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7 persistent symptoms of low confidence in business

identify the 7 persistent symptoms of low confidence in business

Doubtful. Hesitant. Sheepish.

And stressed up to your eyeballs?

This is probably not the picture you had in mind when you first started your business.

Maybe your struggle has something to do with being an “imposter” – your skills aren’t hot enough to light the fire and keep your business bubbling away.

Maybe you chose the “wrong market”.

Maybe now was a “bad time” to get into this industry.

Maybe you just “don’t have what it takes”.

OR maybe this is all down to a lack of confidence, and this white-knuckle ride isn’t as out of your control as you think. Maybe we can fix this after all.

It sounds like we need to diagnose the problem if we can hope to nurse it back to health.

Here we’ll identify seven symptoms of low confidence that might be screwing up your success so that you can treat the root cause of your doubt, confusion, and stress, and save your business from a tragic prognosis.

Before you continue – it’s only fair to let you know that some of the links in this post may be affiliate or sponsored links, so if you click on them and sign up for their service, I could earn a small commission.

Death by humility

1. Doubting your abilities

Perhaps the most apparent way low confidence can wreak havoc on your chances of being successful is the tendency to undervalue your skills and experience. Rather than putting faith in ourselves, we tend to understate how valuable we are to someone who needs what we offer.

Of course, it’s generally good business sense to (slightly) underpromise and overdeliver, but if we can’t convince ourselves and others of our value, it rapidly translates into fewer work opportunities and fewer challenges that can help us develop. That’s a vicious cycle.

Perhaps we can earn a living this way for a while – but eventually, we’ll fall behind with neither the practice nor the momentum we need to believe in ourselves.

Quite simply, it’s a professional “death by humility”.

Take a chance on yourself and give yourself the opportunity to be right.

You set the value of your time

2. Undervaluing your time

Especially when we’re starting out, it can be hard to feel comfortable with putting a price on our value. As an employee, we’d fall into an hourly wage or salary range, but working for yourself (even as a lean startup) has overheads:

  • equipment and supplies
  • venues, travel fares & expenses, accommodation
  • subscription services and software
  • licences, insurance, professional fees
  • training and resources for professional development
  • sick pay (you’re not superman, sorry)
  • annual leave (yes, this is essential)
  • pension contributions

and then an allowance for marketing, sales, admin, accounting…

It all has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it? In the end, depending on the kind of work you do, your cost of sales, and how productive you are (quick reality-check: there really are limits), you might end up earning 25% of the “hourly rate” you’d charge a client – compared to all the hours you actually put in. Also, that’s… before tax. Never forget about tax.

You can’t “lifehack” the crap out of everything, no matter how many YouTube videos about productivity you eagerly consume, or how detailed your bullet journal is. Time is your most valuable resource, so even if you’re questioning the value of your skills, never question the value of your time. You ain’t getting those precious hours back.

If you don’t earn enough (and by enough, I mean enough for you to live and enough to reinvest in your business), your business will die a miserable death. Dead business = dead dream. Those don’t pay your electric bill, fill up your car, and you can’t even eat them; the indigestion would be a nightmare.

Dad jokes aside… don’t waste your own time, and don’t let other people waste your time, either. Time is the only truly finite resource at your disposal – trade and invest it with care.

Perfection is unattainable but quality isn't

3. Perfectionism

This wouldn’t be a business-related “danger, Will Robinson!” list without including perfectionism in the mix, would it? But I’ll keep it brief:

You already know what this looks like for you, but you might not know why you do it.

And it probably boils down to the unerring belief that this equation is absolute truth:

Criticism = failure.

It’s not, though, is it? We know this, on some logical level. We know something perfect can’t come from something flawed – and we, these walking, breathing, giggling piles of carbon, are flawed. We all are. The critic is as flawed as their target, and opinions are like farts: Get thee away from the most savage of them with all haste, and don’t look back.

It’s not wrong to hold yourself to a high standard – but have systems in place to maintain that standard, don’t nitpick. “High quality” and “perfect” are not the same thing. Stop confusing the two.

You wouldn’t threaten someone who worked for you with shame and mockery if they couldn’t consistently attain your idea of “perfection”, would you? That would be cruel! So don’t do it to yourself.

