What to Do When You Know You’re Smart, But Don’t Trust Yourself

By Jordan Stark
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners 5 Strategies for Building Self-Confidence

Jane (not her real name) was a talented and high-achieving senior executive from a top business school. She was greatly respected by her peers and did excellent work. However, she constantly felt the need to prove herself: over-volunteering for projects and saying “yes” to too many requests, driving herself too hard, and always worrying about what others might think about her.

While Jane’s relentless pursuit of “proving” allowed her to demonstrate her value and gain recognition, people also sensed her insecurity. 

Intellectually, Jane knew she was smart. Emotionally, however, her confidence was shaky. When faced with a challenge that she was fully capable of handling, she was anxious in a way that did not line up with her track record. Instead of trusting herself, she spent a lot of time worrying that she would fail or that people would think she was incompetent. 

I’ve encountered this scenario with many executive coaching clients, including CEOs. When leaders do not have a genuine foundation of self-confidence, they focus too much on what others think, experience unnecessary stress and have a hard time accessing their wisdom – all of which hinders their leadership impact.

Until Jane was able to strengthen her sense of self-belief, she was limiting her leadership potential and the quality of her life. 


Here are five strategies to help you cultivate deeper self-confidence:


1. Re-write your self-talk

Start by paying attention to your thoughts. To what extent do you engage in negative self-talk? Get caught up in self-doubt or fear? Often, we don’t stop and notice how harsh our inner dialogue can be. By consciously observing your thoughts, and countering them, you can start to shift them.



  • Pay attention to your inner dialogue.
  • Pick a negative recurring thought and write it down. 
  • Evaluate the thought: is this objectively true? What’s the likelihood it will actually happen? What are some counter thoughts?

For example: a recurring negative thought could be: “If I don’t handle this presentation to the Board perfectly, I will be a failure.” Counter thoughts could include: “I have presented to the Board multiple times and it always went well. I know I’ll do a good job now.” Or “Even if it’s not perfect, this presentation is just one aspect of my overall performance.” 

By objectively examining negative thoughts and considering counter perspectives, you can start to decrease your anxiety. This technique, from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has been proven to help people overcome irrational, negative thinking. When you notice and shift your self-talk you will feel calmer and more settled in the face of challenges. 


2. Take stock of your track record

So many of my high-achieving executive clients have something I call “success amnesia.” Despite a long history of strong performance and repeated promotions, they seem to feel as if none of it ever happened. When faced with a challenge, they forget how capable they are, and instead focus on an unrealistic threat of potential failure.  

Here’s the truth: your past track record is a very good predictor of your future success – take stock of your career history and focus on that to stay steady and calm.



  • What is your actual track record of success and failure?
  • What percentage of the time during your career have you been successful? 
  • How often have you actually experienced major failures?


Though all of us experience times when things didn’t go our way, our successes typically far outweigh any failures. Despite this, we often feel as if failure is right around the corner. This reflection will help you remember how often you have succeeded (98% of the time?), put the failures you’ve had in perspective and help you be more realistic about your capabilities.


3. Internalize your strengths

What are your gifts? Can you name them? 

An important piece of developing more solid self-confidence is to identify your strengths and allow yourself to believe in them.

When reviewing 360 feedback with executives over many years, I have noticed that the vast majority of leaders almost disregard their strengths and want to focus solely on areas to improve. While continuing to develop is important, taking the time to appreciate your capabilities is critical. The ability to own your strengths is literally where self-confidence comes from. When you allow yourself to genuinely assess and embrace your capabilities, you strengthen the roots of self-belief that keep you grounded.

Embracing your strengths is not a time to be humble. Be objective and honest with yourself. If you have a hard time doing that, ask a colleague or friend that you trust or read your performance reviews again. Owning your gifts is not arrogant. It’s about accepting key truths about yourself. 



  • What are you consistently good at?
  • What can you rely on yourself for?
  • What can others rely on you for?
  • When faced with a challenge, what do you trust about yourself? 


When you’re feeling unsure of yourself in a particular situation, remind yourself of your strengths and how they enable you to tackle tough problems, get to a good result, and more. This will help you manage your mindset and focus on the task at hand.


4. Engage in growth experiments

Another key way of building your self-confidence is to create experiments that allow you to practice trusting yourself and facing your fears.  

An example of this is from early in my career. I started my coaching and consulting career in the UK. As a young professional, I constantly got feedback that while I had great things to say, I needed to improve my confidence and speak up more. 

Because of this feedback, when I moved back to the U.S., I purposely started my own coaching and consulting business. I wanted to create a situation where I would have to fully rely on myself. It was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. The more I relied on my own abilities, the more I learned to trust myself, the more successful and capable I became. 


Reflection: What would you like to get better at? How could you start to practice in a safe way?


You don’t need to make a big career shift to grow. You can practice relying on yourself in the work you do every day. Example:

  • If you want to become more confidently decisive, for example, start with low-risk decisions and work your way up to issues of greater complexity, as you feel more comfortable. 
  • When a decision is needed, first ask yourself: What do I think the best answer is and why? Do this over and over with new situations. After surfacing your own ideas, you can always go ask others for their perspective to check your thinking. 
  • Make sure to notice the extent to which your decision-making leads to good results and include that in your mental track record!


5. Access your wise mind

If you feel anxious or unsure about a situation, an incredibly effective technique is to ask yourself: What does my wise mind say about this? 

Asking yourself this question takes you out of ruminating almost instantly, and gets you into a clearer state of mind. It can also help you realize what you need, if anything, whether it’s more information, help from others, or to just relax!


Reflection: What does my wise mind say? If you take nothing else from this article, take this question, and use it often. 


How does deeper self-confidence help? 

When we’re grounded in our abilities and trust ourselves, we are better able to show up calm, self-assured, and authentically composed - key components of strong executive presence. Share on X

Having genuine confidence allows all of us to take on bigger challenges, with less stress, and to grow in our careers. It also enables us to live and lead from greater wisdom, which makes life better on all levels.



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