May 29, 2019
The gist: We all have nervous habits we display in uncomfortable situations that make us look weak. Once you recognize yours, they’re surprisingly easy to correct.
We all have lots of insecure behaviors we put on display every day. Whether it’s pulling on your shirt collar like I do, avoiding eye contact, or something else, your nervous habits scream to others that you’re feeling anxious.
The problem with nervous habits is that they show that you’re not confident in what you’re saying, which means other people won’t be either. When this happens, you undermine your own words.
If you’ve ever encountered a situation where you felt weak, nervous, or insecure but wanted to appear strong and confident, learning to manage your nervous habits is a critical part of the equation.
Here’s your cheatsheet for looking confident and in control when you’re feeling exactly the opposite on the inside.
Where Confidence Is Needed But Hard To Come By
It won’t take much digging to uncover a situation in your life where you felt you had to put on an act to come across more confident than you really were. We all face these circumstances regularly:
- Job interviews
- Client meetings
- Performance reviews
- Romantic dates
- Public speaking
- Managing your team at work
- Debating and arguing
Whether you’re trying to make a great first impression or impress someone you’ve known a long time, you sometimes have to step out of your comfort zone to do it. And when you do, it’s best to be ready.
The Most Popular Nervous Habits And How To Overcome Them
What follows is a coded list of all the major body language and nonverbal cues we tend to exhibit when we’re feeling insecure around another person.1And, more importantly, what to do to minimize or even eliminate them when they pop up.
First, though, a few important caveats:
- You won’t exhibit all these behaviors when you’re feeling insecure. In fact, not even most of them. To get the most from this, identify the ones you know you do and practice minimizing those. By solving just a few of your biggest problem behaviors you’ll significantly improve your perception in one-to-one exchanges.
- You probably need help identifying your nervous habits. Some of your behaviors are so ingrained that you won’t realize you do them until someone points them out to you. When my wife first pointed out that I touch my collar when I’m nervous, I thought she was crazy. But she was right; I’d just never noticed it. Find someone you trust to watch you in a stressful situation for best results.
- One behavior does not give you away. You can’t accurately read someone with a single nervous habit because many habits have multiple meanings that can’t be deciphered on their own. In most cases where you’re nervous, you’ll exhibit multiple nervous behaviors simultaneously.
- This will only be hard at first. Confidence can be hard to come by but, once you have it, it’s easy to keep with little maintenance. If you do the work to get yourself headed the right direction, you’ll benefit from it for a long time.
Nervous Body Language Cues
There are several insecurity cues that are signaled by your head and face.
1. Lack of eye contact.
When you’re nervous, it’s common to avoid eye contact. Eye contact is intimate, and your body wants to avoid any kind of intimacy when it’s anxious.
How to correct it: When it’s your turn to talk (or when the person you’re talking to finishes a thought), remind yourself to re-establish eye contact. Too much is unnatural and signals aggression, so don’t go overboard. You can significantly increase your perception of confidence just by regularly re-establishing eye contact for a short time.
2. Low eyebrows.
When you bring your eyebrows down momentarily and sharply, it signals anger. But when you bring them down moderately and keep them there, it signifies an internal struggle and weakness.
How to correct it: Remind yourself to smile regularly and fully open your eyes. This forces the eyebrows to raise. Also, try not to interact with others when you’re overly tired (this can also cause the eyebrows to droop).
3. Lip licking / biting.
Nervousness can cause dry mouth which, in turn, can subconsciously cause you to lick your lips, and the tension in your face can cause you to bite them.
How to correct it: Before an important conversation, try to drink a significant amount of water (but not so much that you’d be uncomfortable without a bathroom break). If it’s appropriate, have a beverage ready during the conversation, too.
4. Tucked chin.
When you’re insecure, your body attempts to make itself small. Tucking the chin during an exchange when you’re nervous is a protective measure.
How to correct it: Take slow, deep breaths while interacting. A deep breath expands your body and will naturally encourage your chin to stay up.
5. Labored breathing.
This would be unusual during most situations, but may come out when you’re extremely stressed. Your body is preparing itself for a fight or flight response which demonstrates you feel a huge threat.
