3 Kinds of Confidence
As a psychotherapist and life-coach I frequently hear people say that they have a problem with confidence. They don’t have any. They want that seemingly magical personal power of feeling capable of taking risks and boldly pursuing goals with the positive anticipation that they will be accomplished. Or even, more simply, they imagine just having the courage to speak up in a group at a party. Instead, there is a belief and a feeling that they are too flawed and/or weak to deserve to feel confidence. They feel timid and hesitant and intimidated by others and by life in general. The dilemma could be described this way: How can any of us develop confidence if that requires doing things that we can only do if we have some confidence?
Of course, it’s not like I have thought about this merely because people come to me and ask for help with it. As if I have always had it. Ha! Confidence? Not me when I was younger. I remember a time when I would feel extremely nervous about having to even say my name when sitting in a circle of people in a meeting. Working on this personally over many years I have been able to do things I once couldn’t have imagined. For instance, teaching classes for 3 hours, speaking extemporaneously and barely referring to my notes the whole time. Or once speaking for 15 minutes to an audience of 6,000 people. So, I know something about what it feels like to lack confidence and how to cultivate it. I am grateful that I had to go through it all, as it has helped me to understand and be more helpful to my clients.
As the topic of confidence is potentially vast, I will narrow down what I have to say to just a few basic things. 1. What is confidence? 2. What different kinds of confidence are there? 3. How can I get me some?
According to the Oxford English dictionary, confidence is: “The feeling that you can trust, believe in, and be sure about the abilities or good qualities of someone or something”. For my purposes here, I am talking about self-confidence. Although, as you will see, it could also be applied to gauging our feeling of confidence in others. So, self-confidence is our feeling and belief in our own abilities and good qualities. I think that is a good enough starting point.
Kinds of confidence? I’m not talking about, for instance, the confidence to cook a great lasagne as opposed to the confidence to sell snow to Eskimos. These are rather different areas where we might have confidence, not different kinds of confidence. So, here they are, the 3 kinds of confidence:
This is the confidence we feel by virtue of being able to fulfil certain conditions. Or at least believing that we can. Since there are potentially so many of these conditions, I will break them down into 4 basic categories. 1. Body 2. Mind 3. Relationships 4. Environment.
Regarding our body, we measure and judge ourselves in many ways. We judge and are judged by others in these ways as well. Fill in the blank. Am I ______ enough? Attractive, strong, healthy, tall, thin, graceful, coordinated, flexible, able to do things, etc. Sometimes it comes down to things like the whiteness of our teeth or the clearness of our complexion. We think, if only I could meet these conditions, I could feel confident.
Following on from body, we might ask ourselves if our mind is enough. Am I smart, knowledgeable, witty, funny, wise, “deep”, creative, thoughtful or aware enough? We can.be uncertain about so many things and believe that this is not okay. We think we should have an answer for every question and the fact that we don’t leads us to self-doubt. How we think about ourselves turns out to be a primary factor in whether we feel confident or not.
When we lack confidence in this area we tend to answer negatively to the following questions. Am I likeable/loveable? Do I have anything to offer in a relationship? Can I set boundaries with people when they step over a line with me or expect too much? Can I ask directly for what I want or need from someone? Is there anywhere that I feel I belong socially? Am I able to confront and work through conflicts with people? Can I initiate conversations or change the topic in a conversation? Am I comfortable disagreeing with someone when I have a different opinion? If we are confident, we will generally answer positively to these kinds of questions.
Whether we feel environmentally confident or not depends on how sure we feel of our abilities and good qualities in different places and circumstances. Are we best when we are home alone? Or maybe that’s when we feel most anxious. Are we confident while walking in nature? How about climbing a mountain or downhill skiing? Are we confident when meeting at a café with a good friend, but not so much at a party in a place we’ve never been and with many people we’ve never met? What about a job interview or asking for a loan in a bank? Do we feel good about our home and comfortable about it when inviting guests?
When reflecting on our level of conditional confidence, these are the kinds of things we can consider. Maybe we feel generally lacking in confidence, but if we think about ourselves in terms of body, mind, relationships and environment, we might discover that there are areas that we do feel confident. It is important to recognise and appreciate this about ourselves. It is something to build on.
How do I get me some of that conditional confidence?
This is a big question, and I don’t have the space in this brief piece to dig deeply into it. What I can say is that for this we will need to gain knowledge and skills and practice them a lot in whichever area we wish to feel confident. We must earn it by learning it. If we want to feel good about and in our bodies, we will have to take care of them, build our strength and hold ourselves in a confident posture. If we want to feel confident about our minds, we may have to train ourselves to pay attention to certain things, study and gain knowledge in an area of interest and replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. To feel confident in relationships we may have to learn active listening, assertiveness and conflict resolution skills. To cultivate environmental confidence, we will have to go to places where we feel uncomfortable and learn and practice whatever skills are necessary to feel some sense of comfort and mastery in that place.
To become more conditionally confident there are no real shortcuts. We must earn it. We must do the work. We must gain the competencies that empower us to fulfil whatever conditions are required.
