This is not the time for great activities, for testing, for checking, for comparison with others. This is the moment for self-understanding. And for employers to be understanding of their employees.
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Kasia Malinowska – a certified coach, she has been working with women on their confidence for seven years

Monika Tutak-Goll: Do we now have a social problem with self-confidence? 

Kasia Malinowska: A huge one. I observe this mainly among women.

What do those who have come to you in recent months commonly say?

That there's huge chaos, everywhere: at home, with children, at work. That they can't cope with it and have had enough, because it clips their wings. That they feel fear, uncertainty, that they're angry with themselves because they're no longer as productive as four months ago, they work slower, they are more tired, everything distracts them, their concentration is much lower, they forget many things, they miss more.  That even when they enter a shop and choose a book or something as trivial as shampoo, when they leave, they begin to analyse whether they should have chosen something else. Many of us now tend to ponder over our decisions: “you should have done it differently”. We have become very insecure in these times.

And what do you tell them?

I advise them to leave it. At that moment you chose as you could. And that's good. You made the best decision for that moment. I advise them not to go through life with remorse and guilt, because they greatly affect our confidence.

I also say that chaos in their lives is a natural thing. That they should give themselves the right to such emotions. We were and still are in an extremely difficult situation. Never before, as a society, have we experienced such a thing. The number of variables that have cropped up in a very short time was mind-boggling. Suddenly the form of work changed, some of us lost our jobs, our children began to study remotely, education fell largely on us as parents, we started questioning whether this work we do online is fine, whether we do it well, as we don't have any benchmarks, we haven't done anything like this yet.

There was a lot of fear, we felt lost. We have been in a state of chaos for several months. And we don't know what will happen next.

Has this chaos caused a lack of confidence especially in women?

Yes, unfortunately. I have been working with women on self-confidence for seven years and I must say that the pandemic has undermined women's self-esteem much more. According to research by the "Sukces Pisany Szminką" Foundation (Success Written with a Lipstick), 36 percent of women declare a complete lack of self-confidence, which hinders their development in professional life. During the pandemic it's increased a lot, there is no research on this topic yet, but I can see the difference even among my clients. We already know that 12% of women lost their jobs and 10% are still uncertain whether they'll be able to keep theirs. Life will turn upside down for many of them.

I know many women whose wings were clipped by the pandemic: some have lost their projects, some their jobs, others have taken care allowance, but all the time they have worried about what will happen when they return to work. I also know people who find it difficult to work remotely, because they don't know what their boss thinks, they don't see their reaction and in emails it is very easy to leave something unsaid or unclear. And because of this they began to feel insecure.

Did the boss write a dry email? We're start to wonder what she meant. We are much more sensitive to various stimuli. Sometimes we read these stimuli much more intensely than we would read them in a normal situation. Maybe we would normally turn a deaf ear to some remarks? And now we are pondering on them.

This situation shows one important thing: in my work on self-confidence I often stress that it flows from us, from within. Meanwhile, many women, and many men, make their self-confidence dependent on what's around them. On the opinions of others, on many factors.

For instance?

On their professional position. It is often the case that we feel confident when we hold high positions, when the professional status builds us up.

And if we earn good money at the same time – it must be great.

And there are many external factors on which we can build our self-confidence. The only danger lies in the fact that if for some reason they disappear, e.g. our financial status changes and our known, safe life turns upside down, then our sense of confidence automatically begins to fall. Because it was embedded in what was outside.

According to research, opinions of other people are very important to Polish women. Maybe that's why we are extremely demanding, strict and we set the bar very high for ourselves, whatever we do. While introducing changes in professional life, 60% of us are guided by the opinion of others.

An internal study conducted at Hewlett Pacard showed that women only applied for a promotion in a situation where they assessed their competences, skills and experience at 100%. Only then! And men – can you guess?

Usually, when they ask for a raise or a job, they ask for more than women in the same positions, so I guess there will be a similar mechanism here.

Men applied for a promotion when they rated their competences at 60%. It also shows that we, Polish women, are stuck in perfectionism. We believe that we are ready, e.g. for a promotion, as long as we do everything perfectly.

Perfectionism is a women's curse, because it makes us set the bar very high. Sometimes so high that we are unable to reach it.

Why is that?

There are many reasons. Starting from the most common ones: quite demanding and harsh environment in which we grew up, in which we might have been assessed from an early age, a lot was demanded from us and we have learned that we deserve someone's attention only when we bring good results from school? And we transfer this mechanism to adult life. Then we need to prove this perfection in every field, just to be appreciated and noticed.

It's very often the case that perfectionists, perceived as successful, don't feel that way at all. They are constantly chasing something, they still have to prove something to themselves. And if we don't feel good about ourselves in one way or another, we're constantly trying to confirm our value by gaining splendour.

The pandemic has shown one important thing: this is not the time to be perfect. Talking about professional life that had to be moved online very quickly: many people needed to develop certain skills within a couple or a dozen days, whereas under normal conditions it would take several months.  That's why I think the pandemic can be a lesson in curing ourselves of perfectionism. This is not the time for refining activities to perfection, for testing, for checking.

