What healthy self-confidence is good for, how it’s lost, and how to build it back up
Self-confidence is the commodity of an era. It gets you that Job, it motivates you in the morning, it puts gas in your car, it gets you that Date with that Person. Heck, we’ve seen it can even make you president of an entire country, despite obviously lacking in qualifications.
The extreme opposite of this, is self-hate. The other extreme opposite of this, is delusion (see president reference above). The majority of people however, seem to be rather complaining of too little of it, more so than they are of too much. For, well, obvious reasons.
If you think you too struggle with low self-confidence, fam, I’ve got you covered.
The starting point
I used to have ze-ro self-confidence. Not as in ‘failing to see my full potential’ or ‘thinking I need to lose x amount of weight to feel good about my body’. No, my friends, not to undermine those struggles, but compared to what I’m talking about, that’s amateur league. I’m talking none at all, in no walks of life. If a self-confidence doctor were to exist, he’d come over to my depression bed to examine me and proclaim calmly while standing at a safe distance, I’m sorry, she’s dead Jim. The flies circling, the decomposition process. Not only is this self-confidence dead, she’s been dead a while.
And where there is no self-confidence, self-hate has room to take over.
I hated myself so deeply and profoundly I probably have yet to realize some of the implications and consequences. These days, I rank a decent ‘Meh, she’s doing okay. You could take care of your self-confidence a little bit better, but she’s doing okay.’ — which is superhero-level for me considering I started out with the dead embodiment of self-confidence, paraded around in nice makeup and flashy clothes while trying to pretend like it didn’t reek of death and decomposition. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The origins (vol. I of II)
First, we need to address an important issue: how did my self-confidence come to die? — and what can you learn from that so yours doesn’t have to, or perhaps most importantly, your children’s. Because the death of my self-confidence doesn’t even begin with me. It begins with my young mother, being raised by a pathologically narcissistic, absent mother and an alcoholic, abusive father.
What’s that got to do with me, a child raised by two present, non-abusive, middle-class normal people? Well, you’ll have to bear with me for some background on this.
To start, my mother did well in life not with help from her parents, but rather in spite of their lack thereof. They were practically never there, too caught up in their own demons and battles. There was no guidance, there was communism and poverty, there was fighting in the house, there was alcohol abuse on the daily in the house, there was physical violence in the house, mistakes were made, consequences were fully experienced.
Naturally, she wanted none of that for her child. Throughout my childhood, she did literally — and I try not abuse the use of the word ‘literally’ — everything she could to ensure I succeed. She had an idea of what success looked like: a career that pays a decent living, knowing lots of shit, and getting good external feedback.
While her definition of a successful life has dramatically changed for the better throughout time and she today inspires me by being way less interested in irrelevant external feedback and by working a job she adores (Psychologist, she still gets great feedback though), child-Moody had yet to meet that woman she would become.
Child-Moody met a successful HR Manager for the local branch of a multinational corporation, who started out her career age 19 as a secretary with a minimum 12-year education and a degree in making little metal tractor pieces for the glory of the communist party. When the communist party reign of terror was finally over, at the cost of many lives, I was 3 months old. My single mother took a typography course and the first job that would have her to support me.
Needless to say, having made it from that, without a Degree, to the position of HR Manager for the local branch of a multinational corporation, was not easy to achieve for my mother. She wanted none of that struggle for me.
She didn’t care what I wanted to become in life, so long as it required some sort of external validation to achieve. I got to decide what it was but bitch you better work for it. You better study, live your life the way I tell you it’s best because I’ve either tried or seen the opposite and it’s bad, and brush your teeth twice a day. Everything else is irrelevant. Again, this is far from her mindset today, a lot changes in 20 years.
As with anything else she sets her mind to, my mother was methodical, persistent, and ruthless in her approach to seeing me make an easy living. Paradoxically, that made it a bit hard for me to do so. But more on that later. She believed in being rough on me with love, however even though I have loved and admired her to bits my entire life, I have only really felt loved by her in the past about 10 of my 29 years of life. The rest of the time, I rationally knew she loved me, because she would’ve cut off her own arm with a fish-knife to see me be healthy and do well in life, but I didn’t feel loved. What I did feel like, was a constant disappointment.
We shared a love for books, the English language, and movies with a plot. The tension back then, however, was so thick you could butter it on your toast for breakfast, so for many years we rarely got to enjoy either of those together. Frequently, interaction was marked by my failure to do shit. She didn’t know it yet — and neither did I — but I was living with severe anxiety and depression. What I did know is, I am a failure. The more I felt like I disappointed her, the more I’d hate myself, the more that self-hate would cause me to fail in everything, the more desperate she’d become to fix my life.
