“I think I can, I think I can” is only part of the story

I think I can, I think I can” is only part of the story, or

The Story of Self Confidence, Part 1
by Erica Kleinknecht, PhD (2012)

Oh, that little engine. What a spunky go-getter. Isn’t this story inspirational? “Yes! …,” I think to myself as I picture that cute little tank with the colorful clown and toys hanging off the sides of the cargo car, but then I sigh and continue on: “…if only it really worked that way. We would all be super successful, right?!” The pathway to success certainly is paved, in part, with such wishful thinking. But where does that confidence come from? This is the part of the story not-often told — where confidence comes from. Turns out I can’t just create an “I think I can, I think I can” mantra and expect all good things to follow. It’s not the simple. But it is not terribly complex either, there is just more to the story.

The rest of the story: how is confidence created?

Confidence manifests as a mind-set that motivates you, but the mindset comes as much from outside your mind as it does from inside. The concept is called a “reciprocal relationship” of causation. This means that my mindset (and yours too) is caused by the constant “action-reaction” pattern of interactions that occur between me and everyone I interact with:

  • I do something (I post an essay) & reactions follow (“Oh joy! A reader hit the “like” button!” Or, “Sigh, no comments, no “likes””…indeed, “no comment” is a reaction too)
  • I think about the reaction (“Someone liked it, I did something right!” or “No response, I did something terribly wrong…”).
  • The interpretation I settle on guides my next move (“like” leads me to do more of the same; “No comments” leads me to change something, and so on).

This cycle plays out all day long, every-day, for all things I do. Some reactions, for some behaviors, are clearly positive, some are hard to make heads or tails of, and some are clearly negative. That’s life.

Self-confidence comes from this complicated amalgamation of thoughts about me-in-relation-to-the world. If the better part of the reactions I receive are easy to interpret as positive, my overall sense of confidence is smilie-face-positive. If the better part of the reactions I receive are easy to interpret as negative, my overall sense of confidence is depressingly poor. If the reactions I receive are ambiguous, my confidence becomes really insecure and volatile. In short, confidence is both “complicated” (it reflects “action-reaction” cycles from all aspects of your life) and “simple” (it reflects “action-reaction” cycles from actual instances of behavior that you exert). When the action-reaction cycle is understood, the cycle can be changed because you control your actions and your interpretations of how others respond to you. Cool, huh.

How to change your confidence: What not to do

Before writing this post, I did a quick “google-search” to see what others are writing about, regarding self-confidence. The first five “hits” I read decidedly missed the mark. The “tips” noted (dress well, go to the gym, smile & make eye contact, meet new people, branch out, think positively, be nice to others) might work, but such advice could easily backfire. They could easily backfire because without an awareness of why these things might work, you could easily receive negative responses to your efforts that will add negativity, not positivity, to your confidence. Let’s think about how some of these suggestions could backfire:

  •  “Branch out & meet new people.” You take this advice to heart, and go to a party – imagine a gallery walk or art opening – where you know next to no one. You walk up to a group of folks, drink or appetizer in hand, and start talking to them. They stare at you, glance at each other, awkwardly smile, and then ignore you. Yikes. That is clearly a negative response. Surely a confidence killer.
  •  “Smile and make eye-contact.” You take this advice to heart, and decide to do it all day long. You walk down the street smiling and looking right into the eyes of every stranger you can find. Some shyly smile, some frown and walk faster to get away from you, some hold on a little tighter to their children, some put their dog in between you and them, and some don’t even acknowledge you at all. Clearly ambiguous – a definite recipe for insecurity.
  • Dress well.” You take this advice to heart and buy some new clothes. You get up extra early for work, primp and prep, and don your new attire. You get to work on time and get busy. Best case scenario: someone notices that you look different and they smile or comment. Worst case scenario, no one notices. Ambiguous scenario: the quality and appropriateness of your new attire is a topic of conversation at the water cooler – some like it, some don’t. What good did that do you, in the end? (Admittedly, if your typical attire is in shambles, then this advice matters more than if you your clothes are fine, but just not brand-spanking new).

If all this advice is vacuous, then what’s a girl to do? Based on the idea of “action-reaction” cycles, my advice has little to do with surfacy-things like clothes, smiles, and a work out at the gym and much more to do with being mindful of yourself as a member of an interactive community.

How to change your confidence: What TO do.

I’ll repeat myself: think of yourself as a member of an interactive community. That means you need to consider BOTH sides of the equation: your behavior, and the behavior of others. The cycle that builds confidence can’t happen if you isolate yourself from an opportunity to receive positive responses from others – it takes two to tango, after all. Confidence stems from what’s in your head AND from what is in the head (and out the mouth) of those around you. In “trade-talk” we call this “social cognition.” Social experience is needed for the cognition (re: thinking) to occur.

  • Step 1: Surround yourself with folks who respond to you in honest, kind and sincere ways. Trust them. Its not the quantity per se that matters though, but rather the quality. Interactions with some good quality companions and/or colleagues sets the stage for a positive action-reaction cycle to take place.
  •  Step 2: Think before you act. Be mindful of what you say and do. Say things that are honest, but that are also likely to yield a positive response. There is nothing wrong with being planful about how you can get a positive reaction from others. Those positive reactions are what you need to boost your confidence.
  • Step 3: Learn from your set-backs. When you don’t receive a positive response, change something. Use self-control, reflect on the situation and don’t repeat it. Own up to your mistakes (don’t blame others) and make changes. Remember that confidence is not a fixed trait; it is a mindset that changes as your experiences change.
  • Step 4: Have patience with the process. Confidence isn’t shaped and changed in an instance. It is slow to build, morph, and change. Experiences build up and coalesce. If you suffer from poor self-confidence, give yourself time to change and allow yourself the opportunity to gradually improve. Focus on immediate, short term goals and let the process run its course.

If, as you think these suggestions over and decide to go ahead and try to effect some positive change in your approach to life, then a little “I think I can, I think I can” can be added into the equation. Positive cheer leading doesn’t hurt, after all. But that little red engine is only part of the confidence story. The rest of the story will be written together by you and your community.

Up next: Creating a “can-do” attitude towards school and homework

In Part Two of the self-confidence story, I write about the self confidence in scholastic settings by discussing what parents and teachers can do to help their children and students’ gain positive self confidence in their school work.


  1. Great intro. I like the headings and bullet format. Information excellent although I would like a specific example of applying the steps you recommend, a visual representation that stimulates “how this works.” The information at the end really makes me want to read your next article.

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