23 Apr How To Become More Confident
An Insecure Life
While I have never been the absolute best at anything–no national or state championships, no prestigious awards, no world-altering scientific discovery–I have managed to rack up a number of achievements under my belt. I got into Stanford, I have a TEDx talk with over a million views, I was valedictorian of my high school. Despite these on paper achievements, most of my life has been colored by a deep sense of insecurity. No matter how much I did or achieved, I could never outrun the feeling that I wasn’t enough.
Even now, as I sit in the safety of my own room writing, the scars of insecurity throb in my mind. It only takes a second to transport me back to one of those moments where. I feel the internal narcissistic insistence that everyone is looking at me–looking down at me. An unconscious force pushes my shoulders forward and my breathing grows shallower, and I make myself smaller to avoid the heat of other’s gaze. Like a turtle, my mind retreats inside of its shell away from the dangerous and judgemental outside world into the safe confines of my mind. On the outside, I’m laughing or cracking a joke. Others are laughing with me–or at me–but the sounds barely register in my mind. In my head, a single voice is pounding, slamming against the walls, “You’re not good enough. You’re lesser than. No one likes you. Everyone is going to realize you suck.” The words reverberate with a consistent rhythm like it’s my heartbeat, and I believe them.
Growing up, I received a lot of praise for how smart I was. I don’t want to flex too hard, but I was consistently the best at the math flashcard games we would play in elementary school. Over time, I developed this idea that my self-worth was rooted in my ability to be good at things. This idea is not uncommon–that skill and prestige should equate to confidence–but this type of confidence does not set people up for success. It lays the shitty foundation necessary for an entire world to collapse.
Unfortunately, that idea did not just naturally fade out of my mind, I just got better at building higher and more fragile towers. Once high school rolled around, I was already solidified in my ability to do well at school, but I also found out I was pretty good at debate and volleyball; more importantly, I found out that other people thought I was good at these things. I wanted so badly for people to think that I was good at school, sports, and debate that I did everything I could to uphold this image of myself.
The attachment I had to this image of myself caused me unending anxiety every time I faced a potential obstacle. In volleyball games and practice, I felt terrified that my coaches or teammates would realize that I’m not as good as they thought I was. Every time I made a mistake, my eyes searched the coach’s face, instinctively waiting for the reprimand that I felt I deserved. This anxiety weighed on my mind and plagued my entire high school volleyball career, and as a result, I never left a volleyball game feeling like I did well. Every time I got close to a B on my report card, I laid in bed and imagined the mocking stares of all my friends once they found out I wasn’t nearly as smart as I seemed. My identity became tied up in the image I tried to give off, and it tortured me.
In order to maintain my fragile ego, I did whatever I could to maintain the carefree image of superiority that I saw in the mirror. Anxiety gave way to an outward apathy. Despite my straight A’s, I told anyone willing to listen that I hated school and found it useless, and I made sure everyone knew how many video games I played and how often I would screw around. I did this in order to send a single message–I’m better than you at school and I’m not even trying. Insecurity gave way to an internal superiority complex. To protect the teetering tower that I stood on, instead of repairing the foundation, I just imagined my tower taller than everyone else’s. Whatever I could do to tell myself that I was better than someone else, I said. It didn’t matter if you were more athletic than me because athletics didn’t matter; I was smarter than you. It didn’t matter if you got better grades than me because I wasn’t trying; I could do better if only I tried. It didn’t matter if you managed to get one thousand things done in a day; I would rather be lazy, take naps, and watch k-dramas.
“The stability we cannot find in the world we must create within our own persons.” Branden XI
It took an unending amount of work to hold this fragile tower together. At times, it felt like I was drowning in the ocean. I kicked and paddled towards a safe shore, but no matter where I moved, no matter the direction, I was left stranded in the middle of the sea. Salt water constantly threatened to fill my lungs and drag me under. Looking back, I wish I could have screamed out to that person bobbing in the water and tell him that he was wearing a life vest. Everything he needed, he already had. All he needed to do was look down at himself and inflate the vest, but he was far too concerned with the distant shores and rolling waves around him.
