Issue #19: Three lessons I’ve learnt about confidence (& some news)
As Gloria Steinem wrote, 'Self esteem isn't everything; it's just that there's nothing without it.' My best advice on building yours, plus the books, podcasts & practices that can help.
Every Monday evening, I take a Spanish lesson online. Language learning, as an adult, has taught me many non-linguistic things: a crucial one being that confidence is, essentially, everything.
A few weeks ago, my Monday was punctuated by work disappointments – the final blow landing minutes before my lesson time. I logged on, deflated, with the conversational ability of a babbling one-year-old (a Spanish one – although my English, at this point, was barely any better), and struggled through a miserable hour.
And yet, the following week, I had my best lesson yet. Earlier that evening, I’d interviewed the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (who recently made a surprise cameo in the film, Tár) as part of a virtual event for Jewish Book Week. I was doing what I love, in a format I was comfortable with, and I came out of that interview inspired, challenged and quietly proud of myself. Which made chatting with Luisa, my Peru-based Spanish teacher, a radically more pleasant experience for us both. The only salient difference? My confidence (OK, and the small, celebratory glass of Rioja I drank after the event).
I was reminded of this while reading the latest Dear Dolly, which is The Times’ agony aunt column from British author Dolly Alderton. The title of last week’s piece was: ‘I’m jealous of my workmate’s confidence and looks’ – and the reader appeals to Dolly for advice on being in this woman’s proximity without feeling insecure.
As ever, Dolly responds with her trademark humour and sensitivity - but what really appealed to me about her answer was the practical advice for building confidence through regular, sustained action.
‘I urge you to spend some time thinking about what actions you can take, what things you can avoid and what habits you can form that make you feel like your truest, most unashamed self. That’s what will make the big difference: small daily choices rather than any sort of physical overhaul or personality replacement.’ - Dolly Alderton for The Times
While there’s no shortage of generic ‘X ways to be more confident’ articles out there, Dolly stresses the need for an individual path, reassuring, ‘Everyone gets their confidence from different things and it takes a while to figure it out,’ before listing examples from her own life (some of which are fairly universal, e.g. setting myself a physical challenge and completing it, but many more niche, like being brave in cold water; wearing a trouser suit).
I once believed that achieving a certain goal – entering into a long-term relationship; getting promoted at work; reaching a ‘goal weight’ – would put an air-tight seal on my self esteem. It was only through fulfilling some of these wishes that I learnt otherwise. For instance, I’ve always found that intimate relationships force you to confront yourself, and your vulnerability, in ways you would never have anticipated (and that’s the best kind; the worst, when you place your value on your perceived attractiveness to your partner, is ego-crushing).
The only way I’ve learnt to build (and rebuild) confidence is through doing so gently, individually, proactively, with the reluctant acceptance that it might not last forever; in fact, it might not even last until the end of the day. With that modest introduction, here’s my best advice:
Confidence is built through actions, not inspirational quotes
Inspirational quote cards are often bullshit. Sorry. But a stranger on Instagram telling me to ‘Believe In Myself’ has next to no effect, even if I admire their choice of Helvetica Neue font. The same goes for most of the ‘empowering’ content my newsfeed assaults me with: the images of J Lo Looking Fabulous In A Bikini At 53; the Lizzo anthem; the Shein jumpsuit with the cut-out sides.
I’m with Dolly on this one: confidence is built through actions. Or, as philosopher Will Durrant wrote (paraphrasing Aristotle), ‘We are what we repeatedly do’. And while the actions that makes us into the most confident, substantiated versions of ourselves are individual, they roughly fall into the categories of:
Doing what you love
Doing what challenges you
Acting kindly and considerately to others
Practising simple, real self care (e.g. regular showers over expensive bath bombs)
It might be helpful to have a go-to list on your phone for emergencies – I say this because, in my experience, low confidence tends to go hand-in-hand with limited resourcefulness. I’ve listed some of mine below:
There’s a particular, confidence-boosting alchemy associated with creative self-expression. It makes me think of these words from Swiss psychologist Alice Miller, quoted in Gloria Steinem’s book, Revolution from Within:
‘I think we each come out of the womb with some unique way of looking at the world—and if we don’t express it, we lose faith in ourselves.’
This can be anything: having a conversation with someone who makes you feel heard & understood; going to a dance class; journaling; doodling; cooking for friends; playing sport (I hate sport, but admire those who do it…); playing with a child or a pet; singing. The crucial part, for me, is doing it regularly. Nothing makes me feel more confident in my ability as a ‘writer’ than the regular, weekly rhythm of writing this newsletter.
The older I get, the less I believe in lasting personal ‘improvements’. It’s the same frustration I once had with exercise. Why build abs of steel (or, even, rubber) when you could lose it again, in less than a month? Like muscles, our confidence can diminish through a lack of nurture.
