Privilege Blog

The Anxious Person’s Field Guide To Confidence

We’ve been talking about the construct of “Attractive” vs. “Pretty.” I even took a crack at defining Attractive. Since then, we’ve been wandering around in the vicinity of skin, body, makeup, and so on. Which would bring us, in proximity-based thinking, to clothes . But that’s my blog ‘s ostensible topic anyway.

So we’re probably done. Or, more precisely, I’ve probably said what I have to say about Attractive.

Except. Confidence. Bears repeating. Confidence, confidence, confidence. Nothing makes someone more attractive than non-showy confidence.

Of course, the world has mapped out the building of self-confidence already. Just try Googling “How to become confident.” Unfortunately, for some of us, the resultant advice is useless. Tiny Buddha says things like, “Take Risks” and, “Expect Success.” Ahem. One can only do those things when confident. You tell an anxious person to “Take Risks and Expect Success,”  she’s going to go back to bed in the late afternoon and watch Say Yes To The Dress marathons on her iPad.

Leo Babauta, who I respect amongst the hawkers of How To Live Your Life, gives us 25  Killer Actions To Boost Your Self-Confidence. Yikes. Anxious people don’t like words like Killer, and Boost. We’re having a hard enough time with Self-Confidence, thank you very much.

No, when you are anxious, those exhortative strategies backfire. So I’d like to present:

The Anxious Person’s Field Guide To Confidence

(Caveat, because natively non-confident people are always going to give you the degree of uncertainty in their statements), the advice below derives from my particular experience alone. I could be wrong).

So. Let’s deconstruct by looking for an example. Please excuse the self-focus, but the only one I’ve got is my own life.  As a young woman, I was not confident. Not in my looks, not in my intelligence, not in my social presence, not in my competence. To make matters worse, whenever I thought about confidence, I felt even less, well, confident. But today, at 55, I feel confident about at least a couple of things.

What happened? We can extract some general principles.

Believe the data and expand the model gradually. In some areas, simple time is on your side. For example,in my case, with intelligence and competence. Over the years I tried all kinds of things. Failed badly, here and there. Got fired, got attacked, got worried. Got very, very tired. But I succeeded a lot too. Both failure and success grew my confidence, because they are data. I haven’t forgotten that confidence does not mean blind arrogance. I could always be wrong.

Redefine the standard and find others who endorse your new rules. For example, oddly it was pregnancy and motherhood that gave me confidence in my looks. When I got pregnant, and then nursed babies, I lost control of my body. Gained over 50 pounds both times. Best thing ever. The very thing I had feared gave me two children  I love with all my heart.  I’d been trying for some undefined standard. Or more likely, the fashion magazines standard. Once I redefined my physical worth to include the non-decorative, I would look in the mirror and think, “Good job, body.” Finding myself a Significant Other who agrees was another good idea.

A couple of personal asides.

  • It’s hard to be confident coming from privilege because you perceive success as something you didn’t earn and therefore can’t trust.
  • Deriving confidence from failure requires barring the door to shame.
  • When confidence eludes you, as in my case with social self-presentation, get comfortable. It is what it is. Nobody’s jailed me yet for blurting out what everyone else was thinking. I’ve learned to apologize, when needed, and to compensate for what I can’t change with universal good intent.

How To Get The Self-Confidence Of An Old Lady?

Data. Data, data, data. Your lack of self-confidence is not your fault. Either someone gave you bad data, or you are so smart that you have an innate sense of the world’s vast uncertainty. Set about making it more certain.

Set yourself up to fail and succeed. Give yourself evidence that you know the right answer, you have a good idea of the wrong answers, and you can learn and correct as you go. This will work best if you fail small and succeed big.

Again, redefine the standard. All that Shoot for the Stars stuff is over-rated. Pick something you can do. Do it. Now you can feel confidence about your both good judgment and your planning skills. It’s a start.

As always, paying attention will be your best approach. It’s difficult to improve what you can’t see, and to defeat monsters that don’t exist.

Right then, let’s all go get dressed. I’d like to wear my J. Crew #2 pencil skirt, but then I’d have to shave my legs. See above, *Blurting Out What Everyone Else Was Thinking, and *Good Judgment.