This is not the time for comparisons either. Look, there are many teachers working in schools for whom adapting to remote work was time-consuming and difficult.

They could feel insecure, compare themselves to those who work quickly online, they could even feel threatened.

It should really resound: this is not the time for checking and evaluating employees. We have different teams and they're made up of people who react differently to this change. Mental resilience is one of the factors that affect how we will respond to change in life. Those who have greater resilience will find themselves in a new situation faster. But other people need more time and comfort, not rushing, because it serves nothing.

I wonder how many employers think this way.

I hope that there are some because this is the time for understanding; towards myself, towards an employee or towards a friend. This is the time for acting together, working together, helping ourselves, not for racing and getting angry, especially at ourselves, about the fact that someone can do it already and it is harder for me, I need more time.

In these situations, you immediately hear the voices that say: “I'm not fit for this”, “they will soon discover that I can't do it”, “I can't do it”, this impostor is triggered – “I am here and I should not, they will soon realise that I have no competence, it is one big scam”.

It's worth repeating to yourself: I do everything I can at the moment, I do as I can. I will not stand behind myself with a whip and rush: faster, more, because it does not lead to anything. I try to manage, but if there are days when I do worse, that's fine too, because it's an extreme situation and we don't have patterns to refer to: right, three years ago we experienced the same thing, let's see what worked then? Fortunately, we don't have such experiences, but on the other hand, if we had, maybe it would be easier for us to find ourselves in this situation.

You have to take care of yourself. Remember that even when we compare ourselves to another person, we really only see what the other person wants to show us. We never see the whole picture, we always compare ourselves with some fragment.

We often compare ourselves to others without considering many things. For example, when we're at the beginning of our career and we compare ourselves with someone who has been working in this company for 10 or 15 years. Or when we open our own company, we're at the beginning of a business adventure and we compare the results of our company with another, which has been on the market for seven or eight years. Or we compare ourselves to others in everyday matters because she manages home, work and school of her children so well. But we often don't really know what the person we compare ourselves with feels.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I compared myself to a friend who would start work early in the morning, whereas I couldn't get to work until I put the apartment in order and cleaned everything around. I envied her that she was able to organise everything perfectly and I put dishes in the dishwasher despite the fact that I could ask the rest of the household members to do that instead of doing it myself.

Because the sense of control and agency strengthens our confidence, if there are so many uncertainties in this professional life that I cannot control, then we find small spaces in which this agency can be fulfilled. What can be managed gives strength. I always talk about asking yourself: what do I have real influence on today? What can I decide? What can I do? Where can I influence? This example of putting your space in order is a substitute for regaining a sense of agency and control. This is what gives us a sense of security. When we don't have it, we need to build it on a completely different pillar.

How do we do that?

First of all, slowly. Let's go back to the situation we have been experiencing since March, we must remember that this change that has fallen to us will evoke various emotions, because there are different stages of going through this change: we will rebel, get used to it, look for our place, adapt. You have to give yourself time. It's good to analyse the situation. What happened? What changed? Where am I? – in professional and private life. A good method is to ask yourself questions, which will be a signpost to lead us through the upcoming activities. If we go back to the professional situation, as we started working from home and it was not or is not an easy experience, especially being lumbered with children, it's worth considering: what do I influence? What can I do differently? How can I help myself so that this professional life can go on? It is very important to be aware of the various emotions that have the right to appear: anxiety, uncertainty, anger. They can be completely new to us.

Now I sometimes hear from women that they are tired of their own children. That they hadn't experienced it before but they were with them around the clock for three months during the pandemic and they are overwhelmed. But they say it secretly, quietly, they are ashamed.

People don't talk about it, it's the biggest taboo. But you can't live non-stop with two or three other people under one roof without tensions, stress or conflicts between children. Such situations give rise to great uncertainty. The question: “Am I a good mother?” arise immediately. We touch the myth of a perfect mother – because there is a conviction that a mother is a human being who must have more understanding, patience and strength, who can arrange anything, who will overcome everything, who is full of energy. But, in reality, it's not quite so.

But I think that during this pandemic these emotions can show us a lot, because there is always some information behind them: what am I angry about? Maybe I'm angry at myself because I took on more than I could handle and I can't do this anymore? Maybe I'm just tired. And give myself the right to this fatigue, I have the right to be tired of my children, I have the right to be tired of my family, I have the right to be tired of the obligations arising from being a mother, which does not mean that I do not love my children or my family – one does not exclude the other. A common misconception is that if we love our children, we shouldn't be tired of them.

Before the pandemic, we had time to rest from each other, to miss each other. And now we are constantly together.

Children were at school, we were at work and this time together was so longed for, because we had a deficit, whereas now we suddenly have it in excess. And it turns out that this is not the best way to be. Earlier we used to say: if we had so much time together, we would do all these different things! And now we're tired of each other. We have no space to let off steam, to change the environment. It all affects our self-esteem.

When I work with clients on their self-confidence, we first need to identify the affected area: in what situations and in what relationships I need to strengthen my self-confidence. Because it's not that we're confident 24 hours a day in any situation. I often work with women who hold leadership positions and in their professional life are perceived as resilient, tough people, virtually no one would suspect them of lacking confidence. However, it is self-confidence that results from the professional role they have entered into. And they are really confident in it. But not necessarily in private life.