By the time we figured out the vicious cycle and moved past it, I had moved out of my parents’ house age 18 and started work as a junior copywriter. It seems obvious if I lay it out post-fact, all neatly arranged to fit the span of a few paragraphs, but it took two otherwise intelligent people the better part of 10 years to figure this shit out. It’s ironic to sound like my mother used to, but I must warn you not to do this shit: don’t let your love go borderline on the side of mania about making sure your child succeeds, we’ve done this shit, we’ve done the entire war-of-the-worlds with our relationship, it doesn’t work.
Trust us, saying the I-love-you-s, doing the hugging thing, all that BS, it helps. Don’t forget to do that shit and don’t forget to listen to each other, like really make it a two-way-thing. It’s helped our relationship evolve immensely, to a point of mutual respect, genuine openness, regard for each other’s boundaries, trust, and kindness. But also, be there for your kids, be physically there, teach rules and discipline, because those are important too. Just make sure to do that corporate ‘feedback sandwich’ thing: hug them improvement points between a couple of I-love-you-s and I’m-proud-of-how-you-handled-s.
The origins (vol. II of II)
My dad wasn’t very good at doing that either. OK, he was complete crap at it. He’s trying, but he still kind of sucks at it today (sorry Dad). Please, don’t judge though. There was nobody in his family who could have taught him how to do any of that. Trust me, I’ve met his parents.
This was somewhat covered in another wordy piece here, so for those of you who might know this, feel free to skip the tutorial — I’ll detail my father’s circumstances for a bit here, just so everyone can start to see how self-confidence runs in families like a fucked-up genetic mental illness.
My father was criticized constantly by his parents, forced into an ideal he never wanted to commit to and judged to this day for his refusal to do so. His own father died without ever having said the I-love-you-s, his mother looks at a 50+ year-old Engineer who never wanted an academic career — and still scolds him out-loud in fucking public to this day for having not chosen said academic career. Shit you not. I think her last words to her son will be ‘You should have been an academic professor, it would’ve looked great on your tombstone’. Add Meryl Streep to that level of mental fucked-up and you’ve got yourself a bloody Oscar-candidate motion picture.
Having probably never received an actual real hug from anyone in his family throughout his entire childhood, to this day, hugging my father feels like giving a warm, cosy embrace to an unplugged chainsaw — sorry Dad. He has — this calls for that word again — literally never learned how to do any of that, just like a child raised in the basement deprived of human speech cannot learn how to speak.
In the tragic instances humanity has sadly seen of speech-and-human-contact-deprived children, resulting adults were not only understandably unimaginably traumatized, they were also incapable of acquiring any coherent speech skills whatsoever, despite the efforts engaged by specialists in the field and the patients’ otherwise medical capability to do so. Their entire vocabularies were forever reduced to disparate simple words and incoherent syllables. That ‘brain real estate’, which was supposed to handle speech, had been taken over — lost to survival skills the brain was forced into instead under the harsh circumstances. (If you’d like to know more about the fascinating world of neuroplasticity, as well as the science behind what I’ve just been simplistically babbling about, I cannot make enough recommends to look into the book The Brain that Changes Itself). However, on to my point:
Just like trying to teach an adult who has been deprived of human speech throughout their entire childhood how to speak has proven to be unsuccessful, teaching my adult 50+ year-old father how to give and receive hugs is bloody impossible. He tries. He really does. He may even subconsciously enjoy it, but I only know that because I’ve seen studies in regard to the need for human contact — his face says ‘medieval torture that I am taking with dignity’.
Naturally, my father does love me. Some days, he may even feel a little proud of me, despite my not being a doctor or engineer or even a software developer. And my father shows that love the only way he was ever taught how to: through incessant nagging.
Throughout my childhood and entire adult life, he’s never once out-loud said that he loves me (I don’t think he can), or that he’s proud of me or even X thing I did (he did say ‘Nice, that’s a good job.’ when I recently changed work arrangements, which I took to mean his equivalent of that.), or that I’m pretty, you know, that shit you tell your kids. He often told me I was smart, but always with a ‘, but’, as in ‘smart, but lazy’ or ‘smart, but you don’t want to …’. He believes that the positive shit is implied — and anything worth mentioning is stuff that could be improved upon. Well, child-Moody did not believe that the positive shit was implied, that was for adult-Moody to figure out later.
So now we’ve seen the mechanics behind how self-confidence becomes terminally ill and dies in action: throughout childhood, slowly, often at the unsuspecting hands of those who love us the most, people who had previously been deprived of self-confidence by their own parents, whom in turn had probably had parents whose lives couldn’t even afford to register the concept.
