🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9paltc-bpTQ.
It’s been a while since I have written a new long-form piece. My day job has been keeping me busy; I hope you can forgive me. I’ve had this piece in my mind for a long time, and I hope you get as much out of reading it as I did thinking about it. Cheers!
When an employee acts brashly, insensitively, selfishly, or in other emotionally-unintelligent ways, there is an opportunity for the people responsible for their care to take a step back and ask: Where is this person along their journey toward true self-confidence?
Aging has brought me many gifts, and one of those is the discovery that self-confidence issues are the heart of nearly all our thorniest problems. This is particularly true in the workplace, where we are paid for our skill and knowledge, and where exposing our weaknesses seems to be in direct conflict with our employers’ expectations of us. Part of my life’s journey has involved confronting this paradox, which, as a recovering low-self-confidence sufferer, I find fulfilling.
I am always fascinated listening to people’s answers when I ask:
If you are smart, you have, will have, or have had, an issue with self-confidence at some point in your life (if not your entire life). This has been a barrier to your sense of forward movement and attitude about the world around you. It has affected the number and quality of your relationships. It has stunted your emotional growth. It has caused you anxiety and, perhaps, depression. It has caused horrible arguments. It has left you feeling lonely and confused. It might have amplified addictive behaviors and underpinned many others.
Smart people share many issues, and the most ironic is an ability to see how ignorant they are about many things, which is a common cause of constantly-unsettling private distress. Those who are ignorant of their own ignorance are truly blissful. But as we effortlessly declare ourselves the apotheosis of intelligence, we cite our self-ascribed superiority as fact to our children the moment they begin to inquire about our companion creatures on this planet, setting them on a confusing inner journey of self-doubt that is embarrassing for them to confront aloud.
We’re gentle to our children during their earliest learning years, but with the arrival of kindergarten, each child sees the commencement of years of punitive, competitive schooling. If knowledge failure is shamed, why would a child want to admit mental shortcoming? The inward spiral of self-humiliation knows no bounds, and we craft façades to shield intruders from our ignorance.
As adults, if we aim to strengthen — rather than raze — the know-it-all façades we have been programmed to build, they become barriers to the success we are paid to achieve. This is a shame, yet the pattern is rampant. Unraveling this fact requires us to take the time to examine what true self-confidence really looks like.
So: How would you describe a person who is self-confident?
Take a breath and ponder for a minute before moving on.
Which of the following is true about people with true self-confidence?
- They consistently speak with remarkable authority about any topic imaginable.
- They are seemingly-impenetrable to criticism.
- They have a way of ensuring that they are always “put together,” exerting great effort into appearing polished in every way, from their jewelry to their body to their vehicle.
- They work hard to exemplify the superiority of the human race.
- They work hard to make sure people like them.
- They are consistently assertive and decisive, never showing chinks in their armor.
- They readily and eagerly admit when they are wrong.
- They try to speak sparingly and carefully.
- They understand their limitations and are open to criticism.
- They earnestly apologize for wrongdoing and make amends.
- They appreciate their weaknesses, and enjoy an opportunity to share and discuss them with others.
- They balance assertiveness and decisiveness with vulnerability and humility.
- They care more about doing right by others than being liked.
How did you answer?
- If 1–6 were among your answers, you have grand opportunity ahead to experience the relief and power of true self-confidence.
- If your answers included elements of 7–13, you are on the road already.
- If all of your answers were from 7–13, you fully understand what true self-confidence is.
- If you live 7–13, you are a truly self-confident individual.
Those Who Are Self-Confident…
Let’s take a close look at the hallmarks of people who are truly self-confident:
They readily and eagerly admit when they are wrong.
Truly self-confident people are not afraid to share and explore their misunderstandings. They know that a lack of knowledge and understanding is a universal experience, and they don’t fear the possibility that others will think less of them because of it, however real that possibility may be.
They try to speak sparingly and carefully.
Truly self-confident people recognize that they generally stand to learn more from listening than from speaking, and they choose their words carefully to stimulate, rather than control, conversation. When they open their mouths, they try to do so without attempting to raise their status.
They understand their limitations and are open to criticism.
Self-confident people are curious to learn more about their weaknesses. They find comfort and opportunity for companionship with humans from all backgrounds and statuses. They welcome criticism that is delivered with good intention, because they know that it is a gift that is difficult for many to give.
They earnestly apologize for wrongdoing and make amends.
