What Is the Confidence Gap? (+3 Ways to Bridge It)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Confidence Gap" by Russ Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the confidence gap? Why do you have negative thoughts? How can you learn to overcome low confidence?

Psychotherapist Russ Harris says living in the confidence gap means feeling blocked from achieving your life goals because you lack confidence. He believes you can get beyond this gap by learning how to relate to your negative thoughts differently, instead of letting them dictate your actions.

Read on to learn what the confidence gap is and how to overcome it, according to Russ Harris.

What Is the Confidence Gap?

In The Confidence Gap, psychotherapist Russ Harris provides an approach to dealing effectively with the negative, limiting thoughts and fears that prevent you from achieving your goals. Rather than trying to speak to, tamp down, or ignore negative thoughts—all ineffective methods—Harris recommends you relate differently to your thoughts. This will allow you to pursue your goals without your thoughts interfering with your efforts. So, what is the confidence gap and how do you know if you’re living in this gap?

According to Harris, the confidence gap is the misconception that you can only live your life in a rich and fulfilling way—doing the activities, meeting the people, and gaining the skills that matter to you—once you become confident

For instance, you might want to try stand-up comedy but believe you can’t sign up for an open mic night until you feel confident about your abilities. 

(Shortform note: In You Are a Badass, Jen Sincero contends that the reason people don’t go for the things they want is that their egos, which feel undeserving of success and happiness, prevent them from doing so. Sincero would likely echo Harris by saying that you can’t wait around for your ego to develop confidence and self-love before you pursue your goals.)

How Can You Overcome It?

Now that you know that you can build confidence by relating differently to your thoughts and fears, let’s look at what you can do to overcome the confidence gap by relating to your thoughts and fears differently. According to Harris, you can do this in three ways.

#1: Detach From Negative Thoughts

Detaching (what Harris calls “defusing”) is the process of seeing the thought not as an objective truth but rather as merely a string of words with no foundation in reality. 

(Shortform note: It might help you see your thoughts as merely fleeting concepts if you conceive of them as the product of your power-hungry ego, as Eckhart Tolle advises in A New Earth. He claims that all humans possess an ego that’s afraid of being “less than.” To prove itself superior to other humans, the ego creates thoughts that help define itself.)

To start working on overcoming the confidence gap, you can practice detaching from your thoughts in three steps, writes Harris:

Step 1: Recognize the negative thought: Recognize when you’re having a negative thought by familiarizing yourself with four common types:

  • Barriers: Your mind highlights the obstacles that stand between you and your goal.
  • Self-judgments: Your mind creates critical judgments about you. 
  • Comparisons: Your mind compares you unfavorably to others. 
  • Predictions: Your mind predicts overwhelmingly negative outcomes. 
Other Negative Thoughts About the World in General

In explaining what the confidence gap is, Harris lists common negative thoughts you might have about yourself, but there are other common negative thought patterns you might have about how the world works in general. It’s worth familiarizing yourself and recognizing these when you have them so you can detach from them, as well. 

For instance, many people think dichotomously, believing there’s either a good way of doing something, or a bad way—there’s no gray area in between. This might lead you to reject a friendship because the other person has objectionable political leanings, and you can’t conceive of having a friend you don’t agree on everything with. It’s likely that the above thoughts Harris mentions and your general negative thoughts about the world feed into each other. For instance, you might apply dichotomous thinking to yourself and judge yourself harshly when you don’t do something “the right way.”

Step 2: Label the thought: Once you’ve recognized what type of negative thought you’re having, label it in your mind, says Harris. This might be “expecting the worst,” or “afraid of failing.” You might also assign a (humorous, if possible) name to common negative thoughts: Perhaps you could call your fear of failure “the scaredy-cat” and say to yourself: “The scaredy-cat is here.”

(Shortform note: If you’re new to labeling or don’t feel in tune with your common negative thoughts, it might be worth asking people you’re close to what sort of negative thoughts they often hear you vocalize. For instance, if they frequently hear you say, “I’m sure to do badly on this exam,” you’ll know you often make negative predictions. You can then better label that thought when it arises.)

