Why Can Your Confidence And Social Skills Fluctuate So Much?

Especially when you're starting out, your social skills and confidence can go up and down unpredictably. It can be really confusing and discouraging. I've heard people say things like:

To be more clear, your self-confidence can certainly swing up and down. Your social skills themselves don't change a ton overnight, but they're affected by your confidence. A lot of shy people have better social skills and personalities than they give themselves credit for. It's just that most of the time they're too inhibited or self-doubting to show their true capabilities. When they're in a confident mood those barriers drop away.

There are lots of reasons your confidence can seesaw, which this article will go into. At the same time, you often can't be totally sure why your confidence is going up or down in any particular moment. More importantly, you only have so much ability to control how self-assured you feel. You're going to have good and bad days. Sometimes you'll sit down with your co-workers for lunch, and for no discernable reason you'll be in a really charming, friendly mood. At other times, even though you've used every motivational trick you know, you'll still feel bumbling and withdrawn.

It's just part of the process of working on your social issues that your confidence can swing from one day to the next. You can waste a lot of time trying to find a non-existent way to feel 'on' constantly. The only thing that really works in the long run is to consistently practice your interpersonal and mental skills. Eventually you'll reach a point where your social confidence is more steady. You'll get better at shrugging off setbacks. You'll still have off days, but they won't affect your performance as much.

I'll cover the reasons your confidence can jump around in terms of external and internal factors. Of course there's some overlap between the two, but I found this was a good way to organize all the points.

Outside factors

The general randomness of the social world

This is an overarching factor. The social world's an unpredictable place. It gives you a mix of encouraging and discouraging situations. Even if you have amazing communication skills you can't totally control how other people act or treat you.

Your confidence can be thrown around by random events. You may go to a party and luck into five conversations in a row with people who really seem to like you, and that'll be enough to make you feel on top of the world for the next two days. On day three you could show up to work and find your co-worker is in a grouchy, standoff-ish mood, and take it personally and start to doubt yourself again. At times it's one extra-discouraging event that sets you back. Sometimes it's a series of mildly disappointing encounters that add up.

Sometimes you'll know exactly what interaction increased or decreased your confidence. At other times something will trigger a shift, but you won't be aware how it affected you. For example, someone struggles with assertiveness and unconsciously gets down on themselves whenever they say 'yes' to things they don't want to do. However, consciously just felt like they cheerfully agreed to help someone out, and then mysteriously fell into a funk in the hours that followed.

Being able to practice, or not

We tend to feel more confident and at ease in situations when we're in them on a regular basis, and have had time to get comfortable. You may be feeling more confident because you've been socializing consistently and have built up some momentum. Outside circumstances like holidays, illnesses, or other commitments, can keep you away from everyone for a while. When you go back you feel a bit out of shape and nervous. If you're not aware you were slipping out of practice it may seem as if your confidence dropped out of nowhere.

Getting the hang of one skill / realizing there are other ones to learn

For example, at first someone struggles to start conversations with strangers and make a few minutes of small talk. They put in the time and get better at it. Once they realize things are clicking into place, they get a rush of confidence, and use their new ability every chance they get. Before long they find out there are more conservation challenges beyond the small talk stage, and their confidence takes a hit as they struggle with them. Intellectually they knew there was always more to learn, but a small part of them hoped, "Once I get used to chatting to people I don't know all my social problems will be solved", and is let down to find that's not the case.

Other life stressors or successes

Your confidence in any one area is partially affected by the overall amount of happiness or stress in your system. Nothing may be going wrong on the social front, but then you do worse than you expected to on an exam, or get into a fight with your parents, or have your skin break out, and the stress, anxiety, and self-doubt from those problems can eat into your confidence around people. Or the opposite could happen: You were feeling insecure around your classmates, but then found out you got a part-time job you really wanted. That thrill may transmute into feeling relaxed in social situations.

How generally healthy or rundown you're feeling

Our mood and confidence is also influenced by how well our bodies are doing in general. You may find you feel a tad more sure of yourself around people when you're eating and sleeping well, getting some exercise, aren't sick, and don't have too much on your plate. If you take on too much work, and your sleep, eating, and exercise habits suffer for it, you may start feeling less confident around everyone.

Biological factors that can cause mood swings

Various conditions can cause mood swings in general, which may take the form of your social confidence rising or falling. It's beyond the scope of the article to go into detail about all of them, but I mean things like:

If you're a teenager or female, I'm not trying to say every last, single thing you feel can be written off to hormones or the fact that you're PMS'ing. It's more that along with all the other factors, they might occasionally play a role.

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Internal / mental factors

A theme running through a lot of these is that beginners aren't as good at handling the inevitable ups and downs of socializing. Every little success or failure can shift how they feel about themselves.

You just have a mix of social strengths and weak points

This one doesn't need much explanation. Your mix of solid and not-so-solid skills will cause you have to a mix of results, which can make your confidence spike or dip. For example, you may be good at listening and asking about other people, but get self-conscious if you have to talk about yourself. If you chat to someone who wants to do most of the speaking, you'll have a smooth conversation and come away feeling confident. If you meet someone who asks you a lot of questions, you may clam up, and feel like a screw up after.

