Imagine it’s a random Tuesday and you stop to grab coffee to go before work. The barista accidentally makes an extra latte, so he gives it to you for free. A little while later, you walk into the elevator, and even though you wouldn’t normally flirt at 8:30 a.m., you exchange smiles with a cute guy. He gets out a few floors below yours, and just before the doors close, he asks your name. When you give a presentation that afternoon—still glowing thanks to Elevator Guy—you totally nail it. You might think you’re having a lucky day, but psychologists say it has nothing to do with luck.
“The law of cause and effect doesn’t just apply to physics. It rules your everyday life,” says Catherine Cardinal, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in confidence-building and author of A Cure For The Common Life. “When one positive thing happens, it gives your optimism and confidence a boost, which prompts you to seek out more good experiences.”
Translation: One smile-inducing interaction can snowball into the kind of killer confidence that scores you the guy, the job, or whatever else you happen to want. The trick is knowing how to get that snowball started. We talked to experts to find out exactly how this “confidence momentum” works, how you can kickstart it, and what to do when you hit a setback.
The Domino Effect Explained
The best is that the tiniest thing can get you started—like that coffee or finding an earring you thought you had lost. “That’s because when someone makes you feel good or something goes your way, you take on a whole new attitude," explains Susan Axtell, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “For instance, if it’s a guy asking for your number, you’ll walk away thinking, ‘Well, that guy liked me, so other people will, too.’” That thought in turn makes you less afraid to try new things, because you get into a mindset where you expect things to work in your favor. Think about it: If someone tells you that you look especially gorgeous, you’ll be more willing to see and be seen, which means you’ll be more likely to go to a work party that you might normally skip. And if you’re feeling good at the party, you’ll have the guts to introduce yourself to people you don’t know, making new contacts who may lead to new opportunities.
“When that second and third positive thing happens, they leave you exponentially more confident, so you feel like you can take a slightly bigger risk and put yourself out there even more,” says Axtell. “And when you take a bigger risk, there’s the possibility of a bigger payoff, so it just keeps going.” Not only does confidence momentum motivate you to seek out beneficial situations, but it also causes good things to happen to you.
“When you exude confidence, other people are more likely to be drawn to you and think of you as being capable,” says Cardinal. For example, if you’re coming across as ultraconfident at work, your boss might be more likely to trust you with bigger tasks and view you as a candidate for that promotion. Even strangers can feel the pull.
“Confident people hold themselves differently: They stand up straighter, smile more, and actually look brighter and happier,” says psychotherapist Beverly Engel, author of The Nice Girl Syndrome. “Those traits make you look confident, so people who don’t even know you assume good things about you.”
Start Your Own Winning Streak
Of course, you can’t exactly force people to give you free stuff or shower you with compliments. But, there are little things you can do that set the stage for it to happen. “Simply the act of not sitting back and waiting can set things in motion,” says Axtell. “People who wait for things to happen usually feel out of control, but those who actively seek out new situations feel more powerful.”
Start by taking small risks. “When you keep the risk modest, you’re more likely to succeed and have a positive outcome,” says Engel. “So you’ll get that little jolt of confidence, which will spur you on.” Your move could be as subtle as giving a quick smile to a guy across the bar and seeing if he returns it. Chances are, he will—it’s a natural reaction to smile at someone who’s smiling at you. And in spite of the fact that you started it, that smile inflates your ego a little. If all else fails, fake it 'til you make it. “It’s really about how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you,”says Engel. “If you act confident by standing tall and asserting that you know what you’re doing, you will really start to believe it, and other people will, too.” Once you do get your confidence flowing, ride the wave.
“You can take full advantage of it by trying new things when you’re on that confident kick,”says Cardinal. If you’ve always wanted to try salsa dancing or a fiction-writing class, now’s the time. The assurance you’ve already built up will give you a running start. “This is also the time that you should be direct about what you want, because people are more likely to give it to you,” says Axtell. That means asking your friend if you can borrow the dress you’ve been coveting or requesting another 10 percent off an already discounted pair of designer shoes.
“It sounds simple, but most people don’t think to ask for what they want,” says Engel. “When you have enough confidence to ask, people are more likely to say yes, simply because they’re attracted to that gusto.”
Bounce Back From A Crappy Situation
Here’s the bad news: Confidence momentum can work in reverse. When something upsetting happens, it can erode your self-assurance, which can lead to more disappointments. “A bad experience, like being reprimanded at work, makes you feel terrible and puts you in a down mood,” says Axtell. After that, it’s easier to look at everything in a negative way. And when you’re giving off that vibe, people tend to avoid you.
The trick is to stop that negativity quickly, so you don’t launch into a downward spiral. “It’s crucial not to dwell on the bad thing that happened,” advises Cardinal. If you need to vent because your boss was mean, call a girlfriend and talk it out. But after the bitching session is over, swear off the subject. If you keep going over it, it becomes harder to move on. So, force yourself to deal with each thing as it comes.
Easy to say, but how do you do it? One way to break the cycle of negativity is to treat yourself to something you know you love, like a manicure or a cupcake from your favorite bakeshop. It’s practically impossible to feel bad when you’re pampering yourself. Those little indulgences can also make you more relaxed and optimistic...and suddenly, things are picking up again.