I used to think confidence was a destination. A distant one, perhaps, but something that came hand-in-hand with achieving a particular goal: pass ‘Go’ and get awarded life-long confidence. Experience, I write with the worldly air of Britney Spears atop a mountain circa 2001, has taught me otherwise.
Candidly, sitting down to write this newsletter each week, I’m met with the same feelings of self-doubt that I had writing my undergraduate dissertation – although thankfully for us all my sugar-free Red Bull habit has dropped off since then.
It’s through coming back to write, time and time again, that I sustain my confidence in this area of my life. It’s why I find phrases like ‘fragile ego’ unhelpful, because all our egos – or, I suppose, our sense of selves – are a little fragile, and sustained much more by what we’ve done recently than resting on the laurels of past achievements. You’re only as good as your last performance, actors are told. Doesn’t that ring true of most areas of our lives? Don’t we – rightly or wrongly – judge our relationships by our most recent interactions; our professional ability by our most recent output; our physical fitness by our last workout? I suspect, yes, and more than we care to admit.
One of the few things you do accumulate over time, in a more lasting sense, is wisdom. That’s not the same thing as confidence. It’s simply the knowledge that, no matter what your perception is today, a not-so-ideal client presentation isn’t the sum total of your worth in the workplace (or elsewhere, for that matter). As you build up these experiences, you wear them like an invisible charm bracelet: examples to point to, reminding you that you’ve been in this hole of self-doubt before, and you’ve got yourself out.
Confidence is often context-specific
I’ve known men to take on a whole different persona the minute they’re wearing a dry-cleaned, Paul Smith suit. I’ve seen 18-year-old with the confidence of Rihanna on a night out reduced to monosyllabic interns. I’ve heard people in the communal section of my co-working space take Zoom calls with the authoritative air of, say, Putin, then mumble nervously the minute the person next to them asks them to move to a call booth. I’ve known grown adults to turn into needy children the moment they enter their family homes (ahem, me).
We are all, to some extents, performing our identities: and our external contexts (clothing, physical locations, the people who surround us) dictate what that looks like. That’s useful to remember when you judge yourself for, say, not being able to bring your workplace confidence into your family life, or alternatively wish you could bring the breezy, self-assured air you have around your best friends to your first dates.
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In an ideal world, we would all feel our most confident all the time. That is, after all, when we feel most ourselves, and what allows us to give our best to the people around us. The reality is that it’s an ongoing journey, a lifelong one. Perhaps acknowledging that can help us climb Mount Confidence a little more often (and give us hope when we find ourselves back down at the base camp).
Some questions to reflect on:
What does ‘confidence’ mean to you?
When do you feel your most confident?
What’s on your ‘confidence list’?
Whose confidence would you like to channel, and why?
Some further resources, on the subject of confidence:
📚 The Pathless Path by Paul Millerd: Weighing up an ‘alternative’ career or life choice, and looking for a literary companion to help you maintain your self esteem during the process? This one’s for you.
🤳 Social media = generally, not the route to greater confidence. With the exception of Diane Keaton’s Instagram account. Always be yourself – apart from when you can be Diane Keaton…
🎙 Viv Groskop’s How To Own The Room podcast, which explores ‘the secrets of brilliant speaking’, is as much a useful resource for enhancing confidence in public situations. I loved the most recent episode with Dawn O’Porter, where the presenter/novelist shares her regret for not appreciating the areas of her life that were going ‘successfully’ (meeting her husband, actor Chris O’Dowd) at a time when she was struggling with her TV career – a reminder, again, that confidence comes in different areas of our lives, at different times.
🎙Feel Better, Live More With Dr Rangan Chatterjee: How To Reduce Anxiety & Build Self-Confidence with Chloe Brotheridge: Useful practical advice on building confidence through journaling and enhancing positive self-talk.
🔗 Could a ‘Sunshine Folder’ be the key to remembering positive professional feedback?
👯♀️ The Meghan Trainor dance tutorial I make friends do with me before a night out.
Some news 🗞 (as promised)
Introducing… The Shoulds: Expert-led workshops with guided journaling
This is an online events series for paid subscribers of The Shoulds. For each session, we’ll explore a specific theme, suggested by you. The sessions will take a two-part format: the first half will be a discussion with an expert voice, the second half will be a guided journaling session with practical writing prompts inspired by the topic, to help you reflect & apply these learnings to your own life.
FYI: All events will take place at 18:30 GMT UK time, and recordings will be sent out afterwards.
Dates for the diary
Tuesday 21 March: I should… have better boundaries, with The Joy of Saying No author Natalie Lue
Tuesday 28 March: I should… be better with money, with finance educator Ellie Austin-Williams (@thisgirltalksmoney)
Further information to follow!
How to join
All events will be free to paid subscribers. If you’d like to come along, you’ll need to upgrade your subscription, which you can do so at the link below. It’s £5 a month (£4.17 if you subscribe annually), which is less than most equivalent one-off workshops – and includes access to all past, present and future weekly content… a bargain, if you ask me.
Until next time,