How to correct it: If you’re experiencing this, you may need to excuse yourself from the interaction and take a moment in private to calm yourself.
Upper Body Cues
Many of the upper body nervous habits relate to the body’s desire to become small when you’re feeling insecure.
6. Turning body away / shielding the torso.
Your torso is the biggest, most vulnerable part of your body. When you’re insecure or nervous, you tend to protect it by turning it away from whatever is making you uncomfortable.
How to correct it: Make a habit of occasionally checking to see what direction you’d look if you pointed your face straight ahead. If it’s not at the people you’re talking to, adjust.
7. Hunched shoulders.
You tend to hunch your shoulders (pulling them forward and in) when you’re stressed and are attempting to make your body small.
How to correct it: Remind yourself to take slow, deep breaths as you speak. The deeper the breath, the more it will force your torso and shoulders to open.
8. Crossed arms.
This is a universal sign of discomfort and often means you’re struggling to accept what the other person is communicating. Confusingly, though, it can also just mean you’re too cold, which is why one nervous habit is never enough to make a judgment from.
How to correct it: This usually happens when you don’t know what to do with your hands. Try some of the remedies for hand issues below.
9. Hands between legs or in pockets.
When you’re feeling insecure, it’s natural to want to hide your hands because you don’t know what to do with them.
How to correct it: To display confidence, work on talking with hand gestures. The more you use your hands to talk (without becoming wild) the more confident you seem. A safe, neutral place to keep your hands is at your side. If that feels weird, try putting them on your hips or loosely clasping them in front of your waist.
10. Nail biting / picking.
This is a universal sign of stress. If you’re feeling insecure, you might find yourself doing it in the presence of others.
How to correct it: This one is hard because it’s so ingrained. The best thing to do for an immediate fix is resolve to keep your hands away from each other and away from your mouth.
One way to do this that puts you in good posture is to put your hands at your waist and latch a finger on each hand to a belt loop on either side of your body. When you get the urge to bite or pick, you’ll be forced to unlock your fingers which will hopefully be enough of an intervention to remind you not to do it.
11. Sweaty or quivering hands.
In a stress response, it’s normal for your hands to sweat to cool the body. Quivering is also a common sign of nervousness and is easily noticed in the hands.
How to correct it: The best fix for this is before it happens. If you’re headed into a high-stress meeting, spend five minutes doing exercises like slow, steady breathing and power posing that will lower your cortisol levels and prepare you to handle the situation calmly.
12. Hand wringing.
Rubbing your hands together is something people tend do when they’re nervous and not sure what else to do with them, much like putting them between your legs or in your pockets. Of course, this can also just signal that you’re cold like crossing your arms does.
How to correct it: See the solution above for nail biting and picking. The same will work for this.
Lower Body Cues
13. Jiggling the foot (when seated).
This is a nervous-energy cue that broadcasts you’re not comfortable in your current situation. It can also mean you’re feeling impatient.
How to correct it: When you first sit down, make a point of planting both feet on the floor. As an extra, measure, you can put your hands on your knees until you know you’re calm. If you start to jiggle your feet, you’ll notice it in your arms as well.
14. Interlocking feet (when seated).
This is your body’s attempt to make itself small when you’re feeling anxious.
How to correct it: The solution for jiggling feet will work here, too.
Nervous Nonverbal Cues
These are the auditory cues of insecurity you give while talking that undermine your message.
15. Dismissing compliments.
When someone pays you a compliment and you immediately downplay it, it’s a sign you don’t value yourself highly.
How to correct it: The most appropriate response to a compliment is “thank you.” No more, no less. You can give one back if you have a genuine one to offer.
16. Unnecessary apologizing.
When you apologize for something that typically would not require it, you look like you’re lowering your own status. Saying sorry after mispronouncing a word—or something similarly benign—is an example.
How to correct it: Slow down when you feel the need to apologize. Ask yourself, “Did I actually do something wrong or offensive?” If the answer is no, just move on and rest assured that no one noticed your mistake. And, if they did, they certainly aren’t waiting for an apology.