Sitting with the Suck
During my gap year, I found myself diving into new projects and activities that I had never tried before: snowboarding, nail school, and creating a website (this website). Naturally, I sucked badly at all of these things.
For anyone who remembers being a beginner at snowboarding, the sheer pain and frustration of falling on your ass all day felt like enough to justify quitting after my first day. Last year, I went snowboarding once with a group of friends who were all experienced snowboarders or skiers. I never left the green (beginner) hill, and I remember feeling so embarrassed because all my friends went off and had fun together. Then, this winter, I went again, and I fell on my ass dozens of times. There were so many moments where I crumpled to the ground, and I looked up towards the sky and thought, “I want to quit.” No part of me felt inspired or motivated to get better. I hated every single second of it, and I remember leaving the mountain this year thinking that snowboarding just wasn’t for me. Fortunately, I was invited on a snowboarding trip in Colorado, so I had no choice but to get better. I went out to the mountain again, and I don’t know what happened, but eventually, something clicked in my head. The turns that I had once found impossible became possible and I glided down the mountains with a grin on my face.
I became a nail tech because I needed to find a way to make a decent amount of money during my gap year, but I had never polished a set of nails before in my life. On my first day of nail school, I remember polishing a set of fake hands with red nail polish, and after, it looked like I had murdered someone in cold blood with my bare hands. To this day, I am still not good. In fact, I’m barely a C-. There are days where I polish a woman’s nails and look at the work that already took me twice as long as it should have, and I cannot help but feel that despite my best efforts, I robbed this woman of her money and time.
Lastly, creating this website made me want to rip out my hair every night for two weeks straight. This was something I had never done or even attempted to do, but when I decided to start a blog I knew that I wanted my own website to house my writings, but the process of learning what to do felt like trying to navigate my way around a foreign country without speaking the language. It took me nearly an hour to figure out how to change the menu fonts to white from black. I probably spent two hours just staring at the homepage and fiddling around with different buttons just so I could understand what all basic things were. Through every part of the process, I felt incredibly dumb and frustrated.
Throughout all of these new ventures, I constantly forced myself to sit with this feeling of not being good enough. At this point, the feeling confronts me like an old friend. My heart begins clenching in my chest, I avert my eyes from other people, and it feels like someone is repeatedly stepping on my throat. I wanted to scream and run and cry, but I forced myself to put myself in situations where I continued to feel lesser than–and that has made all the difference.
As I continually found myself stuck at the bottom, I slowly grew accustomed to the feeling of sucking at everything–the feeling I had spent so much time running away from. It would be a complete lie to say that getting used to the feeling made it hurt less, but I found something else through the pain of inferiority–peace. Even when I knew that I sucked and knew that everyone else knew that I sucked, I found myself looking in the mirror and touching my chest. I was still alive. Embarrassed, sure, but alive. In my mind, the fear of my ego crumbling kept me moving forward or away from the things that scared me. I was terrified at what others–what I–would see when the false idealized image of myself was torn down.
The image of a guy who could never fail had been stripped away, and beneath that fragile tower was still me. I realized that I could be lesser than, be completely awful at something, and let everyone else down, and at the end of the day, I would still be alive. It took me eighteen years to realize that being better at something didn’t make me a better person. Whether or not I’m a world champion or a complete novice, I am still me.
“My life does not belong to others and I am not here on Earth to live up to someone else’s expectations.” Branden 121
Once I became okay with the idea that others may look down at me because I sucked, the weight of an entire world was lifted off of your shoulders–I felt free. Fail often, fail giganticly, and fail publicly. Fall down on your ass hundreds of times while snowboarding, polish dozens of nails that stain the sidewalls of fingers, and spend hours fumbling around with a website that barely functions. You will feel like people will laugh at you and you will feel like everyone thinks you’re lesser, and it is in those moments that you are given the opportunity to look at yourself in the mirror and realize that the thoughts and ideas of others do not change who you are.
