You Can Be Conditioned to Have No Confidence Even If You’re Very Capable

a steering wheel
Image by Aaron / CC BY

There are four children in my family. I have two older sisters and a younger brother, making me the third of four kids in the birth order. And quite importantly in an old school Catholic family that exalts sons above daughters and considers sons more capable and skilled, I’m the youngest girl in my family.

I grew up on a rural trucking route in the Maine woods about 10 miles from the nearest town. Snows were heavy during the long, dark winters. Our road was rarely plowed. Never sufficiently.

All three of my brothers and sisters and both of my parents have gone off the road while driving.

All three of my siblings have been in some sort of car accident. And gotten speeding tickets.

As of this writing, I have never gone off the road (either as a passenger or driver). Have never been in an accident. And have never gotten a speeding ticket.

This is pretty remarkable, looking at the odds. My high school car was the worst car in the family, a piece of crap purchased with gig money I’d scraped together. It had bald tires. Broke down twice in the time that I drove it (thankfully, about a quarter mile walk from civilization both times).

And I drove it everywhere. I lived in the thing, driving all over the state to play gigs, some of them in places more rural than where I lived. And my work schedule didn’t give a shit about the weather. It wasn’t unusual for me to drive two hours in one direction, play a gig for four hours and then drive another two hours back to the area, either to my house or to crash with a friend.

Did I have some scary times on the road? Sure.

But I also knew my car, and I knew how to adjust my driving to the conditions. I listened to the conversation between my tires and the road, and I adapted.

My Family Always Acted Like I Was an Unsafe Driver

In spite of this safe driving record, my parents acted like I was a disaster on wheels. Basically doomed to end myself any day now. Even as my (older and eventually younger) siblings went off the road, racked up speeding tickets, and got into fender benders, my parents seemed to focus all their parental driving anxiety on me.

If it were a blizzard out, they had no problem with my siblings heading out into it. But I would have to sneak out and likely get punished when I returned if I did the same.

To this day, I’m not sure why.

I know I stuck out in a lot of ways compared to my siblings. I was by far the most extroverted person in the house (the other five members of my nuclear family are introverts). Artsy. Bohemian. Read weird books and wore weird clothes. Was identified as gifted and talented as part of a childhood screening battery. Talked an annoying amount. Had odd taste. Said constantly that I wanted to leave Maine, travel, see the world.

I was embarrassing. Had a habit of saying the wrong things and making my parents look bad.

In another environment, I might have been considered creative, smart, a boon. But in small town Maine with a mother who had grown up as the pretty popular cheerleader and was basically the Martha Stewart of our zip code, a quirky nerdy daughter was a liability and not an asset.

They’d decided I was a bad kid. A loser. So I think they all just assumed I’d be a bad driver, too.

And to be fair to them, I’m not naturally spatially intelligent. It did take me a while to get the hang of good lane etiquette. The parallel parking portion of my driver’s exam was a real nailbiter. And I did take a while to not get lost driving around Maine.

But with time, persistence, and patience, I have become a very good, safe driver. A very attentive one.

And yet, even now, when I talk with my mother, twenty years after I’ve left high school, she seems mystified that I commuted for years without incident through a tricky route during rush hour in a large city (Cleveland). Or that I traveled all over Ohio conducting seminars, navigating a mix of unfamiliar country roads and unfamiliar city rush hours, racking up mileage all the while, in every imaginable state of weather.

Or that I have been driving around Dallas-Fort Worth without the world ending.

All by myself.

My First Husband Acted Like I Was an Unsafe Driver

My first husband got a few speeding tickets and had a couple fender benders. I don’t think he ever went off the road, but when we met, he’d been driving for less than a year, having gotten his driver’s license much later than I had — at 19 instead of 16, since his parents were happy to drive him around in high school, and he didn’t feel compelled to get it before then.

When we first started dating, I had to pick him up from work for the first few weeks because he’d gotten a speeding ticket for going 50 in a 35 mph school zone (out on a different rural trucking route that he grew up on, about a 35-minute drive from the one I grew up on). In his defense, the normal speed limit outside of school hours for that road was 50. He’d just spaced out and missed the school zone’s flashing lights.

An understandable mistake, but since he’d had his license for less than a year, he was still in his probationary period, which meant an automatic license suspension.

My first husband was a pretty decent driver, although would have attentional lapses (due to ADD and spotty treatment adherence), so would occasionally have a speeding ticket or a fender bender with a parked car. He got a ticket one time for driving without his headlights on. Stuff like that.

Was it a little annoying? Sure. It usually cost money that we didn’t really have. But I dealt with it, tried to be tolerant. People make mistakes. And I certainly didn’t say he shouldn’t drive anymore. I was just happy he wasn’t hurt.

