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Confidence is a funny thing.  If we could put it in a bottle and sell it, we'd be millionaires overnight.

We all have different things that help promote our sense of confidence at different times.  The football manager who wears the same suit he wore the last time his team won.  The person going for an interview wearing their favourite perfume or aftershave.  The public speaker who carries a special pen.  We all have our little confidence boosting quirks.  The interesting thing is that they often work.  Rather than being a superstitious phenomenon, psychologists know that when we feel confident, we start to think more confidently.  When we think and feel more confidently, our actions are often more effective than if we are riddled with doubt and anxiety.

However, when can a confidence booster become what we call a psychological crutch?

psychological crutches

A psychological crutch is when we become dependent upon something in an unhealthy way.    It can be something that makes us feel safe, and crucially - only safe when it is present.  By carrying around our psychological crutch, we lose the sense of confidence in our own ability to cope.  Let's look at a couple of examples (not real people):

Mary had a traumatic experience as a child.  Her father had died of a sudden heart attack.  His health had been poor but still the suddenness of the loss terrified Mary.  Over the years, she began to worry about her own health.  Doctors sent her for several tests and everything came back all clear.  Mary was young, in good health and had no risk factors to worry about.  Still, at the back of her mind, she always worried that something bad would happen and so she carried her mobile phone with her (always fully charged) everywhere she went, just in case. 

Steve had been a shy and nervous boy at school.  He had always been scared of the teachers and scared of getting into trouble.  A somewhat embarrassing problem, he worried a lot about needing the toilet and having an accident.   Any time he went anywhere, he also planned things very carefully, making sure he didn't drink too much and that he always went somewhere where he knew there would be a public toilet, just in case.    Things improved a bit with age, but when Steve started a new job and became quite anxious, he found these worries came back.  

In both these stories,  Mary and Steve are unwittingly in the grip of a psychological crutch.  One is an object, the other is a behaviour.  Perhaps you spotted them?

Mary's psychological crutch is her mobile phone.   She feels safe ONLY when carrying a full charged mobile phone.  She has never had any health concerns and doctors have classed her risk of heart problems as very low.  Her need to carry a fully charged mobile phone is therefore a disproportionate response.  Mobile phones have only been widely available for less than a couple of decades.  For years before this, we managed to live just fine without them.   While they can be a useful gadget to have and it is wise when travelling long distances to carry one, we do not NEED one to be safe, certainly for day to day activities such as going to the supermarket or travelling to work.  Ironically, the safety that Mary feels by carrying her phone is keeping her anxiety established.  That is one of the problems with a psychological crutch.

Steve's psychological crutch is his behaviour of going to the toilet (and worrying about it) before any activity.  Unless we have a medical reason, most of us can go a significant period of time before needing the toilet.  It is normal to need to go to the toilet between 4 and 7 times a day.  When our bladder is half full, we start to feel the early signals and our muscles engage until we are ready to go to the toilet.  Steve is emptying his bladder pre-emptively out of fear of having an accident.  Ironically, one of the biological responses to fear is an urge to go to the toilet.  So his fear of needing the toilet is making him need the toilet more.    Steve only feels safe in the moments after he has been to the toilet.

In both these cases, the solution is to gradually let go of our dependency on the psychological crutch.  The word "confidence" comes from the latin "confidens" which means to do something with faith.  Having faith in something means trusting.  The problem with Mary and Steve is that they are putting their faith in an object and a behaviour, rather than in their own ability to respond to situations.  Both Mary and Steve need to learn to relax and to go about their daily activities without relying on their psychological crutches.  In order to do this, they will need to start experimenting in small ways to grow their confidence.  Mary should plan to go out on a few trips without her mobile phone, and on other occasions not charge it up.  As she does so, she should take a slow breath and relax.  Steve needs to gradually build up his confidence by not going to the toilet before every activity and not going as frequently.  He needs to learn to relax and tolerate the (early) sensation of needing the toilet.

Both of these examples might sound extreme, but they are examples of how we do things to make us feel safe and confident.  While some things are good boosts, when they become psychological crutches, the early solution can now become part of the ongoing problem.

So, what are your psychological crutches?

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