Ah, this is a whole other kind of confidence. It is the opposite of conditional confidence. It has nothing to do with what we know or can do. It is not dependent on having abilities or even “good qualities”. We don’t have to earn it. There is nothing to prove to anyone, even oneself. It isn’t about being able to fulfil conditions of any kind. Rather, it is a belief and a feeling about who we fundamentally are. We are workable. We deserve to take up space and oxygen as much as anyone else simply because we exist. If we don’t know or can’t do something, there is no shame. We rest in either accepting this or trust ourselves to learn whatever we may need to learn. We don’t mind saying, “I don’t know’. Uncertainty is not a problem. We are comfortable with not meeting other people’s expectations, or at least this does not make us fundamentally doubt ourselves as a person. When encountering difficulty, we move straight toward it with trust that we will figure it out. And even if we can’t there is no shame.
When I describe this to clients there are a variety of reactions. Some think it is a strange and impossible idea. Some think it is a great idea, but perhaps out of reach for them. Some get curious about how they might feel unconditionally confident.
How can I get me some of that too?
As this isn’t particularly about knowledge or skills, the way to learn it doesn’t fit our usual way of thinking. It is more a state of being that is accessed by relaxing into it. It is not something that we have to get. It is already within us; we just haven’t found it yet. There are practices for finding and embodying it, which I may elaborate on elsewhere. For now, I will say that the way to it is facilitated by aligning our thoughts and feelings with the possibility. At first it can seem like we are pretending it is true and seeing what that’s like. In time this can become a tangible, visceral experience. When I say “thoughts”, I don’t just mean concepts represented by words and language. Although that can be powerful, I also mean the imagination, i.e., visualisations of sensory objects that can represent and carry the feeling of this state of unconditional confidence. For instance, a jewel, an animal, the sun, a natural setting like a mountain top. Whatever image evokes a sense of strength and goodness. So, it doesn’t have to just be trying to convince ourselves of this wild idea and “believing” it. We can do things that evoke experiences that give us direct personal contact with it.
When I have studied other people’s ideas about confidence it has generally seemed that they emphasise either one of these 2 kinds of confidence. Either they are all about developing oneself so that one can fulfil and embody the conditions that will deliver a feeling of confidence, or they focus on various ways to do affirmations about being capable, beautiful, powerful, etc. and go light on the hard work part.
What I am suggesting is that, even though they appear antithetical to each other, both conditional and unconditional confidence are equally important. In fact, they make each other more possible. Unconditional confidence invites us to try and take risks. Conditional confidence begins to hint at the possibility of our fundamental okayness. To side exclusively with unconditional confidence, we may relax too much and believe it isn’t necessary to learn or do anything. We just want to enjoy our good feeling up on our comfy cloud. To side exclusively with conditional confidence can leave us feeling we are never enough, while we exhaust ourselves trying to be anyway.
While I am writing about “self-confidence”, funnily enough this last kind of confidence isn’t about self-confidence at all. How’s that? Well, it isn’t about the self, because it is beyond the self. Both conditional and unconditional confidence have to do with what we believe and feel about ourselves, whether in the realm of our relative abilities and qualities, or about our fundamental nature. The central reference point for both is the self. They start with “I am” and complete the sentence with something positive. We then attach ourselves to these thoughts and feeling and hope to enjoy a positive feeling and efficacy about what we can do and who we are. This is all fine and good and the aim of most people who are concerned with self-confidence. What else could there possibly be?
There is just straight up confidence without any preoccupation with the self. Have you ever noticed that when you are completely immersed in something you love and have a passionate interest in, you’re not thinking about yourself? You’re not pestered by thoughts of self-doubt, but neither are you giving yourself a pep talk. To use a sports metaphor, you are just out on the field playing the game. You’re not listening to the opponents’ fans booing you, or even your own cheerleading squad cheering you on. You’re just playing. I think artists, musicians and writers also experience this “flow state”, but probably any activity can cause it. Cooking, sewing, public speaking, mechanical engineering, pet grooming, you name it. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly to what we love, we can get out of our own way. We are not important. What is important is what we love and our engagement with that. It is probably true that transcendent confidence becomes a possibility because we have already cultivated conditional and unconditional confidence, but it is beyond both. The first 2 are necessary but not sufficient for the 3rd kind.
Think of things in nature. The beautiful blooming flower. It just blooms. As far as we can tell, it is not telling itself it is beautiful, nor does it berate itself when it starts to fade. The river doesn’t have to convince itself to flow, nor the sun to shine, nor the rain to fall, nor the seed to grow. They just do. Transcendent confidence, I am suggesting, is about that very same basic energy moving though us as we do things we love. We imagine we are doing these things, but maybe these things are being done through us by forces beyond our awareness or even imagination. We are being used in the best sense possible. As in the song: “If it feels this good being used, then you keep on using me ‘til you use me up.
How to get this transcendent confidence? We can’t get it. We can’t possess it. Just forget about yourself and what you're going to get. When self-critical thoughts arise, just notice them like birds flitting through the sky. Don’t follow them. Let them go. What we can do is discover what we love and and care about and give ourselves to that completely. When we are preoccupied with thoughts about ourselves, we can come back to that. Then transcendent confidence just may happen. While conditional and unconditional confidence may lead to transcendent confidence, that level of confidence beyond the self can then shines down like a sun and cause conditional and unconditional confidence to grow and thrive naturally and effortlessly.
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