The secret to being confident at work (and everywhere else)

It may seem like she has confidence but everyday situations make Ellen Manning squirm - she's changing that after reading Happy High Status by standup comedian Viv Groskop

“Oh but it’s okay for you, you’re really confident”, a friend glibly says. It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of having confidence. I guess it seems like I do. As a journalist I’ve been to war zones, interviewed politicians, delivered after-dinner speeches. And when it comes to personal stuff, I do a good job of making it look like confidence comes easily, from making speeches at parties to sharing chatty videos on social media.

But deep down, these occasions are a struggle. And it doesn’t stop there. While I can muster up a game face when needed, the most innocuous day-to-day situation can leave me squirming. I’ll do anything to avoid making phone calls by booking online or ordering takeaways via apps. And when it comes to confrontation, I’ll back off, lacking the confidence to stand up for myself.

I’ve always been the same. As a teenager, I would look at the effortless confidence of other girls and dream of being like them. Those feelings have never gone away. I might be able to play the role of someone with unflinching self belief but I’m dying inside. The friends who see a confident person don’t see the knotted stomach, sweaty palms or racing heartbeat. It’s something I’ve learned to hide, but I’ve spent years longing for the day when those feelings disappear.

That day may have come, thanks to a new book. When Viv Groskop decided on a career change from journalist to stand up comedian, she knew one thing she’d have to master was confidence, so made it her business to understand it. Since then she’s analysed research, interviewed people on her long-running podcast, gained firsthand experience through her own performances, and is sharing everything she’s discovered in a new book, Happy High Status, which is published this month and will form the basis for her talk at the ALSO Festival in Compton Verney, Warwickshire, in July.

The Happy High Status secret

So what is Happy High Status? Put simply, it’s a new way of looking at confidence. The way you feel when everything’s great – the calm, easy confidence that comes with low pressure situations and happy moments. The opposite of how we feel in stressful situations, when imposter syndrome is at an all-time high.

“We all have moments in our life when we feel comfortable with ourselves, with certain people, in certain situations,” explains Groskop. “It’s how you are when you’re not questioning who you are. Happy High Status is taking that feeling you have in lower pressure situations when you feel no self-consciousness and bringing it into high-pressure situations. It’s just trying to bring that more relaxed, calm version of yourself.”

It sounds simple, so why aren’t we all doing it? One reason is because we’re surrounded by myths that “performing” in public – whether that’s speaking, acting or any other scenario – is everyone’s deepest fear and justifiably terrifying, when in fact it’s not. One source for that was a now-infamous 1973 study that suggested people feared public speaking more than death, and such an idea has been perpetuated for years. Alongside that, many of us have developed an idea that the physical reaction we feel in stressful situations – the sweat, racing heart, knotted stomach – is an affliction we should avoid at all costs.

“It’s normal to get in front of people and feel something,” Groskop tells me. “A physical reaction is normal – if the sun is shining, you feel hot. So you don’t need to think that when you have a physical reaction in a pressured situation there is something wrong with you. You think, ‘my adrenaline is high because I’m in a stressful situation’. The trick is to take away the emotional stories you tell yourself off the back of that. Don’t tell yourself, ‘I feel a bit sick, I should never do any public speaking’. You need to learn not to be guided by it or think it means something special – it just means you have a pulse.”

With that in mind, I’ll try not to overreact the next time my tummy does a backflip before a stressful situation. But what else can I do? Preparation, says Groskop.

While actors, musicians and comedians take time to prepare for standing up in front of people, in normal life most of us do nothing of the kind, yet expect ourselves to perform confidently. “We expect this to appear out of nowhere and think ‘I should feel confident and if I don’t there’s something wrong with me’,” she says. “It’s fascinating to me that in modern life we have so many situations where we are expect to perform – presentations, YouTube, social media – and people feel like they have to be ‘on’ and ‘visible’. Yet they have no framework or training as to how to feel confident when they’re doing those things so they default to thinking ‘I won’t do that because it’s for confident people’.

Day-to-day situations can make Ellen squirm (Photo: Supplied)

Her advice is to take a moment – put your phone down, empty your mind of its “inner worry” and try to get to the “low pressure version of you”. Easy in a set-piece moment, but I’m not sure how I’ll fare when situations requiring confidence spring out of nowhere. But perhaps I’m caught up in an outdated idea of confidence, as Groskop thinks some of us still are.

When once it might have been about bluster or being the most impressive person in the room, Happy High Status is different. “This is the opposite of a Boris Johnson or Donald Trump kind of confidence,” she explains, pointing to figures like Greta Thunberg, Volodymyr Zelensky and Jacinda Ardern as examples, oozing calm, quiet confidence in their own way. “A lot of these ideas are about taking the focus off yourself and not thinking, ‘I want everyone to think I’m amazing’. It’s putting the focus on other people and thinking, ‘how can I make them feel at ease?’.”

Put that way, I start to get it. For so long, my “lack of confidence” has been about me. How I feel, physically and mentally, and an obsession with thinking I should feel differently. But perhaps everything I’ve worried about for so long is just part of being human, and being me, rather than some strange affliction. So from now on, I’m not gonna sweat it quite so much. I’m going to take a deep breath, channel the calmest, most relaxed version of me, and embrace my own Happy High Status.

Most Read By Subscribers