43 Responses

  1. I’ve been reading for a long time and love your blog, but never commented. This entry is absolutely wonderful! Thank you!

    1. Nikki, nice to meet you. Thank you for reading, thank you for your comment. Much appreciated.

  2. got it….what took so long….data, data, data…love this
    thanks a million for sharing!

  3. Love it! I’m a big fan of cognitive behavioral therapy to manage anxious thoughts. And it relies on data a lot! For example, if I have the thought, “I don’t look good today,” I can manage that thought by asking myself what the data is that supports the thought.

    If no one told me I looked bad, and in the mirror my clothes look ok, well then, there’s no evidence supporting that negative thought! And no need to think it. It’s a practical way to combat negative thoughts in the moment.

    I would love to hear more about how you manage anxiety.

    1. Danielle: I tried that and it just didn’t work for me, I just felt as if I was ‘going through the motions” but had no belief in it at all. I wish it had worked.

    2. Hi Tabitha, I suppose different methods work for different people. The book “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David Burns helped me find different techniques for talking back to anxious thoughts. Maybe you will find something in there that works for you.

    3. Lisa another one with a very stern nanny voice in her ear,even with age/therapy the anxiety shoots up and catches me unawares,sometimes the voice can calm me….the other scenario is when I shout back!! Ida

  4. I think age also brings confidence with it. By the time you’re our age, you know that you can fail and it’s not the end of the world. People won’t run screaming in horror if you go to the grocery store wearing shorts when you haven’t shaved your legs. No one cares if you’re a week (or more) overdue for your pedicure – or even if you’ve gotten one in the first place. Gray hair and laugh lines lend character.

    At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it (she says confidently).

  5. I’ve never been self confident, but then I have never really succeeded at anything. I think that’s why I like blogging, I feel as if it’s just me talking in my head – it’s an easy way to approach people.

  6. Excellent advice. I think for the naturally shy and tentative, the importance of small steps cannot be overrated. Remember the film Julia & Julie (or the book My Life in France)? I always think of Julia Child teaching herself to chop all those pounds and pounds of onions!

  7. Wonderful and timely post since I’m beginning to seek a job in a new field after 20 years of working as an administrative assistant. A new job will go nicely with my newly acquired master’s degree. And as for you not “succeeding at anything” I think you have accomplished a lot with your children and, especially, your blog writing. Thanks!

  8. Ironically, the cushier (more privileged?) my life has become, the less self confident I’ve become. Not having to do hard things, not having to stretch myself on a regular basis has led me to question my competency on a number of issues. Dealing with regular challenges and adversity is a muscle, and when it’s out of practice, it seems the slightest little upset of my apple cart has me wondering how well I can handle things. I was much more confident when I was much more self sufficient. The good news is I have the power to change.

  9. One anxious person to another, THANK YOU. Caps necessary. These are small things, really, but easily quantifiable. I feel like I could follow these steps!

  10. Anxious that’s me, or is all the coffee? What a great post. I haven’t commented before but you really spoke to me. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much. Yes, it’s me. I believe our demons help make us human. Or so I like to believe.

  11. I love what you said about pregnancy giving you confidence in your body. I’ve thought about a similar post for so long, still looking for a word–the fascination with the female body’s ability to expand and contract–that eludes me.

    I have a hard time feeling proud of my accomplishments. They just ARE, they are what they are. I’m a bit of a theist and tend to place the credit there.

    I still don’t like to talk on the telephone. I’m not good at meeting people for the first time. The abilities I have are things that play themselves out over time.

  12. Ski-mountaineering bossted my self-confidence. Before that I had no idea what I was capable of and that I was capable of challenging things, way more than I’d thought. :-)

  13. Well, yes. Lovely post. Thank you very much. I can subscribe and today at my fiftyish age I have occasional sad moments thinking: why is life so easy all of a sudden? Why did I squander so many years with self-doubt?

    That said, my experience is that anxious people turn into veritable tigers when cornered. All the courage does come out when they are standing with their backs to the wall.

