on confidence

A friend wrote me this incredibly generous message yesterday about self confidence- specifically, mine- and I felt thankful, bashful, and a little bit like a faker all at once. Finding and fighting for self confidence is a daily practice, folks, and sometimes my daily battle takes place on a minefield of self doubt. We all, I’m hopeful, have days where we feel right on point. These days are sometimes collected into entire seasons where we just keep crushing it no matter what walls we run into and sometimes these days are dim glimpses of hope, like flickering light on a black sky. Sometimes confidence comes easily, and sometimes it is simply the stubborn choice to ignore the voice in my head telling me just how much I’m screwing everything up, look up, and keep moving forward.

The voice in my head belongs to a crazy lady, and she is terribly unoriginal, often obnoxious, and consistently unreliable. Listening to that chatter never ends particularly well. I’m sure you have one of these voices, too. Mine plays this delightful little loop: You probably shouldn’t expect too much out of this project, you’re not that great at it. You know, there are a lot of people who know so much more about this than you do and they’re going to see right through you. 27 is not old enough. 27 is too old. You really shouldn’t write that blog, it’s nothing new and you’ll probably come across as pithy and self indulgent. Your face is weird, today. You’ve got a long way to go before you’ll really be respected in this yoga business. Just keep your head down and don’t make too much noise. You’re bloated. It’s not cute. You’re not cute. And worst of all: You’re cute, and it’s a good thing you are because you clearly don’t know what the hell you’re doing, ever.

Really great, right? The voice in my head is one moody son of a bitch. Fortunately, I have an excellent therapist. I also have incredibly supportive people in my life who sound nothing like the voice in my head, and for them I am endlessly grateful. Perhaps the most helpful is the work I’ve done in myself, for myself, to learn to distinguish what the voice in my head says from what I actually believe about myself. I cannot emphasize enough how important this step is in finding your own feet, your sense of self, a confidence in the person you are. Doing this work is like gardening on the battlefield. If there is any hope for cultivating a garden in soil stained with the blood and tears of self doubt, we must deal gently and intentionally with our own hearts and minds. Confidence won’t happen on accident. We have do to the work. To know the difference between the voice in your head which only wants to slaughter and steal, and the still, small voice which says, “You are good. You are enough. You are valuable and important and loved and your dreams are worth chasing and your story is worth telling and you have good things to share with the world,” you have to do the work.

For me, doing the work involves mindfulness and dealing gently with myself. This is harder than it seems. There is a lot of sitting still and journaling involved. When the voice in my head says, “This is not your best work. Do better. You are failing,” my natural reaction is to agree and insist that I suck it up and step it up. This mental climate is not particularly conducive to cultivating confidence. The first step out of this trap is to recognize that the voice in my head is just that- the voice in my head. I get to choose whether I believe what it says, or throw it out. Just because the voice in your head says it does not make it true. Did you catch that?

Just because the voice in your head says it does not make it true.

When I realized I get to choose whether or not to believe the voice in my head, it was like a pressure valve released a little. I realized I didn’t have to fall down the shame spiral every time my brain said something crappy to me, and neither do you. There is a difference between “This is not your best work” and “You are a failure” and the two are not intrinsically connected, although the voice in my head might have me think they are. “This is not your best work” may be based in truth, but it means I am capable of so much more. It does not mean I am currently a failure or a slacker.

The crazy lady in my head would have me believe anything less than meeting the often unreasonable expectations I have created for myself is failure. First, I have to step back and recognize what I’m hearing. Is this reality? Is this consistent with what I know to be true about myself? Or is this the voice in my head shooting bullets at my heart? If it’s the crazy lady, I toss it. Second, I ask myself if I’m dealing in reality, assumptions, or expectations. Is this train of thought based in what I know to be true? Is it based in what I have assumed to be true without actually doing the work to find out if it is or not? Or, is it based in expectations I have created? Doing this work has helped me realize just how much I assume and expect out of myself and others. Assumptions are dangerous because they prevent me doing the real work of knowing myself and others. They keep me at a distance from really understanding myself and the people I care about. Expectations are the quickest way to set myself up for a fall. As soon as I attach myself to an expectation, anything apart from the ending I’ve already imagined is going to be jarring at best, disappointing at worst. Much better to let things unfold as they are meant to unfold and experience each moment with openness and gratitude, because the alternative is mindless drifting through life until you’re dead. I choose the work, because there is life in it.

Thich Naht Hahn said in an interview on the podcast On Being that suffering because of the voice in our head is like an artist becoming terrified of a ghost he drew on paper. Why would we let ourselves suffer over chaos we created? Disassemble the chaos. Grow a garden.

Confidence grows when I put energy into knowing myself, into spending time doing the things I know I’m meant to do, in investing in the relationships that produce the sweetest fruit in my life. Confidence grows when I’m taking care of my mind and heart well enough to bring my best self to creative and work projects. Confidence grows when I act on the things I know to be true about myself, even if it’s scary and vulnerable and intimate. Confidence thrives when I’m serving others. It grows wild when I’m giving without expectation of something in return. Confidence, when it’s flowering and blooming and blossoming, is most likely growing out of soil that was once the site of a raging battle.

One of the really great things about confidence is that when you find it, you don’t have to make a production out of it. The most confident people I know don’t go around talking about all the things they’re great at. They don’t broadcast all their big plans. They don’t drop names. They don’t have to talk about their awesome lives because they are too busy living them. They just do it. They live. They create. They produce. They fall down, they get up, and they keep moving forward. They’re doing battle with their own crazy, and they’re growing these wild, beautiful gardens out of the dirt. If you see someone who walks through life with confidence, you are looking at a person who has wrestled hard with the voice in her head. If you ask her about it, she may tell you about the battle that once raged there and ask about yours. Share your story. It is worth telling.

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