The Search for Confidence

By Susan Miles

Back in May, an article appeared in the Atlantic (“The Confidence Gap”), in which the authors, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, opine that “women’s acute lack of confidence” is a primary cause of women’s “failure to break the glass ceiling.” Whether you agree with this statement or not, it is a starting point for a discussion on how we as lawyers deal with stressful situations, both in the courtroom and in daily life.

  • Several personal reflections about the caprices of self-confidence form the basis of my opinions on the subject.
    First, a list of do’s and don’ts about behavioral idiosyncrasies is not helpful to remedying the root cause of a lack of self-confidence. Having more things to stress about is not the answer;
  • Second, as a veteran of many of my own moments of flagging self-confidence in the courtroom, both before and after I took the bench, my comments are based on equal parts personal experience and courtroom observation of others; and
  • Third, everyone experiences a lack of self-confidence from time to time. Each of us suffers her unique, but predictable moments, often arising from personal experience dating back to childhood. All of us are susceptible as well to random instances of waning confidence that seem to come out of nowhere.

Effectively dealing with these spasms of perceived inadequacy involves recognition of the cause, a deliberate pause, and a conscious response rather than a visceral reaction to the stressor. While not an instant panacea, with practice this approach to addressing self-confidence, and life in general, can make a huge impact on your sense of self-worth.

Appearances of lack of self-confidence take many forms. In my own case it typically arises as a hesitancy to speak up when necessary. Still vivid in my memory is a hearing on a post-trial motion I argued in a civil case many years ago. I, as the second-chair associate, filled the shoes of the sacrificial lamb sent to argue the motion for a new trial, always an uphill battle. The kindly judge peered down at me and asked one of those questions which begged for a “yes, but” answer. Unfortunately, I stopped at “yes” and then, polite young thing that I was, waited for the follow-up question, which never came. In hindsight, I knew my argument was weak and did not care to walk into the abyss of certain criticism. Overcoming such moments of timidity has been a lifelong battle.

If you have read this far, then something about this article resonates with you. Perhaps you have come to recognize that you experience professional situations in which you predictably suffer discomfort. If so, ask yourself honestly what you do (or don’t do) when you find your back against the wall and are uncertain how to proceed. Typical signs of both under- and over-confidence which I see in the courtroom regularly include: staring down at papers while speaking, failure to maintain eye contact, arguments that are pleadings “wired for sound,” mumbling, nervously talking too fast, shaky hands and/or quivering voice, and unwarranted aggressiveness usually in the form of loud and/or bullying behavior. If you feel you are unable to objectively identify whether or not your behavior give you away, then bring a helpful mentor or friend to court with you, or even ask the judge for feedback. Similarly, if you are anticipating a future hearing in which you know you will feel uncomfortable, there is no shame at all in asking your colleagues to critique a dry run of your argument. Many of us, however, would rather suffer in silence than make such a request for help. Once you overcome those initial feelings of worthlessness and embarrassment and make the request, you will find help is just around the corner.

Ameliorating nervous habits and practicing your arguments is a good first step toward remedying the outward signs of flagging self-confidence. Assuming, however, that you prefer not to continue suffering in silence, read on. With a little effort and some practice, you can adopt a long-term strategy to reshape your self-perception and develop a new state of being.

The first step in this journey is to identify the cause(s) of your feelings of nervousness, fear, worthlessness, or anxiety which underlie your lack of self-confidence. This process of self-examination begins in the body, not the head. For example, imagine a scenario which typically arouses feelings of fear or anxiety. Ponder it for a few moments. Notice what, if anything, is taking place in your body. Are your palms sweaty? Is your heart racing or your stomach clenched? Are you breathing more quickly and less deeply than normal? If so, notice that feeling and see if it is connected with a particular emotion arising contemporaneously. Is it an emotion connected with a bodily sensation that you recognize as occurring regularly? What triggers it? The answers to these questions may not be readily apparent, but the process of paying attention to your bodily sensations over time should eventually lead you to some plausible answers.

Once you recognize that a bodily sensation is occurring in reaction to a stressful situation, you are ready for the next step, whether or not you recognize the exact emotion that you are experiencing and why it is occurring. That next step is to pause for a moment and breathe deeply. Even one breath will help; if you have time for more, then take advantage of it. The critical pause could take place during a conversation when you feel driven to interrupt someone or give an unskillful remark, it could occur as you reach up to pull open a door leading to the scene of potential discomfort, or it could even happen before you turn on the ignition heading off to an important appointment. Pausing and scanning for body sensations creates an opportunity to de-escalate the state of stress in your mind. If unrecognized and unchecked, that state of stress might lead to spontaneous unwelcome reactions, including the list of unwanted behaviors appearing earlier in this article. This brief respite and deep breath enable you to recognize your thoughts, identify your emotions, and mindfully consider a response or an adjustment in attitude. This technique is so effective that I often use it during a heated trial or hearing, by “freezing the scene,” going off the record, inviting people, including jurors, to stand, stretch, and breathe deeply. Everyone, including myself, benefits, whether or not they are actively looking for body sensations and emotions.

Your pause is the re-set button. Having taken the time to consider your emotions, whether they be fear, anxiety, a sense of worthlessness (which almost always accompanies the feeling that you are not adequately prepared), or anger, to name a few, then you might think, “oh, that is anxiety.” Recognizing the fact that you were about to act in reaction to your anxiety, consider what your other options are and see if, acting out of a sense of calm and confidence, you could respond to the situation on its own merits. No doubt you will feel much better about yourself and your response if you consistently take this approach.

With practice, this process of pausing, self-evaluating, and fine-tuning your response can take place in the course of a single breath. I do not pretend that it can be learned just by reading a short essay. Instead, my objective has been to promote awareness that you have the power to break the cycle of suffering, with its attendant unwanted and unskillful behavior, and begin a journey towards greater satisfaction with your work and life.


Judge Susan R. Miles has been a 10th District Court Judge chambered in Washington County since being elected to an open seat in 1996. She is a past president of Minnesota Women Lawyers and the Minnesota District Judges Association and is an assistant instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.