  14. A very interesting subject!
    I could go on and on with this one, but to make it short :
    Aging has definitely helped.
    But going through the long psychoanalysis was t h e thing for me.
    I learned so much about myself, why I act and feel like I do.
    If in serious doubt, I warmly recommend!

  15. “As always, paying attention will be your best approach.”

    And why is this so difficult, paying attention. I have an opinion. Folks with a very prominent “I” have a hard time setting aside their I so they can view their Me, nor can they look in the mirror to view their You. It’s kind of a blindness of sorts that prevents paying attention to your own self.

    And that’s why I echo Mette ahead of me in line here, an analyst/therapist presents a new language exposing one’s predictible stimulus/response patterns [including high anxiety and how, left undiagnosed and untreated, it will rule you rather than the other way around]. Good luck getting those strong I folks off to therapy, though!

  16. Great post. At the moment, I’m quite riddled with anxiety as my daughter is getting married on Sept. 1st. I’m worried about all the wedding details, is everything in place, how will I look (aka fat in photos?), handling my ex and his family, etc. I could go on with my worries, and feelings of lack of confidence forever. I am also, quite excited, and sometimes my body confuses excitement with anxiety. Doing a lot of yoga.

  17. As I started reading your post I couldn’t understand your not feeling confident in your intelligence – you went to Princeton, after all, and since you didn’t play football we can be pretty sure that you got in because you’re smart. (Okay, you may also be a legacy, but you still had to be smart.) But then I read your statement that “It’s hard to be confident coming from privilege because you perceive success as something you didn’t earn and therefore can’t trust.” Maybe coming from nothing was more of a gift than I realized.

    1. Also found that line puzzling,here in the UK the so called elite are very confident.Ida

  18. WoW Lisa, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone challenge the pundits quite like this. I love this real world thinking. The comment that struck home to me, for the reasons that you know, is “Deriving confidence from failure requires barring the door to shame” This is a major obstacle to us in my community and I’m going to birddog off your thinking to help others. Thank you for such a fantastic post

    1. “The comment that struck home to me, for the reasons that you know, is ‘Deriving confidence from failure requires barring the door to shame'”

      Isn’t that just one of her all time best ever? I’d venture Lisa had to wrestle that one by hand in order to own it like that. I know I did!

    2. Tasi, thank you. I can imagine in your community that concept would bear particular weight.

  19. I generally feel frustrated that the world doesn’t recognise my awesomeness, rather than feeling insecure. Is that wrong? :)


  20. It is shameful to me when I let someone or something else steal my power, and then I get stuck in an anxious, UN-self-confident mood – I never associated shame as a factor in this process before – so you’ve given me another chance at some self-awareness tools I can use – you just have to remember who you are – and, baby steps!

  21. So many wonderful points in this post, and in the comments, too. Thank you for calling out the futility of confidence tips written by the confident! I also struggle with feelings of not having earned certain advantages that I’ve received. I sometimes wonder if that’s why I dismiss my accomplishments, or why I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of striving/competing for success. Then again, maybe I’m just chickensh*t. Very interesting read! Gotta go get me some data now!

  22. Brilliantly written Lisa…a post to refer to again and again when anxiety rears it’s nervous little head! That silly ‘showy confidence’ abounded in my world before I even knew what was what…it took time, experience, failures, ‘and’ successes, to finally realize what true confidence was…it was relief, and so much more easier than being all showy!
    The nervous little head is still there thoguh…just kept on a much tighter leash now a days…and it’s not fed as often either…trying to starve the little bugger!
    xo J~

  23. Can I be confident and still pine for afternoons cuddled up with my iPad & “Say Yes to the Dress?”

    But seriously, this is wonderful. I particularly related to the bit about feeling most confident in my Attractive during pregnancy; the function really brought my previous form worries to rest, as it were. Something about the belly balancing out my previously loathed hips helped too, but . . .

  24. hi lisa!

    love reading your blog & thank you so very much for this post. i’m generally ok confidence wise, but since i’ve been job-hunting since graduating my master’s program in january, my confidence has taken a bit of a hit, especially since i’ve only had one interview (& i didn’t get the job) this whole time.

    so thanks for the timely post!!

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