Or, Confidence is Overrated.
My father taught Creative Writing to a number of my friends when I was in high school. Mel was one such friend/student. I was so used to hearing vague, but high praise as an epithet to her name that I developed a crush on her brain without fully knowing why. I got lucky because she became a writer, so I got to know her praise-worthy thoughts for myself. Her writing is striking for how much of herself she lets out in it, how deep she lets us get in our crushes. I asked her to write a piece on just about anything, knowing that she turns just about everything she writes into the kind of self- exploration that's perfectly suited to an edition on identity.
by Melanie Broder
Admiration, disgust, admiration. Naked in a lingerie shop, I flip and choose heads. I face the dressing room mirror. You look great, I say to the reflection.
Why must it always feel like work? A dogged attitude towards liking myself should feel like a victory. I tend to see confidence as a talent: some people are born with it, and other people practice their whole lives to keep up with them. I fall in the latter camp, where we are forced to live by the tacky slogan, “Fake it till you make it.” Confidence is alchemy that I can conjure about 50% of the time. And yet, it seems essential. Confidence is the keystone, the lace of the corset, the last Jenga tile, an element beyond earth, fire, water, and air. With confidence, you can achieve the impossible. Without it, life is somehow dull and reduced.
Confidence is preached in classrooms and out in the wilds of the schoolyard. Read about it in Cosmo and GQ. Listen to your mother, your friends, and everyone who finds it attractive. The message is this: find confidence and be not only happier, but better in every way. Find confidence, be born with it, reveal it, and you will find success in career, love, and spirit.
I’m thinking of the confidence that has to do with self-affirmation. Confidence as the ability to believe in yourself and what you offer. But an alternative definition of confidence concerns secrecy and collaboration. “She told him her feelings in confidence;” “They exchanged confidences about their doubts.” The connective tissue between these two definitions is the main root of the word, “fidere,” meaning “to trust.” In one definition, the subject trusts him or herself, and in the other, he or she trusts another person. The prefix of “confidence” is “con,” the Latin for “with” or “together.”
And yet, I almost exclusively think of confidence as an individual effort. The confident person is a standalone entity, an island unto herself. Self-contained, self-motivated, self-satisfied. Sometimes confidence is only a few steps away from arrogance. The child who leads others in games has several admirable skills - athleticism, creativity, friendliness - but chief among those is confidence. And confidence is power. As the confident child, she understands that if she steps in, everyone will enjoy themselves more. Tyranny ensues when she abuses the trust her confidence instills. She uses her charisma to get what she wants. She excludes other children. She changes the rules on a whim.
Even though such power balances on an interpersonal dynamic, confidence is still thought of as an internal quality. It encompasses an array of private identities that are hard to describe or imitate. And since it’s so mysterious and mutable, it’s easy to exaggerate its importance. I most admire the confidence of people that I know from a formal distance: the girl a few years older in school, the academic at the lectern, the man at the conference who presents first, the person with the jokes at the dinner party. It appears that they they are so convinced of their own worth, they don’t need to convince others. Of course, others follow anyway. And of course, my assumption depends on distance. If I knew them more intimately, I’d know for certain if what I saw was confidence or a well-executed magic trick. Fake it till you make it.
When my family relocated from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles when I was eleven, I was awestruck by the confidence of my peers. There was Lara, who taught me what a waste it was to feel embarrassed, even when someone spilled an entire plate of food in her lap. There was Ash, who wore musty vintage clothing and sang rock songs and kissed ugly boys. There was Katrina, whose sweaty soccer gear was the only thing filthier than her mouth. Washington embraced precocious children, but Los Angeles exposed them. Some, like cacti, flourished in those harsh conditions. The rest of us were left in languor, the dusty detritus of the desert city that spurned us.
I was empowered by something else: books. My literary heroes are rarely confident. Gatsby, with his preening plays for attention, is probably the least confident person that never lived. Jane Eyre has a kind of confidence, but nobody likes her. Phineas, the golden boy in A Separate Peace, gets killed. So does Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter. Atticus Finch is confident, but honestly not that believable. I’ve found solace in the self-doubt of central characters: Esther Greenwood questioning the oppressive life paved for her; Elena Greco at once motivated by and despairing at the presence of her luminous best friend; Clarissa Dalloway standing at the threshold of her own party, afraid to enter.
Confidence has only visited, never stayed with me. Perhaps because I have often tied it (unfairly) to physical appearance. The confidence of my peers in LA seemed to directly correlate to good looks. My confidence practice often begins with a ritual (putting on makeup in the morning) or a mantra (self compliments in the dressing room) that has to do with appearance. It feels like a superficial thing, a heavy armor I can put on if I need to, but is always a relief to remove. I cannot recollect my most confident moments - when I’ve felt the most beautiful, or charming - but some of my best moments have been my least confident. My closest relationships have grown after admitting vulnerabilities. Taking off the armor builds intimacy.
When it’s present, my confidence is actually the least interesting thing about me, but it’s also my access point to other people who are drawn to it. I wouldn’t get to meet half as many wonderful people without it. Having love for oneself is not just a pleasant state of being, but a survival tactic. Trust in one’s own self worth offers a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Confidence allows one to help others, simplybecause one believes that she has something to give. Which makes me think of another word, “compassion,” that shares the same prefix (“con” and “com” are interchangeable in Latin). “Passion” comes from a root meaning “to suffer.” Confidence and compassion both assume a connection between people, rather than an apartness that puts one person on a higher plane. To suffer with someone is to be able to love him or her better. To trust someone else is to trust yourself.
It is the same cushy rhetoric found in therapy offices and yoga studios - take in the love of others, and watch that love grow in you. When you can’t summon confidence on your own, you can draw on the trust of the people who care for you. It’s also a hard truth. You won’t find confidence looking in a mirror. It’s not a simple trait you can count off. Confidence must instead become the mirror - a world in which you can see your place.