Failing does not inherently lead to personal growth. The most important part of this process is how you speak to yourself and the things you tell yourself when you are failing. In my sophomore year of high school, I was the starting libero on the varsity volleyball team (it’s okay if you don’t know what that is). It was one of the first times I had been chosen to be a starter. The game was a best three of five. In the first two sets, I played awfully. After we lost the second set, I got pulled from the game and my spot was given to someone else. At the moment, the shame and disappointment I felt seeped into my body and took root in my mind. I let myself and everyone else down, and I kept telling myself I was a failure and a loser. Over the course of the rest of the season, instead of getting better, I felt myself get worse and make more mistakes with every passing week. My anxiety only grew, and before long, I remember wishing that someone would just take me off of the court because I was so terrified of letting everyone down.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, I was giving a lady a pedicure, and she thought I filed her nails unevenly. I tried my hardest, but she felt very dissatisfied with my work. Eventually, she took her feet out of the water, gathered her things, and left. I remember sitting in my little chair, watching as she walked out the door–my eyes darting towards the other workers waiting to see their reaction. In my mind, I knew they were thinking, “This kid is so bad. Why did he just make that customer leave? I should have done that customer instead of him.” Before anyone even said anything, I could feel the shame creeping into my body filling my body with liquid metal, making it impossible to move. It felt like someone was stomping on my throat and my chest at the same time. I quietly walked into the bathroom, and the tears started flowing.
You can’t control how you feel. I couldn’t stop being sad or embarrassed just because I wanted to, but I could control how I talked to myself. I remember looking at the mirror in the small bathroom with overbearing mint green walls. I cried for a couple minutes, and then I took a deep breath. My hand found its way to my chest and then my hair and then around my face. “I’m still okay,” I whispered to myself. Other than the puffy red eyes that had grown on my face, I looked exactly the same as I did before the failure. “I’m okay. I tried my hardest and that was the best I could do. Failing doesn’t make you a lesser person.” It took five to ten minutes of taking deep breaths, looking at the person I saw in the mirror and gently repeating those phrases. After I stepped out of the bathroom, I gave four more pedicures that day. The only way to let go of the shame you feel when failing, is to not shame yourself when you inevitably fail.
The Person In The Mirror
That being said, hopefully, you will not always suck at everything. Even the most secure and self-loving people would find that hard to deal with, but once you’ve become okay with the suck, there comes a time when you stop sucking. This isn’t a faith based argument. It is a law of nature–the inexperienced become experienced, the rookies grow into veterans, the amateurs mature into experts. Even though the road may be long, if you stick with it enough, progress is inevitable. Something interesting happens to you when you realize that you can fail, continue to fail, and then eventually get better. You may never be the best in the world, but you will get better through enough sustained effort. It will take a lot of effort, sucking, and courage to get good, but you know that you’re capable. This is the end goal of confidence–it is how you create stability in an unstable world where you are the only constant.
“The distinction between trust in our processes and trust in some particular area of knowledge is of the highest importance in virtually every sphere of endeavor…our security can rest only on our ability to learn.” Branden 35
Instead of our confidence being rooted in our ability to be good at certain things–being valedictorian, dating the most attractive people, or achieving some great thing–our confidence ought to come from a deep sense of trust we have within ourselves to weather life’s challenges. It’s the ability to tell yourself when you’re in the midst of sucking when you want to scream and run away and quit and cry, that you will be able to get through this. There is an end to this dark tunnel, and you can trust yourself to get to that end and know that you will be okay. Maybe you won’t be everything you wished you could be–maybe your book will never get published and the nails you polish will never be as good as your coworkers who have literal decades of experience on you–but even in those failures you will look at yourself and feel okay.
“Successful people don’t make the right decisions, they make their decisions right.” Elliot Hulse.
This is a quote that I heard in middle school, and to this day, I think about it whenever I need to make a decision. When we have to make important decisions in our lives, it is extremely easy to get caught up in this idea of needing to make the “right decisions”. However, often, you can only tell what the right decision was in hindsight, and even if you do make all the best possible decisions, life can still just punch you in the face. So I just make the best decision I can without worrying about it too much because I know that no matter what happens, whether or not the world gets turned upside down or everything around me crumbles, I’ll be able to rise and face the problems that life presents me. The only way for that statement to not be true is for me to die–in which case, it wouldn’t matter anyway. I cannot know what the future holds, so I step forward with my head held high, knowing that whatever happens, I trust myself to endure the inevitable suck.
Book Mentioned in This Blog Post