Updated: Jun 21, 2021
Confidence issues can really hold you back when you decide to return to work. Doubts creep in around identity, out-of-date professional skills and qualifications, and how people will perceive you after your career break. Here's how to build your confidence after an employment gap
Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert
Whether you want to get a job, become a freelancer or launch a business, putting yourself out there and asking people to hire you or buy from you understandably makes you feel vulnerable and exposed. But if this sounds like you, you are talking yourself down. You still have all the capabilities and experience you had before you had children. In fact you’ve added to them!
"You still have all the capabilities and experience you had before you had children. In fact you’ve added to them!"
If you succumb to negative thoughts it will have an influence on how ambitious you are for yourself and how you present yourself to others. Read on to find your mojo and build the confidence you need to go boldly forward.
Know your Strengths
It’s so easy to undervalue what your talents are when you are not using them. You start to doubt them – or even forget about them altogether! This leaves a vacuum that’s quickly filled by negative thoughts that run along the lines of ‘I am not capable of succeeding’, ‘I will fail’ or ‘I will be a fraud.’
The best way to counteract this is to remind yourself of your strengths. You have many, you just might not yet realise what they are.
Here are suggestions for figuring out what yours are:
Start journalling your achievements. Yes, I know it sounds cheesy but give it a go. At the end of every day, spend ten minutes writing down three things that you’ve accomplished, big or small. Think about what strengths you’ve used to achieve them.
Ask other people. Our strengths are what come naturally to us, so we take them for granted and might not even notice them. Others do, so it can really help to talk to people who know you about what they see as your strengths. Ideally ask around five people from different areas of your life, what they think you are good at and take on board what they say.
Use an online tool. A great one is the Via Strengths Survey. It’s totally free and it will generate a list of your strengths for you.
Once you have a list of strengths, think about how you used these at work – or might use them in the future. How could they help you achieve what you want? So if one of your strengths is perseverance, think about how that could be of use to you in accomplishing a goal like job hunting or setting up a new business.
What’s a Good Fit?
Do you understand your values? These are the beliefs we carry about what’s important in life. If we know what really matters to us, it give us confidence when we are making decisions, as our values act like a compass.
"If we know what really matters to us, it gives us confidence when we are making decisions, as our values act like a compass"
Have a think about what your personal values are. They are many and varied. Some examples are happiness, adventure, financial security, achievement and trust. Think about times when life has been going well and ask yourself why you felt fulfilled. What was underpinning it at that time?
To be fulfilled in your professional life, you'll need to do work that fits with your values. So if one value is adventure and your job is mundane, you’re likely to be bored. If a value is financial security and you are not earning enough to provide what makes you feel secure, then you aren’t going to be happy. Negative feelings like boredom and unhappiness also affect our level of confidence and we can interpret them as signs of failure, rather than realising we are simply in a place that isn’t a good fit for us.
Sense of Identity
How we feel about our physical selves affects our confidence levels. Many things can contribute to this, our level of wellness, fitness, how we look, our mental health... the list goes on. Women who’ve taken time out to raise children can find they lose their sense of self, as identity is so wrapped up in what we do at work. Instead we put our focus on others, while becoming defined as someone’s mum, and most of the new people we meet during this time get to know us first and foremost as a parent, reinforcing this.
"Women who’ve taken time out to raise children can find they lose their sense of self, as identity is so wrapped up in what we do at work"
We forget what interests we had before we had children, when there is less time or energy to pursue them. Theatre, cinema, reading, regularly going to the gym, dinner with friends… all these can become a distant memory. We lose the habit of doing things that we enjoy and that fulfil us, so that even when the children are older and we have more time, we have forgotten how to nourish ourselves.
The physical effects of being a mum can also impact self-esteem. Our bodies have been re-engineered since we left work, we don’t feel the same way about them as we did before – and we have gained more wrinkles and grey hairs, and maybe a pound or two. We’re used to dressing for comfort, speed and in something that’s easy to wash!
When it’s time to step back into the working world, all this can really dent your confidence. So, think about how you can cultivate a stronger sense of self and nurture yourself. You could try:
Doing regular exercise that you enjoy
Practicing mindfulness – stepping into the moment and letting your mind wander to see where it goes
Spending more time with friends without the children around
Taking up an old (or new) interest – sculpture, cinema or joining a book club
Sorting out your wardrobe and ditching anything that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself when you put it on
Going to the hairdresser, having your nails done or having a massage.