This is just one mild story, the one I’m best qualified to use as an example, my own. But self-confidence-deaths far more tragic occur daily. If you need to take something away from this entire long intro, that’s balance: whatever you were given throughout childhood, you owe it to yourself and, if it is the case, your child, to try and do neither the complete manic opposite (control-freak-level-presence), nor the exact same thing (incessant, soul-crushing critique) — because they’re both essentially the same self-abusive thing.
You owe it to yourself, and you deserve to find, balance: a well-founded relationship with yourself where you approach self-improvement from a place of love, as well as discipline. To do that, you need self-confidence: without it, each failure feels like you are the failure. That gives you no energy reserves to exert the discipline part. There’s none of that falling and getting back up sorts of thing, there’s just a constant dragging at ground level.
While lack of discipline can turn your mostly unqualified son into the president, not being taught self-confidence can turn your brilliant president-material son who happens to somehow not fit your labels (like maybe happens to be gay), into a hopeless self-hating bare-minimum depression-zombie. Like I said, examples far more dramatic than my own are everywhere.
We’ve noticed, at a civilized-internet-access-society-by-and-large level, that self-confidence is a good thing. Naturally, we feed on and, in some cases, produce, inspiration porn to tap into that need for speaking the alien language of self-love. We call self-love all sorts of names: a successful career, a great love life, a certain number on the scale, fame, fortune, respect. But it always feeds back into our definition of being worthy of self-love and self-respect. You believe that there is a certain level you must get to before you unlock the privilege that is feeling self-confident.
The good news is: you are worthy of that self-confidence right now. And working on that will allow you to unlock those other levels you’re going for more easily.
I started my self-confidence journey thinking I was lazy, irreparably ugly, a disappointment to both my parents and a burden on their lives, and an undeserving, annoying cunt that was going to amount to nothing in life. Today, I think I’m a survivor of mental illness, a self-sustained adult working a job I love, who wants to retire into rescuing abandoned cats and writing lengthy essays on life and the human mind. Oh, and I look pretty damn bomb, too. Do I think that every second? Fuck no. But I try to think it more and more, and to give myself daily measurable reasons to do so (like finishing this wordy essay).
I am the same person; all that’s changed is how I narrate my own story. Which means that if you’ve managed to battle through reading that entire modern-day War and Peace above and we’re all coming from a place of realistic empathy, it’s nearly time for your internet-friendly how-to-list.
Let’s break down the actions I took to get from a zombie-nobody’s-buying-it self-confidence level, to a decent level that I’m still working to improve. It does boil down to action of course; the story and mindset can only change through consistent action that forces and reinforces the development of new pathways and connections in your brain.
You cannot combat years of an internal self-abusive narrator in your head constantly saying you’re shit with a few self-help articles (present one included). The articles might help you rationally understand that you are definitely most decidedly not shit, but I fucking knew that 10 years ago, yet I still didn’t feel like I was worthy of anything nor was I acting like it.
The daily action-points
Your brain is going to need proof if it is to believe the new narrator that you are trying to put in place of the self-abusive jerk that’s been narrating your internal monolog for its entire existence. Focus on what you can fully control. There isn’t much in life in your control, yet there are things you can strive to take charge of. Your brain is going to need solid proof in favour of that new-and-improved narrator. And solid proof only comes from measurable action. Here is a list of 5 crowd-favourite starters:
1. If you need to, take your mind to the doctor just like you do any other body part that needs medical attention.
No, seriously, get that shit looked at. See a Psychologist about that thing you do to your nails when you’re stressed. Talk to a specialist about those moments when you feel that life is a void of despair. If you’ve ‘always wondered if you should’, then yes, you should see a mental health specialist about ‘that thing’. Yes, especially you, out there in the back thinking you don’t need help because you can ‘power through it on your own’; you don’t have to live like this, and we wouldn’t be debating your ‘powering through this’ without medical attention if you had an infected cut on your back. Why are you letting this monkey live there? And speaking of monkeys on one’s back:
2. Get help about your self-destructive behaviours.
I say this as someone who is that person, and does some of the things, and is still working on not doing some of the things. Whatever your poison, do your best to stop slowly killing yourself.