Sometimes you deserve a kinder boss than yourself. Have words.

An unclear message will leave potential buyers confused about what you do

4. Unclear message or lack of speciality

This one is perhaps the most underrated, but I see it everywhere, all the time, from all sorts of business owners.

If I asked you to summarise your business and its purpose in 10-20 words, could you?

Quite possibly.

Would they make sense to someone who’d never heard of your industry before?

Maybe not.

When I told my dad (who also ran his own trade business for two decades) “I still build websites, but I’m also moving into content creation”, he replied, “Oh, okay then.” No follow-up questions. No invitation to elaborate. I could’ve kept talking to him about it, but he’d already changed the subject. (Maybe he thinks I dance on Tiktok, I don’t know. I somewhat hope so, it’s been far too long since he was disappointed by my life choices, and I like to keep him on his toes.)

My point is that you need a clear summary because some people (even those who probably should) won’t ask us to elaborate. They’ll be actively curious for about 4 seconds, so we need to immediately knock their sensibly-priced, middle-of-Lidl socks off.

The problem with developing a clear, mic-drop message?

If we state the benefit of our products or service as a promise (e.g. “I help accountants double their leads with epic brand videography that proves they’re actually humans with a wicked sense of humour” – ok, that’s 22 words, but you get my point), you’re setting an expectation: Engage their potential clients with authenticity and double leads. (Although, depending on the quality of said accountant’s human-suit disguise, that might actually be impossible. In that case, you can only hope they drop devastating one-liners like Jimmy Carr.)

When you make a bold claim, you’re going to have to deliver (and ideally exceed) that expectation. But when you do make those claims and deliver on them, that’s when you’re on the path to becoming what Daniel Priestly would refer to as a “Key Person of Influence”. That’s when people enthusiastically mention your name in relation to The Thing You Do because they know what The Thing You Do is.

Of course, it’s still easier to mumble down at your shoes that you “make video content for B2B”. You can’t fail at that. Someone says “Make a video” and you do. But there’s no tangible benefit, no promise of its value to them, and the expectations are un-fuck-up-ably low. So low, in fact, that you’re far less likely to get asked to “Make a video” in the first place. And that’s a problem.

It’s very hard to sell without a clear message, and it’s very hard to craft a clear message for your business if you’re too comfortable with downplaying your potential for impact.

Make good promises. Keep them. Then make better promises, and keep those, too. This is how we level up.

Have an original opinion and share it

5. Not standing for anything

I might get some heat for this one, but I stand by it all the same:

Have a goddamn opinion on something. Anything. Please.

Information is cheap now. You can Google “how to build a website” and get over seven BILLION results. Seriously, I just checked. Anyone can do it, with enough time and patience. It’s all right there.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t make a how-to or tutorial, or share tips and tricks that you’ve learned from your experience (Hello! This whole blog is exactly that) but share pieces of yourself and your journey, too. Talk about the things you like – and the things you don’t, and why. Talk about both your accomplishments and bad experiences. Talk about why you think **the “hero image slider” is absolutely pants for “user experience”, and what you’d do instead (or whatever your industry equivalent is). Don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers: Mindful, respectful conversations still need a strong prompt to get them started.

People don’t hire me for my one-of-a-kind, visionary web design skills. They hire me because I say something and they think “Yep, I agree!” and want me on their team. We share a similar approach, and that helps us work from the same page. I’m not for everyone, everywhere, all of the time. If I were, I’d still be practically invisible in a sea of other web designers who don’t dare to make waves. Splash about a bit, eh?

You probably already have opinions (and if not you should go get some, they’re fantastic!) – but if you’re not sharing them, it’s probably because you’re afraid to upset people. If absolutely no one can disagree with what you say then you’re not standing for anything – and people can’t emotionally connect with that.

And if people don’t respect your opinion and don’t hire you? Working with them was going to be a crappy (and potentially a passion-destroying) experience for you both, anyway!

The right clients will admire your conviction, not your conformity.