And what does such work on self-confidence look like?

Very often those clients who reach out to me know when they lack confidence. The next step is to clarify what we mean by a sense of confidence in this particular area. A woman should see herself in this vision of accomplishment – what is to change when I am self-assured, what is going to happen? How should I change? What will I be able to do? What dare I do? Once we have diagnosed this area, self-confidence is built through action. For example, if the area for improvement is public speaking, as many women find taking centre stage extremely difficult, there is no other way than to take centre stage. Slowly, step by step, at first for a time, then for longer. Confidence is the effect after and not before. To become confident in some action, you need to start performing it.

A common misconception is that parents have the greatest impact on our confidence. If this were true, in families with several children, the level of confidence should be the same, because every child is raised by the same parents, in the same conditions, the same environment and the same values. And yet it is not so, one child is more confident and the other less so. Many factors affect this. If we feel that we lack confidence, we are able to strengthen it because it displays certain plasticity. I will give a trivial example: when I go with my daughter for ice cream, I know what flavours I will buy for myself and for her. This knowledge stems from the fact that we have tried different things, and know what we like and what we don't. And it is similar with confidence, it grows when we get to know ourselves; When we know what we're good at and what we're weaker at.

What has a big impact on our confidence?

It is extremely important how we perceive and what we think of ourselves. Are we supportive or critical? As we work on confidence, it's worth becoming the best friend of ourselves, who in good times will pat us on the shoulder and in bad times will hug us and say: “Don't worry, it'll go better next time.” This understanding towards yourself helps you not to be discouraged. Confident people can recover from failures much faster, they don't take them personally. Confidence is like a protective umbrella that we have above us. It's not like life, difficulties don't affect us, they do, but thanks to this umbrella, they don't hit us so hard, they stop at a safe distance. A confident person will be able to reason like this: “OK, I lost my job now, but I lost it as a result of the pandemic”, whereas an insecure person will think: “I lost this job because I wasn't good enough, because I was too weak, I wasn't needed”, they will take it personally. Confident people won't take external phenomena personally.

You say that confidence is like energy, you can renew it, you just need to know how.

Self-confidence has the ability to regenerate, but in the face of difficult events, it is constantly being consumed, it decreases.

You need to find areas where you have real influence instead of focusing on what is uncertain. Constantly wondering what will happen in September or in the autumn doesn't help.

Easier said than done!

But it really can be done. The second thing is self-awareness. It's good to think of what I can do that will allow me to get through this difficult time. I observe among my clients that many of them take up different activities: someone paints, someone writes, someone sews masks, because thanks to this they feel needed and they want to help. I have no doubt that after this time many of us will feel the need to make changes in our professional and private lives. This time has verified many things.

My coaching work was carried out in 99% offline, in the training room. Now I have completely moved my activities to the Internet and I realised how much time I gain for myself thanks to remote work.

Many people will also verify their relationships.

When we were separated from different people, we saw whom we miss less, whom more and maybe it was a relief that we don't have to meet someone.

We will also verify relationships with our own body, see how many people have exercised during the pandemic. It turned out that sport gave them joy, some of them could dance or jump these emotions out like children. Our body is very clever, sport lowers our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. And we have been under permanent stress since mid-March. If we are attentive, we read these signals, that we need to decrease this stress hormone and at the same time we need endorphins to have the energy to deal with this difficult situation. My parents who are over 70 do regular bike trips. They've never ridden as much as now. Sport is a way of building confidence too. Our well-known agenda fell apart, the days were structured by various school or private obligations and suddenly it all disappeared. Organising these sports activities for yourself is also a form of giving a new rhythm to everyday life, introducing routine that allows you to regain a sense of control and agency. Routine, on the one hand, we don't like it, but in times of uncertainty it is very useful because it calms us down. We feel that we have regained control over our daily rhythm.

Are there people who feel better in this new reality and – however strange it sounds – might not want to come back to life they had before?

When we discover that something that we weren't willing to do begins to work, such as remote work, and we even start to see some benefits, there might be people who will choose to keep things this way. Because it will support them, strengthen them and give them a sense of self-satisfaction, that I am doing better, maybe not perfectly, but well enough.

How much time does it take to strengthen self-confidence at all?

This is not a hairdresser's makeover, we need time. Everyone gets self-confidence at their own pace.

It depends on how you are doing. There are women who would like to be confident, but at the same time they're afraid that if they start to set limits and reach for what is theirs, people might not like and accept them anymore, and even worse, they might be accused of selfishness, they might be rejected, they might be told that they had some cheek, that they were cocky. The same attitude in men is positively received. They can negotiate their earnings hard, whereas women are afraid that they will be considered demanding. But the more confident we are, the easier it is for us to value and appreciate our work. We become more satisfied with ourselves, which affects our private and professional life. That is why it's worth starting this work on yourself. If I feel better with myself, I will have better relationships with my loved ones, I will be less afraid, I will manage better in new situations.

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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