Step 3: Detach from the thought: Now that you’ve labeled the negative thought, you can detach from it. To do this, first state the thought “out loud” in your mind. This might be: “I’ll fail at this anyway, so there’s no point in trying.” Then, visualize those words and mentally modify their appearance: You can change the font, size, color, or visualize them as graffiti, a label on food packaging, or as titles in a film. 

(Shortform note: Visualizing words isn’t just useful for bridging the confidence gap and detaching from thoughts: It’s also used as a memorization device. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer recommends memorizing poetry by visualizing words, so you create a line of images. It’s easiest when you choose images of things that sound like or rhyme with the word. For instance, you could swap “here” for an image of an ear.)

#2: Make Room for Your Fear 

When trying to bridge the confidence gap by taking on a new challenge, you’ll often experience the thoughts and feelings of fear. Harris writes you can deal with fear by making mental room for it (a step he calls “expansion”). 

Instead of trying to push away your fear (a tempting response for everyone because no one likes the discomfort of fear), let it exist. Doing this draws power away from the fear, allowing you to pursue your goals with your fear present but not impacting you. What’s more, allowing the fear to exist lets you harness its energy to better pursue your goals. 

(Shortform note: Harris writes that you’ll often feel fear when you pursue important goals. In The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone takes this idea even further, saying that feeling fear indicates that you’re taking the right steps in life. This is because you feel fear when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, which is almost always necessary to accomplish big goals. Cardone doesn’t offer thoughts on how to make mental room for fear, but he does recommend using fear to positively guide your actions. He explains that when you take actions that scare you, you gain confidence from having overcome a fear. Doing this consistently helps build long-term confidence and an exciting life—the goal Harris wants you to achieve, as well.)

#3: Be Present in What You’re Doing

You’ve now detached from your thoughts and made room for your fear so that you can complete the tasks you want to without letting those thoughts and fears dictate your actions. The next part of bridging the confidence gap is to be more present in the task you’re doing (the task that moves you closer to your goals). This will allow you to become better at it, writes Harris. 

For Harris, being present consists of paying attention to what’s happening in your mind and around you, being open to learning about what’s happening, being curious about how it’s happening, and flexibly adapting your attention to the situation by broadening or narrowing it, depending on what’s most helpful to you in the moment. 

(Shortform note: Harris advocates being present primarily when pursuing goals. However, the Dalai Lama feels you should be present at all times (or at least as often as possible). This is because the ability to be present is the foundation for leading a spiritually fulfilled life, in which you act on spiritual teachings on a daily basis. For the Dalai Lama, being present consists of having a calm mind that lets you see clearly and without the filters of thoughts and feelings what is happening around you. In practice, this is similar to Harris’s definition of being present, except that Harris adds the step of adapting your attention based on what best serves you now. He likely has this step because he focuses on being present when pursuing a specific aim.)

Let’s see what being present might look like if you’re about to perform a stand-up set: First, you’d pay attention to the thoughts running through your head, how your body feels being on stage, and how the audience is reacting. Then, you’d be open to recognizing negative thoughts, noticing that your palms are sweaty and that the back row is disengaged. 

You’d next be curious about why these things might be the case. You could note that your mind sends out negative thoughts when you’re performing and that perhaps the reason the back rows aren’t laughing is that you’re not loud enough. Finally, you’d adapt your attention to focus on what’s most likely to let you succeed on stage: You’d detach from the negative thoughts, stop thinking about the back rows, and simply focus on the laughing front row. When you later rehearse your set, you can act on your discovery that you might not be loud enough and practice projecting. 

What Is the Confidence Gap? (+3 Ways to Bridge It)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Russ Harris's "The Confidence Gap" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Confidence Gap summary:

  • How negative, limiting thoughts and fears prevent you from achieving your goals
  • Why trying to ignore negative thoughts doesn't work
  • The three steps to detach yourself from your negative thoughts

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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