How to build self-confidence and perseverance, from an expert

A central component that drives perseverance is a psychological mechanism called self-efficacy, a cognitive construct defined as a belief that one has the capabilities to execute actions.

 Illustrative (photo credit: HUNTERS RACE/UNSPLASH)

For some of my clients, the past two years have been very challenging in terms of their work situations. Faced with losing their jobs, some have switched professional direction, or as the saying goes, reinvented the wheel. Others have decided to make other career changes.

In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the world have faced professional challenges and have found new ways to earn a living (“Why Millions Of Employees Plan To Switch Jobs Post-Pandemic,” by Caroline Castrillon, Forbes Magazine online, May 16). Necessity is the mother of invention.

Once the decision to make a change is made, the person must be able to stay on track and complete the steps necessary to reach a new goal. This requires motivation and perseverance.

In this article, I want to take a brief look at what it means to persevere in pursuing new career goals.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perseverance as “the quality that allows someone to continue to do something even though it is difficult.” Perseverance is the ability to stick it out even when the going gets tough.

A central component that drives perseverance is a psychological mechanism called self-efficacy, a cognitive construct defined by the social scientist Albert Bandura (1997) as a belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage situations and tasks.

“Self-efficacy” can be used interchangeably with the term “self-confidence.”

For example, when a young person learns how to drive, he/she takes driving lessons and gradually builds up the skills and confidence necessary to drive an automobile. Of course, the more success that an individual experiences driving in all types of situations, the more self-efficacy and the more confidence he/she has to drive.

If, for whatever reason, an individual loses his/her confidence when driving, self-efficacy is lowered, and the resulting effect is not to persevere, but, rather, to avoid driving.

SO HOW exactly does one develop self-efficacy?

Ann, a young woman in her late 20s, sought my help online during the first set of lockdowns. After years of successful employment designing websites for a private company, Ann was told by her company that she, like other employees, was to be put on unpaid leave due to the economic impact the pandemic was having on her company. It was during this crisis that Ann decided that she wanted to start her own business.

As a result of her extensive and much appreciated work experience in her field, Ann had already developed some essential self-efficacy. In fact, according to Bandura, mastery experience – that is to say, confidence about acquired skills – is the most important factor determining a person’s self-efficacy. Simply put, success raises self-efficacy; failure lowers it.

In therapy, Ann was helped to realize that she did in fact have the necessary skills and experience, and could take what she had already done for someone else and do the same on her own. This made complete sense to Ann since she was destined to stay at home anyway, and she knew that she could do the necessary work in her own business at home in front of her own computer.

Nevertheless, Ann confided in me that she lacked skills to actually develop a business and all that this entailed.

Therapy helped her to identify friends and colleagues who did develop their own businesses. In fact, she spoke about her best friend, a designer, who was now working independently, and although it took a significant period of time, the friend was succeeding. Ann was encouraged to speak to her friend to get advice about the steps that were necessary to develop the business side of developing her own business.

As a result, Ann began to internalize the cognitive attitude of “If they can do it, I can do it as well.”

Bandura comments that this confident attitude derives from what he calls vicarious modeling, using successful “others” as positive role models to maintain self-confidence. The fact that Ann chose her best friend to model after made confidence all the more meaningful.

As therapy proceeded, Ann told me that her best friend was very supportive and encouraged her throughout the process. Her friend continually told Ann that she should not be afraid to go after her goal. I also reinforced this message in our sessions.

Bandura calls this positive influence social persuasion, and calls attention to its powerful impact on strengthening and maintaining self-efficacy. Many of us can remember people in our lives who have encouraged us to try to go after our dreams when we were afraid.

During my therapy with Ann, she reported that she was very stressed and anxious and had many intrusive thoughts that she would fail at her new endeavor. Leaving her current job to develop her own business had made her quite scared.

It was critical that I help her to see that her stress symptoms – heavy breathing, constant butterflies in her stomach, and muscular tension in her shoulders and neck – were physical expressions of normal concerns that anyone could have while making a new change in their lives.

In our online sessions, I taught Ann several relaxation techniques, including mindfulness and breathing exercises, to help her reduce anxiety. In a more relaxed state and with a much-improved state of self-efficacy, Ann was able to persevere as she worked toward her goal to start her own web design business.

Many people like Ann have seen their lives get turned upside down due to this pandemic. Ann was able to see that although she was fearful of the future, being unemployed and concerned about money, there was also opportunity. Ann’s self-efficacy and perseverance were strengthened, and she was able to stay focused on her goal to start her own business.

Today, Ann works with clients in her new web design business.

My advice: when you are feeling discouraged and life seems tough, don’t give up. The lesson to be learned is that when your mind, emotions and activities focus on a goal, and you practice and strengthen self-efficacy, you can persevere and achieve the extraordinary. 

The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana.[email protected]