17. Upward inflection when speaking.
Raising the tone of your voice at the end of a sentence indicates you’re asking a question. If you do this when making a statement, it sounds like you’re questioning yourself.
How to correct it: Slow down your speech a little, and think about what you’re going to say before it comes out. If you’re not asking a question, don’t phrase it like one. Focus on using a deeper, steady tone to deliver your message.
18. Self-deprecating humor.
If you’re truly skilled at humor and the people you’re talking to know you well, you can get away with this. Otherwise, it makes you sound like you don’t value yourself.
How to correct it: Don’t do it. Avoid this type of humor in all but the most informal exchanges. Even if you’re just trying to be funny, it’s more likely to draw pity or judgment. If you want to tell a joke, tell one that everyone can laugh at without wondering if they ought to feel sorry for you.
19. Deferral of decisions.
If you constantly defer making simple or ordinary decisions, it signals you don’t trust yourself to make the right one or that you’re afraid you’ll upset someone with the choice you make.
How to correct it: Before you say, “I don’t care” or “What do you think?” ask yourself what your answer would be if there were no one else to help decide. If it’s a small decision that doesn’t actually need input from others (and be generous with your judgment on this—most small decisions need no outside input), then just make it. You can also offer your decision and ask for feedback if you really aren’t sure.
20. Requests for validation or reassurance.
Confident people are secure in their statements and feelings. When you outwardly (or suggestively) ask others to validate yours, you come off as insecure.
How to correct it: When you make a statement, be prepared to stand behind it without any outside support.
21. Overcompensation / bragging.
Offering unnecessary details to try to raise your status is an insecurity-masking technique.
How to correct it: Before you go off on a tangent ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say actually relevant to the conversation at hand, or am I just trying to get people to like me?” If it’s the latter, keep it to yourself. Confident people believe they’re liked and they give others the opportunity to brag instead.
If you react defensively to jokes or small slights, it signals you’re not comfortable with yourself.
How to correct it: Remind yourself not to be too serious. Most jokes are not made to hurt others; they’re just meant to lighten the mood and even show friendship. If someone says something that’s actually hurtful, remind yourself that they may be the insecure one.
23. Asserting membership in a group.
The more insecure you are in your relationships, especially with a group, the more you’ll try to assert your inclusion or remind others in the group that you belong.
How to correct it: Remind yourself that if you’re participating with the group, you’re part of it. There’s no need to prove yourself or remind them. They’ve already accepted you.
24. Overuse of self-focused pronouns.
This is particular to people who are speaking for a group. Overusing the words I / me / mine comes off as trying to raise your own status, especially when we / us / our are more appropriate.
How to correct it: You can make yourself look good by making others look good. Give out praise whenever possible. Make it a rule to attribute success to everyone who played a part in it because there’s no need to steal the spotlight when you’re already in it.
25. Speaking softly.
Speaking softly when it’s not socially required comes off as a disbelief in your own words—like you’re trying to make sure not too many people hear them, afraid you’ll be called out for voicing your opinions.
How to correct it: Speak assertively, especially when you’re addressing a group. If you’re not used to speaking up, try not to schedule conversations that would happen in an environment that would require it. Test your volume level often by watching to see if others are straining to hear what you’re saying.
26. Hyper-correcting your speech.
It’s normal to use the wrong word or grammar when you’re trying to communicate. When you stop and correct each of these mistakes, it comes across like you don’t believe you can properly communicate without using perfect speech.
How to correct it: Keep going when you fumble over a word or use the wrong grammar. Remember that the majority of successful communication depends on body language and that most mistakes in what you say will be glossed over for the big picture anyway.
Do This In The Next 10 Minutes
Use the body language chart above to find the top three behaviors you exhibit when you’re nervous or insecure. If you’re having trouble, have a trusted friend or relative help.
Then, practice the corrections that correspond to that nervous habit. Doing it now, when you’re calm, will make it more natural and easier to remember when you actually do need to use it.
Interested to know more?
- Does This Make Me Sound Insecure? The linguistic tics that reveal self-doubt.
- Signs Of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals A Lack Of Confidence
- What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed Reading People