Confidence is defined in terms of certainty. Often the two words are even conflated: You’re confident you’ll ace that presentation, confident your favorite sports team will win, and you have confidence in people who have proven themselves reliable.

But in life, you’ll inevitably hit crossroads that hold uncertain outcomes. So, how do you remain confident, even while grappling with the unknown?

Cognitive decision-making happens in your prefrontal cortex. When you’re calm, confident, and in control, this part of your brain is better at determining whether something (such as a decision) can be dealt with rationally, or whether it’s an emotional threat.

If the trigger is deemed as a threat, it’s eventually sent to your brain stem, which launches you into survival mode; often leading to thoughtless, rash reactions. You may get shy, passive, anxious, or avoid taking any action at all because your brain’s top priority is to protect you from: 1. Failure 2. Rejection and/or 3. Regret.

See how that could interfere with confident decision-making?

It’s reactive, rather than proactive. That’s great when running from a bear…not so much when deciding what to say at a networking event.

And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you’re anxious, that (cognitive-emotional) feedback loop gets jammed so you’re not able to take in as much information—information that could potentially help you make a decision and ease your anxiety.
Anxiety also clouds your working memory, making it harder to work through problems and recall past experiences that could provide insight.

The Way Out

Make peace with what you don’t know.
Your brain panics when it feels ill-equipped to tackle something. But you’re never going to have all of the information. Being confident means accepting your limitations. The key is to be confident, not of what’s going to happen, but that you’re going to be okay, no matter the outcome. It’s the confidence that whatever decision you make, you’re resilient enough to recover and reroute. This, in turn, lessens the blow if that decision does, in fact, lead to failure, rejection, or regret; because whatever happens, you can handle it.

Strip those fears of their power.
The less your brain associates decision-making with anxiety, the less anxious you’ll be when it comes time to repeat the process. Re-brand decision-making as quick and painless by spending less time ruminating over what could potentially go wrong, and what didn’t go well after the situation plays out.

Trick your brain with breath.   

Taking deep breaths enacts your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body and clears the mind. You also consciously then give cognitive control of this normally autonomic, brain-stem controlled function to your much more rational, executive function. When you’re calm, you inform your brain that it has the time and resources to think something through. If you slow and deepen your breathing, eventually your brain will catch up too.

When you know you’re making a decision out of clarity—not out of anxiety—you’re more likely to make a decision that you’re proud of later.

Special thanks to Elior Moskowitz for her research and editorial contribution to this post