Self-confident people are not afraid of admitting when they are wrong, and they are not afraid of an apology’s amplification of that admission. They also understand that an apology offered without amends might be merely self-serving. An apology without amends is a ”Where’s the Beef?” moment.
They appreciate their weaknesses, and enjoy an opportunity to share and discuss them with others.
Self-confident people enjoy the comfort that comes from connecting with others about their shortcomings. They laugh together, and feel less alone. You’ve seen old people do this when they talk about forgetting things, sharing gaffes, and comparing age spots.
They balance assertiveness and decisiveness with vulnerability and humility.
Truly self-confident people may have strong egos in certain areas where they have developed experience, but they are also likely to demonstrate their vulnerabilities and shared humanity when confronting their weaknesses, and they do not hesitate to ask for help in these circumstances.
They care more about doing right by others than being liked.
Self-confident people will act in the best interest of others whenever possible, even if their actions might diminish their superficial likability. Interestingly, Roman Catholics consider doing otherwise a sin. In a country whose politic skews Christian, why does this seem like a lost value?
Those Who Lack Self-Confidence…
How do we know if an individual lacks self-confidence? Back to numbers 1–6:
They consistently speak with remarkable authority about any topic imaginable.
People who lack self-confidence tend to have a significantly diminished ability to demonstrate vulnerability. They like to “show off” how much they know in every situation imaginable, hoping that it compensates for the doubt that they feel inside. They believe that imparting knowledge — not lack of it — boosts their status in the eyes of others.
They are seemingly-impenetrable to criticism.
People who lack self-confidence tend to make excuses when criticized, not wanting to show the chinks in their armor.
They have a way of ensuring that they are always “put together,” exerting great effort into appearing polished in every way, from their jewelry to their body to their vehicle.
It is natural to care about looking nice and having nice things. But with the possible exception of people who are in a courting mode of life — or stars and models who are paid to look a certain way — people who exert unusual energy on perfect looks and outward signals of success in a showy sort of way are more likely ashamed of something resembling the lack of those things. Think of the person who posts a photo of the Rolex on her wrist in front of the steering wheel of her Mercedes on Instagram. Conversely, think of the old man down the street who is not afraid to pick up his mail or newspaper in his underwear. Who is demonstrating true self-confidence?
They work hard to exemplify the superiority of the human race.
What do humans gain from assuming that our self-ascribed intelligence makes us superior to other creatures on this planet? Does intelligence have intrinsic value? Does our worldview get in the way of looking more objectively at the capabilities of our non-human companions? Is it OK to feel as insignificant as an ant or a cockroach? The more we are able to embrace our microscopic significance in the universe, the more we will appreciate that our need for others is not a weakness, but an opportunity.
They work hard to make sure people like them.
When we are too focused on being liked, we miss opportunities to do the right things by others, which might have an impact on our popularity. See “They care more about doing right by others than being liked,” above, for the rest of the story.
They are consistently assertive and decisive, never showing chinks in their armor.
Many people mistake this characteristic for self-confidence. But while many self-confident people will justifiably have an ego for things that are underpinned by significant, hard-won experience, truly self-confident people leave room for uncertainty, allowing others to come in to refine even their deepest areas of expertise.
How Can We Help One Another on Our Self-Confidence Journeys?
Given all the above, you may say to me, “Drew! It sounds an awful lot like you are saying that an ability to show weakness is a sign of true self-confidence!” To that, I would say, you are correct. Our current public standards seem to indicate that we are on a helter skelter ride in regard to true self-confidence, so there isn’t a better time to amplify these conversations than the present.
My experience has taught me that there are typically a small handful of early life events at the root of all self-confidence issues. When working with a person on their self-confidence journey, it’s helpful to begin by talking about the concepts we’ve been pondering here together.
Start with the question at the top. I can assure you, the answer will be fascinating. Listen actively; allow more than a few moments for details, and consider where they fit into the spectrum outlined above.
If the answers paint the common picture of misunderstanding, gently ask: what might have happened in your life that makes each or any of these things difficult for you? Sussing out the answers to this question will take more time, because they are likely to be deeply buried or involve significant embarrassment or trauma.
If you are in a position to lead an individual through these discussions, your ability to share stories about your own journey will be invaluable. Nothing is as powerful as a personal demonstration of vulnerability in helping open the dialogue about self-confidence. With sensitivity, time, and multiple rounds of shared storytelling, we all stand a chance to appreciate — and laugh about — our shared weaknesses so that we can build genuine strength.