How to Really, Finally, Actually Achieve Self-Confidence
This is the second article in a new weekly advice column. You can write to Watson anonymously at email@example.com.
I understand if you’re not the person to write to about this, but I can’t afford therapy and I’m really struggling. I think I’m sick somehow. I’ve spent half my life being incredibly insecure. The times when I’m not insecure, it’s because I don’t respect the people I’m with all that much and I don’t care about their opinions the way I do with people I actually admire. But for obvious reasons being around people I don’t respect doesn’t make me very happy so I just end up feeling superior but lonely and frustrated and wondering if I’m a bad person. (I realize what an asshole this makes me sound like and I understand if you just write back “fuck you” by the way. I’m just being as honest as I can because, hey, it’s the internets, and you seem nice and I need help.) I don’t WANT to be a condescending prick; I just want to be around people I actually like so that I don’t have to feel so snobby all the time. But when I meet people like that I can’t even relax enough to enjoy their company. How the hell am I supposed to get to the point where I can respect myself and respect other people at the same time??
If you don’t know I’d love the name of an affordable therapist or an Assholes Anonymous number.
Thank you, I’m sorry : (
Will you bear with me for an anecdote if I keep it brief? I relate to your problem a hundred percent and I think you might relate to my thoughts about it as well.
So when I was in high school, there was this amazing girl a few classes above me whom I idolized with the kind of shameless, unselfconscious adoration that I doubt I’m still capable of. She was gorgeous and weird and bright and had fantastic style, and there were plenty of conventional reasons to look up to her; but I mostly loved her because she seemed so gloriously, inimitably independent — because by being brilliant and also not giving a shit about what other people thought, she’d acquired this magnetic eloquence and power and charm. She was confidence personified, the opposite of everything I hated about myself.
And then one day I overheard her complaining about her life to her best friend in the stairwell during lunch, expressing her fears and excitement about life after high school, why she hated standardized exams, how her parents didn’t get her, et cetera — and I realized that none of the respect she’d garnered from her peers made the slightest difference to her. Despite being the most glorious person in the world in the opinion of everyone who mattered (or so I imagined), she wasn’t particularly happy. Me, my high school friends, our whole little world — none of it was even on her mind. And that, I realized, was what made her so untouchable. She just wasn’t interested in our respect.
It sounds very After School Special now that I put it in writing, but at the time, it shook my worldview. What I had realized was that there’s a vicious paradox embodied in the desire for self-confidence: the more you want and need others to respect you for your independence of mind, the farther you get from deserving that respect. That girl whom I was so obsessed with had successfully gained the respect of the rest of her acne-ridden classmates by not needing it — but as a result, she also wasn’t able to appreciate the reverence that any of the rest of us would have killed for. I finally realized that confidence is just like money: we spend most of our lives obsessing over it, but the goal isn’t actually to revel in how much you have, but to get hold of just enough to buy yourself the freedom of not having to think about it any more.
Unfortunately, that insight was only helpful in a know-thy-enemy kind of way; I still really didn’t know how to get around the paradox and acquire that kind of confidence. I vaguely noted that I had more of it when I was doing the things I loved and less when I was PMSing, but I didn’t figure out why until last week, when I was talking about your letter with my brilliant, if mischievous, little sister (my usual recourse when I find myself stuck). I had spent half an hour careening through the tangled mess of my thoughts; she just watched me with her usual bemused grin.
“Well, the problem is that it takes confidence to show your insecurities, and it takes insecurity to make a show of confidence,” she said simply, when I had finally run out of breath. And that was when all the pieces finally clicked.
What I realized was that I had been approaching it all from the wrong angle. Confidence looked like a paradox to me earlier because I had assumed that there’s only one kind of confidence, that it’s a single thing we can acquire or lose. But my sister made me notice that the word itself is something of a misnomer; there are really two completely different kinds of confidence. There’s the “affirmation” kind — the kind you get by finally winning the long-sought approval of your peers, however indirectly; by winning prizes, by getting published, by making lots of money or by keeping your BMI down — whatever gets you off. The confidence that comes from “accomplishments” in the social sphere.
The problem with that kind of confidence is that it actually makes us more dependent than ever. In fact, the more you let others’ respect matter to you, the more you stand to lose if they decide to repeal it. In theory, an Oscar is forever, but in practice, no matter how permanent the praise seems, you’re still letting others tell you how much you’re worth, and that means you’re still vulnerable to rejection, mockery, or the deeper shame of simply being forgotten. Seeking that kind of confidence really is paradoxical, because the more you want it, the farther you are from having it. It’s how people end up spending fortunes on blood diamonds or moving to L.A. It doesn’t really make you happy.
What we really need isn’t the confidence that comes from having done everything right so far, from “proving your worth,” but the confidence that comes from knowing that even if we screw up, it’s not the end of the world — and that’s not something you can get from success or affirmation. That’s the kind of thing that you can only water with a well-chosen word from someone you adore, by exceeding your own expectations, or — sappy as it sound — by experiencing unconditional love. That’s the national-jackpot kind of confidence that allows you remove confidence from your list of concerns. This is the kind of confidence we should be trying to encourage in our children and impart on our friends.
I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t listen to others’ opinions, care about other people, or try to make a difference in the world; but what you need to learn is to do it for yourself, not because of how it will make others feel about you. To do that, you need to find your own inspiration, your “intellectual eros,” and follow it. Focus on that and I think the rest will follow.
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