A tendency to see your current status as proof of how the future will turn out

This doesn't cause shifts in your confidence level itself. What it can do is make the swings you have for other reasons feel more intense, draining, and discouraging. Beginners at all kinds of skills can fall into this mental trap. I think people are also more likely to succumb to it if they're really emotionally invested in getting better at something.

How it works is that if things are going well - if you have a few good conversations, or feel comfortable at a party - you'll tend to think, "Yes! I've gotten the hang out this. It's going to be smooth sailing from here on out!" If you have a bad stretch, your thinking will flip to the equally-false premature conclusion of, "Agh, it's hopeless! I'll never get any better. I'm going to be like this forever." You can bounce back and forth between these two mentalities, based on what the social world throws at you.

A belief in an instant cure

This also boosts the intensity of any emotional ups and downs. People who are first trying to get over their shyness or improve their social skills often have the unrealistic expectation of a quick fix. The first few times things go well for them they get overly excited and think all their problems are solved. Then when something inevitably goes wrong, they crash back down to earth. Again, some people can spend a lot of time ping ponging between feelings of "I'm cured! For real this time!" and "Ugh, no I'm not. Is it ever going to happen for me?"

Your shy counterproductive thinking patterns reasserting themselves

A central feature of the condition is that shy, insecure people think in all kinds of self-sabotaging ways. They're unnecessarily hard on themselves. They see the social interactions as being riskier than they are. They draw inaccurate conclusions about the future. They assume too much responsibility for events outside of their control. They see other people as being mean and judgmental. I could go on and on, but these articles go into more detail:

Beliefs Which Sustain Shyness, Insecurity, And Social Anxiety
Cognitive Distortions And Socializing
Attributional Style And Socializing

It's a long-term project to identify and start chipping away at the maladaptive thought processes that feed your shyness and low self-esteem. If you catch a wave of confidence for one reason on another, those good feelings may temporarily push your self-sabotaging thinking aside, but it will come back. Something won't go perfectly for you, and you'll interpret it in a bunch of pessimistic, self-defeating ways and slide back into feeling unconfident. If you've been thinking in an insecure style for a decade or more, you can't sweep that away just by having a handful of smooth conversations.

Even once you learn about your cognitive distortions and start disputing them, you can still teeter from one side of the confidence scale to the other. That's because by challenging your thoughts you can beat some of them back, and maybe temporarily feel more confident as a result, but other distortions won't go down so easily, and will rally to sink your mood. Again, you can't change your thought patterns in a few weeks.

You're surfing a series of short-lived psych ups

As this article explains, there are two ways someone can feel confident: 1) True, earned confidence in an area, which feels like a calm, steady, matter-of-fact knowledge of your abilities. 2) A bold, psyched up feeling, where you feel noticeably more confident than usual. This feeling mostly comes up when you're less sure of yourself in that setting (if you know you've got something down pat there's no need to get fired up about it).

Especially when we're newly working on our social skills, we can get ourselves into this psyched up state by accident. We might read a motivational quote, or be journaling about our issues, and have a seemingly profound epiphany about what's been holding us back, and then feel amped up and like we can take over the world. It's handy to feel charged up, but the catch is this kind of confidence is short-lived and hard to call up on command. People can get stuck in a cycle where they get psyched up for one reason or another, feel good for a few days, then have it wear off and feel unconfident again.

The rush of accomplishing something difficult for the first time

The first time you do something you were struggling to achieve it gives you an emotional high. That rush can transform into a streak of confidence. For example, you may feel amazing the first time you ever talk with a friend on the phone, if that was something that scared you. As you can guess by now, that high wears off, and the feeling of confidence and invincibility with it.

Fear of success

Sometimes we know we want to succeed in an area, but when we're on the cusp of breaking through to that next level we freak out a bit and starting doubting ourselves and worrying about what could go wrong. If you've had a few good weeks socially you may feel confident for a while, but then talk yourself out of it by thinking things like, "Who am I kidding? I'm not meant to have good social skills. I'm the weird, awkward kid. This can't last."

You start putting more pressure on yourself as your confident streak goes on

You start a few conversations with your co-worker, not expecting anything of it either way. Your chats go well, you start feeling better about yourself, and you continue to have good interactions with them. Then you reach a point where you start thinking, "We've been getting along well the past few weeks. I can't screw this up. I can't go back to my old behavior." That pressure itself may cause you to lose your confidence, or it may lead you to act shy and awkward, and that breaks your streak.

As you can see, there are lots of reasons your confidence can rise and fall. Sometimes there will be a clearcut issue you can identify and fix, but for the most part you should try to accept your confidence will fluctuate, that it just comes with being a beginner, and that you can't do a ton to change it in the short term. Keep your eye on the long-term solution, which is to keep practicing, even if you aren't always in the best headspace, to build a true foundation of skill and adaptive thinking.