Strong Spine, Humble Chin
Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self – Charles Spurgeon
A large part of my work as a (future) clinical psychologist is interviewing. Interviewing clients for the first few years of my clinical psychology degree was like entering a large crowded mall. There is information zipping from every direction and too many paths I could take to get to my destination. Although I had a road map with the basic information I should collect (confidentiality agreement, informed consent, medical history, academic background, family history, presenting problem…), I was easily distracted by minor off-topic comments (read: a sale at Banana Republic when I’m shopping for eyeliner). The result was a stilted interaction filled with “okay let’s go back to when you told me about…” and “we’ll come back to this in a minute”. I would step out of the interview confused, exhausted, and missing information.
In other words, my initial interviews were like making half a dozen detours on the way to the makeup counter.
Over time, I have less of what sports psychologists refer to as “cognitive anxiety”, or negatives beliefs and expectations about myself and my performance. For instance, I’m less likely to have thoughts like “I am going to screw this up”. This confidence comes with practice, preparation, and supervision. Over time, I’ve learned to flag items of interest without breaking the flow of the conversation. I learned that a nod or tilting my head to the side with eye contact can be as effective as a follow up question. I have more practice, more skills, and I am more confident.
In short, I know that Banana Republic will still be there once I pick up my eyeliner. Or that the eyeliner will still be there even if I stop by BR.
At least in sports psychology, anxiety and self-confidence independently impact performance: they are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. Self-confidence is the personal belief that one has the ability to complete a task (i.e. “I can do this!”). Intuitively, self-confidence has a positive impact on performance. Meaning that the more I believe I can do it, the better my performance will be (Many American Idol participants will relate to this finding). Cognitive anxiety on the other hand, has a negative relationship with performance.
Therefore, the better I feel about myself and my skills, the better my interview should be. The fewer negative beliefs I have about myself, then I the better I should perform.
The incremental sense of assurance about my interviewing skills bit me in the ass when I chose to enter a feedback sessions (a concluding session with a client where the results of an assessment are discussed) without reviewing the history and main findings. I figured I would “wing it” since I had given feedback for a similar disorder before. Unfortunately, during the appointment I struggled to find my words, shuffled through the file and papers, and looked back at my supervisor one too many times to fill the awkward silences. I felt lost. As we left the interview room, he smiled and said “trouble finding your words today?”
No, my words weren’t lost; they were not prepared to begin with.
I once again struggled between confidence and complacency when I tried a new yoga studio. The typical yoga studio etiquette is that more advanced students set up at the front of room, to provide a visual cue for more novice students. Being a recently certified yoga teacher, I confidently unrolled my mat at the front of room thinking “I got this”. I stood tall, with my chin a little too high in confidence. Within 20 minutes of the class, I lost half of my body weight in sweat and wobbled on my feet between poses. My ego dripped from my forehead every time I turned in to a downward facing dog.
Confidence (just like curiosity) can kill the cat*.
And the ego.
Confidence comes with practice, but maintaining humility as we develop our skills can be as challenging as the skill itself. Confidence can actually result in a weaker performance. When confidence increases, we are more likely to develop complacency, or self-contentment while being oblivious to limitations or dangers. Confident individuals are more likely to use short-cuts, put less effort in the task, and subsequently make mistakes.
In the interviewing situation, I felt confident because I had performed well in a similar task in the past, so I did not prepare as much. The result was a stilted, embarrassing, and confusing session for all parties involved. At the new yoga studio, I felt that my experience and new “status” would result in a better performance. I did not take into account the new challenges that each situation could present, and fell smack on the face – literally.
As some psychologists are discovering, a little bit of self-doubt can actually improve performance, shedding doubt on the previously held belief that confidence is key. Doubt keeps us alert and open to the possibility of failure and ensures that we monitor our actions.
I think the key lies in knowing that I have ability, while accepting that I do not know what can be thrown at me. Maybe confidence and humility are on a spectrum?
I now try to walk into every interview, therapy session, or yoga class with a strong spine – acknowledging the work I have done and things I know – and a humble chin: accepting that I have so much to learn.
*no cats were harmed in the writing of this post