3 ways social conditioning is undermining your confidence

Social conditioning. The "sociological process of training individuals in a society to respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society," (wiki). It’s a term that gets used a lot and I’m still not sure we all really understand it – what it really means for all of us.


The definition is interesting though – it’s essentially about behaviour that is "approved of" by "society" and "peer groups." So, it’s pure external validation, focusing on the judgments of others and not what you actually think or want and following the herd. Basically, everything that we know makes most of us unhappy and undermines confidence. So, why do we do it?

Fitting in is not belonging

The short answer – I think – is belonging. We want to belong. We want to be part of society and stay connected to people and structures within it. Humans have a deep fear of isolation, loneliness and being cast out, which is actually very sensible. We all need connection to survive and we all tend to survive better if we have it. But somewhere along the line communication has gotten mixed up, because actually connection happens when we are being ourselves, being authentic, being vulnerable – and not when we are trying to do what we think we need to do to fit in or please others. And confidence comes from truly trusting ourselves and our own instincts – not what others think. So, social conditioning doesn’t really serve us in the way we are told it will.

Social conditioning is insidious

And yet, despite the fact that social conditioning offers individuals virtually nothing at all, it can be brutally enforced by the group against someone who steps outside it. And, because it’s insidious, we are often operating from a socially conditioned place without having any knowledge of it.

For example, if you read about a woman being raped or sexually assaulted, your first thought might be "What was she wearing, though?" As in, did she attract her attacker by not wearing many clothes? For some of us, this train of thought is automatic programming – it’s what the media does, it’s probably what our parents did (or do) and it’s the way that many others around us think. But the reality of the message is: women are responsible for the way men behave. And that’s social conditioning because it’s just not true.

Just because everyone does it, doesn’t make it right

I often hear social conditioning dismissed as harmless or "just the way things are always done." And it makes me a bit sad (sometimes angry) because it’s very much a cop-out. And also because life gets a lot better on the other side of social conditioning, whether we’re talking about confidence or freedom from shame. But that place is only accessible when we acknowledge that just because something was historically the norm – or lots of people do it – doesn’t make it healthy, right or a route to a happy life.

Examples of social conditioning that impact confidence

Stepping back from the wider negative impact of social conditioning for a second, let’s look at how this could be affecting you and the way you’re living your life. Here are three of the most common examples of social conditioning and how they can impact you.

"I’m too old"

The world we live in has constructed narratives around age that feel like truths. But the reality is that what we look like, how we feel and what we’re capable of at any age is going to be very individual. When you start to look deeper into this social conditioning the 'truth' of it soon unravels. For example, you will find examples of women who have babies after 35, people who successfully start new careers at 50, and men and women achieving incredible physical feats in their 60s. There are very few goals and dreams that become inaccessible with age. It’s much more about your level of self-belief, confidence, physical readiness and energy.

How this can limit you: Not doing the things you want to do after a certain age. Losing confidence as you get older because it feels like you’re past it or time is running out. Or trying to tick boxes before big birthdays out of fear rather than joy, excitement or motivation.

"It’s not feminine/masculine"

Gender identities are really shifting but a lot of social conditioning remains deeply embedded in terms of what it means to be a certain gender. Many still assume, for example, that little girls simply don’t want to be doctors or astronauts rather than acknowledging that this might be because we give girls dolls not spaceships, tell them to aim for prettiness, not adventure and to dream of marriage and protection, not independence and equality.

As adults, there can be a lot of judgment around everyday things like what we wear, body hair, how we speak, the jobs we do and how assertive or emotional we are 'allowed' to be. And we regularly enforce this on one another by being judgmental. Often because someone not fitting what we see as gender norms is scary – or because it makes us feel inadequate about our own compliance. 

How this can limit you: through how you feel you are 'allowed' to show up in the world. Where you place limits on yourself in terms of wealth, power, position, compassion, and growth. What do you see as the extent of your parenting role or expectations in relationships? How vulnerable and emotional you feel it is acceptable to be. 

"Other people wouldn’t approve"

The idea of "other people" or "everyone else" is something I come up against a lot as a coach. And also in myself, if I’m being honest. It seems to have been something that many of us were almost threatened with as children (probably by parents to whom the same was done by their parents).

It’s the purest form of manipulation using social conditioning if you ask me – taking the idea that there is some kind of block of people who do things better/more appropriately/in a more acceptable way than you do and using it to try to get someone to behave in a certain way.

That could look like someone telling you that "everyone else is fine with that" or "no one else does it like that." It can also show up in much subtler ways, such as the way we tell women over a certain age what to wear (and not wear), how we make emotional men feel if they have certain feelings in front of us, or telling someone their honesty is disrespectful because they are younger.

Social conditioning works on the basis that we believe that there is this mass of connected others who all do things the same and are judging us. But the reality is that we are all individuals not really even thinking about others. Most of the time the messaging is either coming from the media, politicians or companies that profit from it – or from others who have had it done to them.

How this can limit you: instead of living your life your way based on your values and goals, the standard feels like it should be 'to fit in' and do what others do to avoid being disapproved of. Which is, of course, an impossible standard – and a movable one, depending on who is trying to enforce it on you.

Social conditioning is insidious because it can feel like part of who we are and what we believe in even though it’s just a learned, habitual thought. Also because it comes with this sense that older generations, the establishment, the status quo and the loudest voices are 'right.' Once you release yourself from its grip it’s actually possible to see who you are capable of being and to start building the kind of trust in yourself that is the foundation of true confidence. Because social conditioning is just another limit – one that we self-impose in order to fit in. But, like I said at the start, the actual impact is to make you feel isolated and alone and make it hard to connect because you don’t feel OK to show up just as you.

Undoing your social conditioning starts with self-discovery and building an awareness of what you’ve absorbed and how this is affecting you. Confidence is so often where we are hit the most by this kind of shaming, so confidence is where you’ll really feel the benefit if you do the work to undo the social conditioning you’ve unconsciously learned. This is exactly the kind of work that coaching supports – the way a resilience coach like me reflects back your unconscious limits can give you the knowledge to lift them, creating momentum to start moving forward in life the way that you want to live.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Winchester, Hampshire, SO23
Written by Alex Pett
Winchester, Hampshire, SO23

Alex is an ICF trained and NLP cert coach focused on helping people to deepen their resources to adapt and bounce back - and go on to thrive. She works with resilience to help clients build confidence, recover from burnout, be assertive, set boundaries, find joy and move beyond limiting beliefs. Clients achieve tangible change in 6-9 sessions.

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