Take calculated risks but know that the risk will never be zero

6. Risk-aversion

Risk aversion takes many forms:

  • Not setting meaningful goals to avoid disappointment if you don’t reach them
  • Not publishing content or introducing yourself for fear of criticism or ridicule
  • Not investing in marketing/advertising which could possibly see a negative ROI
  • Avoiding new opportunities, such as declining a public speaking engagement which would improve your credibility and visibility
  • Not trusting someone else enough to delegate, outsource to, or partner with
  • Avoiding longer commitments, such as leasing a premises, securing funding, or hiring staff

I’m not saying that all of your woes will be gone if you throw all caution to the wind. Business is, by and large, a game of clever risk-taking, and it’s certainly a game you can lose with quite spectacular and devastating results. But never taking any risks, or keeping them so small that they don’t create enough room for growth, can do just as much damage as taking the wrong risks.

Living is a series of choices – even when we’re not actively making choices. If we want to aim high, we have to get used to the idea that we might also fall. Likewise, sometimes inaction will drag us down just as fast.

The chance of screwing up will never be 0%, no matter what you do.

Don't let your clients take advantage of you

7. People-pleasing and lack of boundaries

Sometimes bad clients are born. They’re just out there, wandering around, with absolutely no idea how bad they are. These are the ones we can usually see coming. They’ll try to haggle, or they’ll want it done last Thursday, or they’ll call you on the weekend with outrageous requests like “Could you just…”.

That sort of thing.

And sometimes… they’re made. By us. Or at the very least, their tendency to be a shitty human is given free rein and we forget to close the gate properly. Suddenly, they’re on the loose!

I once had a client who made me want to quit my entire web design business. She was just one person, among dozens of absolutely wonderful and very happy clients.

We had endless meetings with no proper agenda (or she wandered so far from it that it was a lost cause), no scheduled end times because she’d always have “another thing” and keep circling back (and no bathroom breaks… yes, they were long enough to warrant bathroom breaks plural), and because it was so chaotic, I started to lose track of actionable tasks from one meeting to the next because the goalposts didn’t exist – there were merely two dusty farts where goalposts should’ve been.

The project dragged, we both tired of each other, and I honestly stopped holding us both to our deadlines because the thought of communicating with her made me feel sick and depressed. Working with her was literally making me ill.

But it didn’t start out that way. She was, until the very end, disgustingly and disturbingly lovely. (albeit in a cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, tittering “Dolores Umbridge” sort of way). It’s very difficult to draw a line with someone who’s smiling sweetly at you, telling you they’re excited to see the results from the 42nd round of amendments.

I felt like an ass, but I also know that I let her take advantage, slowly but surely, over many (looong) months. Pushing back further down the line was nearly impossible – and when I finally did, I looked like the unreasonable one.

Jordan B. Peterson (hang on, bear with me*), has a line in his book “12 Rules for Life” in relation to parenting – and while I don’t typically subscribe to his right-wing-pandering opinions, we can most definitely repurpose it for our uses:

“Don’t let your children clients do anything that makes you dislike them.”

Of course, this isn’t foolproof. Like children, our clients are autonomous and sometimes unpredictable. But we can certainly try.

Resentment makes for very poor relationships and destroys your inner peace. Don’t let it get that far – set the boundaries of a professional relationship early and, if necessary, remind them as often as required.

Your time, health, and sanity will depend on it.

* Sometimes you gotta read some shit you don’t fully agree with by people you don’t like, for the sake of “balance“.

You're not an imposter

A lack of confidence doesn’t make you an “imposter”

You can still be an absolute badass in your field and feel nervous about delivering it. You can still have incredible value to offer and choke when you try to share it. Fear doesn’t mean you’re “less than”, it just means that, well, you’re afraid.

This feeling of a “failure to thrive” in your business isn’t because you don’t deserve to succeed or because you don’t have the necessary skill or motivation – it’s because your low confidence is sabotaging your best efforts along the way.

What’s next?

I’m excited to share more useful content about growing your confidence in business as I also learn more, and I hope it’ll help you get the most out of your business – and your life.

You might find other articles helpful, such as 4 non-confrontational ways to get your overdue invoices paid and Are you a shy freelancer? and you can receive exclusive ideas, experiences, and encouragement on a weekly basis by signing up here.

I’d love for you to join me on this journey!

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