This first husband, however, oddly was anxious about my driving.

He’d insist on driving when we were together and basically harangue me if I wanted to go out on the road by myself to do something like go to the grocery store. Especially after dark. (Which in the deepest part of Maine winter means about 3:30 pm.)

I always found this curious, since I had been driving for much longer than he had. And I had an entirely clean driving record. Looking at objective information, it would be reasonable to conclude that I was just as safe of a driver as he was. And one would think that my history would suggest that I was perhaps even more responsible.

But he could not be dissuaded.

And figuring I had bigger fish to fry in our relationship, I catered to this oddly specific anxiety of his and avoided going out alone after dark. I let him drive, even as I noted that he wasn’t always focused. Was he perfect? No. But he was safe enough of a driver that I didn’t feel scared when he drove.

I Internalized the Belief that I Was an Unsafe Driver

Because of this history, however, I entered into my 30s and into my second marriage with a lack of confidence surrounding my driving abilities. I was convinced I was an unsafe driver.

When I moved to Cleveland, I was glad for the ready availability of public transit (there had been none in Maine), and for the first few years relied on the bus system and rides from friends.

The idea of driving in a much bigger city than I had ever driven in was frankly terrifying. Especially against a backdrop of years of people worrying for my safety driving along much more straightforward country roads. Maine mostly posed risks due to inclement weather, the threat of unexpected spooked deer, and the possibility of a sleepy truck driver getting heavy eyelids and barreling into you.

Cleveland had all of those things plus heavy traffic and complicated road signage and lane layouts that baffled me when I first arrived.

Ohio DOT did, however, actually plow and salt their roads. So there was that. (Was it perfect? Nope. But it was worlds better than the winter road treatments where I grew up in Maine.)

Anyway, when I finished studying to become a psychological researcher and got a consulting job on the other side of Greater Cleveland that wasn’t easily accessible by public transit, my new husband and I picked out a reliable used car for me.

And I plunged into near-constant anxiety, feeling overwhelmed by the task before me. Of learning how to navigate busy city roads and get to my new professional position without destroying myself and everything around me.

In spite of what was now decades of an entirely clear driving record, I had been gifted an internal voice that thought I was an awful, unsafe driver. Completely incapable of the commute I now had.

I Drove Very Well (and Very Safely) in a Big City Setting

Now, was city driving stressful at first?

You betcha.

I had to learn to zipper merge. To spot and adjust to the emergence of exit only lanes. To sync harmoniously with the rhythm of stop and go without smacking into anyone or ruining my brakes.

And horror of horrors, I had left exits to deal with!

Oh, the humanity!

But you know what? I did it.

And as my position grew at the company, I found myself traveling all over the state to client sites in a mix of rural and urban settings. I had to navigate completely new areas, sight reading them for the first time as I visited.

And I did just fine.

I even took stints at the wheel when my husband and I drove to Vegas and back for our (long delayed) honeymoon.

“I’m Doing a Great Job. How Am I Doing This?” Versus “Why Didn’t I Think I Could Do This?”

I’m thinking about this now, as I am off in unfamiliar parts of Texas, driving to a writing retreat in a part of the state I’ve never before visited.

As I’m navigating downtown traffic in a major city where I don’t know the patterns.

I’m doing a great job. How am I doing this? 

And then another thought hits me.

Why didn’t I think I could do this? 

Lack Confidence and Ability Are Different Things

I ask my husband later, when we meet up after my retreat. While it’s possible that I have just gotten lucky in my driving record, he doesn’t think so. He’s ridden as my passenger when I’m driving and has told me he considers me a good driver. (And he is arguably the best driver I’ve ever known, so his opinion means a lot to me.)

He says that the disconnect between how I feel about my driving and the way that I actually drive is likely a result of childhood abuse. Ways I was dismissed, invalidated, and discounted over and over again. Sometimes specifically when it came to driving but not always. (Because he’s noticed that I’m similarly unaware that I’m skilled in other areas, too.)

“I wonder if I will ever learn that I can do things. Really internalize that idea. If I can develop a bit of confidence. Or if I will thrive in spite of it,” I say.

“Why can’t it be both?” he asks.

“I don’t see how it can be both,” I reply.

He reminds me of something that I’ve told him many times: That confidence and ability truly are separate tracks. That you don’t have to feel like you are capable to have the potential to do something. And that you can be confident without having actual ability.

“All you have to do is make sure that the lack of confidence doesn’t keep you from putting yourself out there and trying things,” he tells me.

It’s terrifying, putting yourself out there when you don’t feel like you can do it. Doing stuff without feeling confident, I think. But okay. Let’s do this.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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