Get help about the smoking/drinking/drug abuse/skin-picking — whatever the fuck it is you choose to do that you know is bad for you, try and reduce that to the minimum, without beating yourself up for your failures, gently but firmly. Learn how to cook simple shit that’s good for you and actually do it. Go on long walks, at least on weekends. And for fuck’s sake, there is no shame in seeking medical help with your destructive coping mechanisms. Which also segues well into:
3. Keep your health as in check as possible within your particular circumstances.
Get those annual check-ups. Get that thing on your arm looked at. Scan your boobs once a year if you own a pair. You know what I’m talking about. All that shit that reasonable parents enforce on their children, you’re an adult now, and you must enforce them upon yourself. Not only does physical health support mental health, but you’re going to feel better mentally about the act of having taken responsibility itself. And because I’m seriously on fire here on the transitions:
4. Take responsibility for your own life.
Luck, circumstances, your parents, fate, Joe Pesci, whatever or whomever you’re trying to pass on the responsibility of your own life to, they don’t want it. Take that shit back. Get that shit together. To quote an internet cult favourite, ‘get your shit together, get it all together and put it in a backpack, all your shit, so it’s together’.
We get a shit-load of ‘had I been born in a different country’ in 2nd world, Romania and to that I say: either move to a different country, actively do something about it, or shut the fuck up and stop complaining on Facebook. There are people who fled wars to get to 2nd world, Romania. There are also people who actively do shit to help change the state of affairs in 2nd world, Romania. If you’re neither, take responsibility for your life. This logic applies to a lot of different walks of life.
We’re all tempted to throw the blame around. On our parents, without the minimum courtesy of taking the time to understand how they got to where they are themselves and to show empathy. On the government. On a load of shit we either cannot, or will not do what it takes to, change.
We have two choices in the face of shit we can’t change or control: do our part to try and change it if applicable (which in itself will improve your self-esteem, but again social media sharing doesn’t count) OR shut the fuck up and focus on what we can do under the circumstances, instead of what we could have done had the circumstances been different. I learned about that last option from my mother. As she brilliantly puts it: what you can do with what you have, not what you can do with what you don’t have. Which brings me to something you can start doing right now, as in starting this second, with what you have, which is your own brain:
5. Give that narrator in your head a fresh new script to focus on.
Closely examine how you view yourself. How you talk to you, in your head, every day. We’re each the main character of the movie that is our life. What attributes do you assign to that character? How do you direct the movie? What script is the narrator reading? Read that thing out-loud, or at the very least imagine what it would be like to. Does that in any way sound like something you’d say out-loud to your Mum? If it doesn’t, we need to work on that.
I’m still struggling, too. But I’m getting better. If you struggle with this, you can get better too. It starts with paying attention to that script — and slowly sneaking in replacement attributes, adjectives, verbs, and phrases.
For example: I live in the same body, if anything it’s aged a tad, as one does, yet I kind of feel like good wine, I’m aging into a better version of me that I love more and more. All that’s changed is how I see myself. Also, my brow-game is better, but that’s not the point. Instead of describing my character as ‘ugly, crooked teeth, long nose’, I tried to get creative with it. Nowadays it’s my Cleopatra-nose and my ‘statement features’. This has increased my willingness to love my body in a healthy way, take care of it medically, feed it healthier things, and try to move it around a bit from this expensive typing machine — all without becoming delusional about my self-image.
Similarly, I am not ‘lazy’, I am living with depression and anxiety, and I’m doing better and better every day at doing so. I’m taking my medication, I’m doing my best to learn to get out of my comfort zone more in my day-to-day work and interact with people face-to-face (I know right), I’m replacing the internal void with alcohol dramatically less often than I used to (down to a healthy occasional level), and I’m doing better at acknowledging my small victories while demanding The Improvement from myself (see what I did there?).
Of course, this is all in your head. I don’t go around describing myself to people in the day-to-day, and when I have to I keep it functional, like the one with the blue hair and the animal-print umbrella, as one does, so as to not make it weird for that dude you purchased the second-hand MacBook charger from.
Still, that shit you put in your own head beyond the functional descriptors, translates into how you present yourself to the world on a subtler level — and it especially plays heavily into how you relate to yourself.
The willingness to go interview the fuck out of that Job, to go ask that Person out, to do the Thing, it comes from a healthy level of self-confidence, which resides somewhere in the middle on the scale from ‘delusional’ to ‘suicidal-tendencies’. If anything, err on the side of delusional — the entire world got to witness the impact that can have on your (political) career, regardless of your qualifications.
As ever: Thank you for taking the time to debate with me today.
Ever since John Gorman surprised me with a feature side-by-side so many amazing authors, thank you so much you are an incredible writer and human, my self-confidence sure has increased due to external feedback, I don’t want to be a hypocrite here, tons of credit is due and gladly given.
Readers’ feedback has inspired me to share more personal examples that I didn’t think people would care for, to illustrate my points. Send me a thought if you think we need more of that in our lives — or of course send me a good dose of constructive criticism if you feel like we should get back to my more detached manner of making a point.
Until our next debate, stay safe, nerds.