If you start to feel guilty about taking some me-time, just stop! Reassure yourself that you need to be in a good place yourself to be able to take care of others. Instead of giving yourself a hard time, focus on the positivity you’re creating and know that it will reap benefits, not just for you (though that would be enough) but also for those around you.
"If you start to feel guilty about taking some me-time, just stop! Reassure yourself that you need to be in a good place yourself to be able to take care of others"
What’s in your Control
Another way to increase confidence is to accept what's in your control and what isn’t. If you are applying for a job that you are qualified for, and another applicant is even better qualified for, it isn’t your failing when you don’t get the job. That was outside of your control. Understanding that will help prevent your confidence taking a knock. If you can’t influence it, accept it, let it go and put your energy into changing what you can affect.
"If you can’t influence it, accept it, let it go and put your energy into changing what you can affect"
Make a Plan
It’s natural to feel intimidated and worried about whether you will succeed when you are about to dive into the unknown. You can be so daunted that you end up doing nothing at all or aim too low because of your lack of confidence. To feel more empowered, remind yourself of your strengths, values and what is in your control, and set yourself an ambitious but realistic goal.
Now, break down what you need to do to get closer to your goal. Brainstorm as many ways of getting there as you can, before narrowing these down to a plan. Consider:
Is there anyone you know who can help you?
If you have a skills gap, how can you fill it?
Have you got the support around you day-to-day that you need?
The plan doesn’t have to be too detailed, but it does need to have the next few steps you need to take to get to the big goal. So if you want to start a business making and selling jewellery, think about what kind of business you’d like it to be in 3 years’ time. What kind of jewellery are you going to specialise in? Do you want to sell to wholesalers or individuals? Do you want to make it all yourself or use suppliers? How much money do you want to be earning? Once you have this ‘big picture’, think about what you need to do initially, to work towards this. Brush up on your jewellery-making skills? Do some research on pricing? Talk to wholesalers? Raise some investment?
Once you’ve got the next few steps identified, think about how you can use your strengths to work through them. Also think about what might get in your way. What could you do if challenges do arise? Through visualising the path you will take and planning ahead, you will be prepared and will feel more hopeful and optimistic. You are no longer diving into the unknown. And if a curved ball comes along, you will be more resilient, as you have thought about what might go wrong and have some tactics up your sleeve already.
"Through visualising the path you will take and planning ahead, you will be prepared and will feel more hopeful and optimistic. You are no longer diving into the unknown"
If confidence is low, start by making the steps small, just so you that you only have to step out of your comfort zone a little each time. Once that feels ok, take another step. Appreciate what goes well and don’t dwell on the negative. Decide what was in your control and what wasn’t. What can you do differently that's in your control next time? Dust yourself off and know that using this as a learning experience will enable you to be stronger going forward.
We all need help sometimes and that isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Just the opposite. It can be empowering for you – and the person you reach out to. When you are embarking on a major life change such as going back to work after a career break, you will probably need help and support. Not just to find a job or do a business plan, but also to pick up the slack once you are working. Plan ahead to figure out what support you’ll need and where that will come from.
One of the biggest knocks to confidence is falling into the perfectionist trap. This manifests itself in countless ways – and it’s toxic. What is perfect anyway? How will you know when you’ve got there? If you are striving to reach perfection, then chances are you won’t act at all.
"If you are striving to reach perfection, then chances are you won’t act at all"
We are all our harshest critics. If you find yourself talking yourself out of doing something that you want to do, ask yourself if you are being a perfectionist and tell yourself that you are already good enough, because you are. Make sure you are making decisions for the right reasons, not because you are sabotaging yourself.
Accept your Vulnerability
Sometimes in spite of everything we know to be of value about ourselves, to do what we need to do, we have to step out into the world in all our vulnerability. In her famous TED talk, Prof. Brene Brown quoted Theodore Roosevelt, who described this beautifully in a speech he gave over 100 years ago, in 1910:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat"
Choose not to be a 'cold and timid soul'. Whatever your inner critic is saying, tell it to shut up. Square your shoulders, take a deep breath and step out into the arena. It’s time.
Now you have some tools in your kit to raise your confidence as you step back into the world of work after your career break. You know the importance of being clear on your strengths and what drives you, and how doing a job that's a good fit for you is what brings success.
We've also looked at how your sense of identity can have an impact on your confidence, as can perfectionism and knowing what's in your control. As you prepare to relaunch your career, you understand now how key having an ambitious goal and a step-by-step plan is to making it happen. And you know that sometimes, even when all this is in place, we are putting ourselves out there, and this makes us vulnerable, and we just have to accept that feeling and choose to walk boldly out into the world anyway.