March 6, 2020 | Narrative
having faith in yourself
I’ve heard confidence described as a strength, a belief in the self that’s unwavering in the face of doubt. I’ve seen it as an assurance of future success, I’ve known it as faith in patterns and solid evidence, and I’ve seen it advertised as an outcome achieved by using products that sell approximations of “traditional” ideas of beauty. My shifting idea of confidence has been building alongside my academic and personal definitions of coping; it has only taken concrete form during my last semester of college.
The best I have heard confidence put into words was at a confidence workshop led by Professor Barbara Tannenbaum. When my friend Erin let me know Tannenbaum was holding an open session at her home, I tagged along, curious to learn any tips for presenting or even obtaining something I’d long believed I lacked.
To me, Confidence had always been, at least in a visual sense, associated with boldness. Confidence personified was outward-facing with straight posture, a firm handshake, and strong eye contact; she was prepared and unapologetic, clear-headed and driven. Confidence knew that she was qualified and didn’t feel the need to prove this to peers, professors, bosses, or other adults. Confidence didn’t grimace at herself in the mirror. Confidence was a badass who did not question her own statements with a hint of upward inflection.
I think one of the reasons I associate confidence with the female pronoun is that I’ve often heard it encouraged specifically among girls—encouraged because we, as a general and infinitely diverse population, seem to lack it to varying extents. One of the reasons we seem to lack confidence is that we’re told by models, products, and standards that our human forms are not quite enough to be Desirable (to men). And one of the most Desirable qualities in a girl is confidence—but not so much that she impedes the confidence of men.
Confidence is an enigmatic term whose definitions are both complementary and contrasting. This means that, whether used when giving advice or described as an asset, its meanings shift and even conflict between contexts and subjectivities. The Oxford English Dictionary juxtaposes this noun as:
- The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing; firm trust, reliance, faith.
- The feeling sure or certain of a fact or issue; assurance, certitude; assured expectation.
At first glance, the difference between “trust” and “certitude” seems subtle. But the leap becomes much greater when we consider how these words emphasize different parts of a process.
This distinction became most apparent to me at the confidence workshop. Professor Tannenbaum leaned forward in her bright red chair and said, just slowly enough, “The only way to become confident is to fail.”
My inner monologue split in two and jumped between the thought processes. On the one hand, well, yeah: If the only way to get good at something is to keep trying, and if trying something new often ensures at least a little failure, then it makes sense that getting good enough at something that you are confident in your skills requires the experience of failure.
On the other hand, what the hell is confidence if it demands failure? How can we feel confident in the face of that, in the face of the pain or shame that experience can bring?
I realized that these questions were contingent on definition number two: confidence as certitude, or “assured expectation,” of some “successful” outcome.
But this definition alone feels at odds with my current understanding of confidence. Recently, I’ve tied the concept to resilience.
This semester, someone asked me to consider the possibility of hurt in the face of trust. As I tried to express my thoughts, all my words fell into the void. It was a situation that my best friend and I describe with the caveat “and, not but.” Yes, hurt is (always) possible. No, I am not certain whether or not it will occur. Yes, it will be very painful if it does. No, I can’t anticipate the magnitude of that pain. And (not but) I am certain (by my faith in pattern and evidence) that I will recover––even further, that I will grow. (If nothing else, maybe I’ll have more to write about.)
In response, I caught myself on the edge of using the word “confident.” I couldn’t feel confident in the situational outcome; I couldn’t feel certain of the possibility or magnitude of pain. What I was certain of, though, was a more ambiguous outcome: I have faith in myself, and I will be okay.
This form of confidence blends the two definitions of general assurance and trust in a further part of the process: my ability to cope with any outcome. The only way to become confident is to fail; the best way to trust yourself is to take care in those inevitable moments when things don’t work out, to nourish yourself with hope and love in the face of failure or hardship. The strongest way to build a sense of assurance is to take care, time and again, to prove that your survival is worthy of your own certainty.
This Confidence embraces herself when she feels worn of hope. She abandons the notion of a “productive” day when she realizes she’s reached her limit and is in need of rest. She feels the hurt––which is, admittedly, even more than she couldn’t expect––and cries in the kitchen while a wonderful friend hands her a top-notch homemade cookie. She is patient for hope to return so she can re-invest it in herself, in her ability to love through people and music and art. She does not feel the need to prove her qualifications because she places her faith in strength and not in an outcome.