looking for more of it. Again, we can practice appreciating others, but the journey starts inward with self-appreciation.
Why do I call acceptance the foundation? Well, if you’re not standing in reality, any self-appreciation is going to be hollow. Sure, you can sit in front of a mirror and tell yourself how amazing you are each morning. You can have mantras and affirmations and power poses. In my experience, they might shift your mood but they won’t shift your value, at least not in the long run. You need to have a genuine relationship with yourself before you can have a loving relationship with yourself.
Even after establishing that acceptance-driven genuine relationship with yourself, though, self-appreciation is hard. One reason is that we’re individually hardwired to look for what’s wrong. Our inbuilt negativity bias has a lot of evolutionary hardwiring, and for good reason: in the past, it kept us safe from danger. Another reason is that we grew up around all these people who had a negativity bias themselves, and collectively they reinforced that in us.
This is what makes appreciation so hard and also so important. We’re not just making a decision to show more self-appreciation, we’re committing to a practice of unlearning the old way and relearning something new. This is hard! The starting point, however, is simple: just start to notice how you talk to yourself.
Most of us would never talk to another human being in the same way we talk to ourselves throughout the day. I know I wouldn’t. I catch myself calling myself “stupid” or “idiot” and putting myself down. I catch myself holding a higher standard for me than anyone else would, or than I would of anyone else. And when I do catch myself, these days I try to re-engage with compassion. I’ll even apologize to myself for being cruel and hurtful, but realize why I did it and where it came from.
I don’t eliminate my negative self-talk; I never will. But I engage with it in a different way, a way that means there’s a lot less of it these days. That new space means the opportunity to practice genuine positive self-talk. Practice is the key word here. I’ll admit, it still feels unfamiliar. But it also feels wonderful.
Authenticity, showing yourself
While the first two dimensions focus largely on how you are with yourself, the last two focus largely on how you are with others. If acceptance is seeing yourself, then authenticity is showing yourself.
There’s a lot of talk about authentic leadership these days. Often, what people mean is really another word: open, honest, transparent, etc. But authenticity is something more specific. I can be open with you about something that happened, but I might not be authentic about how I feel about it. I can be honest about a situation, but I might not be authentic about my experience with it.
Similarly, I can be authentic but not open or transparent. I could tell you, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” That phrase is super authentic, but not very open. Here’s the key difference: all these other ideas focus on the circumstances, but authenticity focuses on me. I’m sharing something about myself and my experience.
I often call these things unarguable truths. They’re things that I have 100% ownership of. They include my own sensations (“I have a pain in my shoulder”), my own feelings (“I’m feeling excited”), and my own thoughts (“I believe we should stop now”). It’s easy to hide behind data and stories — after all, it’s how most people communicate. But we miss out on the precious opportunity to be authentic, to tell others what’s actually happening for us as individuals.
A final framework: we often think that when we are uncomfortable with others, we choose to withhold. Withhold here just means keeping a part of ourselves, a part of our unarguable truth, hidden. In reality, though, it works the other way just as much, if not more. When we choose to withhold, we become uncomfortable with others.
I notice it time and time again in my own life. My choice to hold back parts of myself only serves to discomfort me and make me feel less connected to those around me. I start to withdraw and isolate myself. One important word here is choice. If I really want to become more authentic, I practice choosing to reveal and share my unarguable truths. Another important word here is practice.
Assertiveness, showing your value
Assertiveness is just authenticity in action. Another way of thinking about assertiveness is that it’s a communication style. In reality, it’s a skill built on all the earlier dimensions. It’s built on top of a well practiced acceptance, appreciation, and authenticity.
Often, assertiveness is confused with aggressiveness, but these two ideas are not the same. Both are communication styles, but aggressiveness is characterized by high respect for self. When I have high respect for self and self alone, I will force my opinion on others, interrupt, and speak directly for my own sake. I don’t care about how it lands on anyone else, I only care about my own agenda.
Contrast this with passivity, another communication style. In this style, however, I have only high respect for others. When I have high respect for others and others alone, I stay quiet, I don’t rock the boat, and I dilute every statement I do make with qualifiers, so as to not offend anyone. I only care about others’ agendas and am constantly predicting what they want, instead of being curious about what I want.
In the balance is assertiveness, which is both high respect for self and high respect for others. I’m able to ask for what I want and be curious about what others want. I’m able to state an opinion and make space to be educated and informed. I speak up but I don’t hog the mic. I care about others’ agenda, but I trust them to state their own needs as much as I trust myself to state my own.
Of all the dimensions of the Model, this is the most driven by practice. The key here is to start small, with baby steps. Psychologists might call this safety learning. When I practice being assertive I’m learning that, even if I say what I want, I won’t be in danger. I’m learning that I won’t be rejected. In fact, I often find that once I start expressing my wants and needs, people start to lean in even more. We’re all attracted to real and authentic people, after all.
In starting small, begin with just a few things that feel significant but not too scary. It could be asking for a different table at a restaurant or giving a preference on what to do one evening. Build the muscle of assertiveness by starting small, then grow into the heavy lifting.
The Model of Safety in daily life
If there’s one constant message in each of the four main dimensions of the Model it’s this: practice. Confidence isn’t something that’s found, it’s something that’s built. I’d like to leave you with my three most helpful practices that cut across all the dimensions of the 6A Model.
Quiet reflection. For me, this looks like a short, daily meditation practice. It can also be some blocked time for deep thinking and introspection. This practice is mostly internal in that it deepens awareness and understanding.
Intentional journaling. Like a lot of you, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with journaling. I’ve found it to be most helpful, though, when I focus on something specific. Take one of the dimensions of the Model and commit to a short daily habit of both reflecting and committing to change. This practice is both internal and external.
Accountability and partnership. We’re social creatures and we don’t have to do this alone. Find an accountability partner, whether a peer or a coach or therapist. My own coach has been instrumental in keeping me accountable and focused. This practice is mostly external in that it forwards application and action.
The 6A Model of Safety is just a framework to help understand the journey of greater self-confidence. You might find your own approach, one that works better for you. Wherever you land, though, remember that it’s not about learning something new or finding that next piece of content that really catalyzes change. It’s all about practice and committing to a new way of navigating the world. Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in Better Humans