There’s always been a lot of pressure to express self-confidence a certain way, in grandiose inflated terms, something that goes a little like this:
“I know I’m terrific. Wonderful. The absolute best. No one and nothing’s gonna hold me back.”
But for me, it’s just not realistic. When I speak the words, they feel silly coming out of my mouth. Like a brag that I’m pleading for the rest of the world to believe.
I suppose it doesn’t help that I knew several individuals with this kind of attitude who were not actually exceptionally talented folks but the most deluded people I’ve ever met. They were fairly standard issue in most aspects except for their inflated sense of self-worth, which led them to trample on others and cause harm that they would never even acknowledge, let alone apologize for. They were bullies. Snobs.
So I was always dubious of this approach on a gut feel level, although surrounded by people who preached its value. Disney movies, teachers, parents, counselors who’d come into school to do self-esteem workshops.
And once I went on to formally study research, the notion of being grandiose about self-esteem became even more impossible to stomach. Because in spite of what the well-intentioned self-esteem movement may have preached, careful followup research has found that elevated self-esteem doesn’t lead to positive mental health. The self-esteem movement jumped to conclusions with some early correlational work and got the causality backwards. Self-esteem was not a goal to pursue in and of itself that would make life success more likely; instead, it was a positive result that could be found after the fact in certain people who had achieved their goals. And pursuing higher self-esteem (especially without making other positive changes in their behavior and environment) could actually make people less happy.
So I’ve had to figure out a different kind of self-confidence. A self-confidence that hinges on knowing that I can accomplish reasonable tasks on a consistent basis (self-efficacy) and knowing that I’m allowed to make human mistakes without it meaning that I’m a defective person (self-compassion).
Letting Enough Be Enough Instead of Needing to Be the Best
I have no place in my life for a self-confidence that requires that I be fantastic or think that I’m the best at anything.
One might think that if you shoot for the moon, you’d end up among the stars. That by believing that you’re the best that if you can’t meet that standard (because reality, unfairness, your limitations, and/or human frailty get in the way), you’ll still feel pretty damn good.
But unfortunately, emotional absolutes don’t work that way. And for many people, trying to be the best means that they feel like the worst when they fall even a bit short of that. And instead it’s best to get away from absolutes altogether.
That’s why I have plenty of room for a self-confidence that recognizes I have the capability to do a great many things while I’m alive. To make an impact. Maybe it’s not the biggest impact, but it’s something I can do. And be proud of.
And I also have plenty of room for the kind of self-confidence that allows me to be imperfect, to forgive myself when I mess up with the same level of graciousness that I would show a close friend.
It’s enough for me.
And the funny thing is? I’ve found that in the years since I’ve stopped assigning value to how much self-esteem I have (or don’t), started fixating less on myself, and focusing more on what I can accomplish — giving myself permission to be imperfect so long as I’m putting myself out there and trying things — that I’ve actually come to feel better about myself than I ever did when I was focused on striving for superlatives and absolutes.