One thing I have realized from writing this blog and doing The Self-Confidence Experiment is that (self-)confidence is not a monolithic concept. It’s not an identity that defines your whole being. Even as I currently use “Self-Confidence” as my screen name, I realize that this is not my identity. To say, “I am self-confidence / self-confident,” can obscure the fact that no one is completely self-confident – that confidence comes in many forms; there are many ways to be self-confident, many aspects of ourselves and the world to be confident in or not.
Upon consideration, this is probably obvious, and yet, it is not how we talk about self-confidence in particular in our society, in our language. We like to say, “I’m very confident,” to describe our whole being. One reason for this is power dynamics (politics): to admit we are not 100% confident is to admit vulnerability, and many of us have fears of losing social power in doing so, especially men. One of the results is that many people pretend to be perfectly confident when they are not, but often without much if any of the self-reflection with which I conducted The Self-Confidence Experiment – they mask fears with a relentless façade of confidence. Confidence becomes linked to other forms of identity policing, based on purity of identity: Real men eat meat. Real Christians go to Church. Real women have XX chromosomes. True Scotsman don’t run. Identity policing is a tautology that can’t be proven wrong, like the existence of God. Noting that confidence derives from Latin for “with faith,” the parallel with Christianity is unsurprising. The result of this closed ideology is that self-doubt, self-reflection, and questioning are discouraged. For one must not violate the purity of the identity, lest one lose the perceived privileges with which it comes. One must not admit that one lacks confidence, lest one lose the privileges of being perceived as confidence.
As I detailed on this blog during The Self-Confidence Experiment, there were privileges that I found in pretending to be self-confident. I found that people were much more positive toward me. But while there were short-term and long-term benefits to this experiment, I actually took the whole act a bit too seriously. For a while, I wasn’t sure how to reconcile confidence as role play with confidence as authenticity. Now that I had some people viewing me as more confident than before, I was afraid to admit when I had doubts, when I regressed in some ways, especially since I wasn’t yet sure how to weave them into uplifting and cohesive thoughts.
What I have come to realize is that role play is but one of the many forms of confidence, but one of the many ways in which we may grow our self-confidence. Thus, by pretending to be self-confident – or self-confidence itself – I can let go of some fears and experience that natural, positive feedback that results in social settings and the universe. I can imagine new ways of being – role play is but an act of the imagination, and a very human one at that. We all role play, we all identity play, so to speak. Learning to loosen up the grip of certain identities by stepping into new roles is a healthy form of social and intellectual exploration. Even lion cubs do it when they play fight. It is a form of play.
So what do I mean that confidence comes in many forms? Well, I am confident in doing basic arithmetic. I am not confident in doing quantum physics. I am confident in tying my shoes, but not in sewing anything without first learning. I am confident in the earth being spherical, but not in the origins of the universe. I am confident that I could lift a 15-pound dumbell, but I’m not confident that I will ever lift a 100-pound dumbbell. I am confident in my natural abilities as a masseuse, but not as a waitress. To be confident is simply to have faith. So what do you have faith in? Why should that be an either/or question: to be confident or not to be confident? To have faith or not to have faith – in what? Faith is based upon reason, even if that reason be the need not to ask questions. Sometimes, indeed, we need not to ask questions. If I board a plane, I’m not going to interrogate the pilot. Nor am I going to dwell on the possibility of a plane crash. I will have faith that it’s best to simply board the plane without worrying about improbable dangers. That’s what I choose to have faith in.
In the personal development community – dominated by straight, white men – I have noticed that vulnerability is not something people, especially gurus, like to talk much about. Part of why I got lost a bit in the identity of self-confidence is because I saw others doing it, including other personal growth bloggers. I wanted to be like them. One of the popular things in this straight male-dominated community is Pick-Up Artistry (PUA). Some of the more enlightened PD gurus avoid the term PUA, but use some of the same core concepts: that a man, or a person, should be confident in order to get what they want. That if one is not already confident, then one must change to model oneself after others who are confident and can market and sell confidence as an identity in commodity form; one must develop oneself to be confident in order to attract confidence; one must be confident to be worthy of what one wants (i.e. a relationship), love oneself before others may love us, etc.
As a queer woman primarily interested in women, it was confusing to find my place in this. What to do about the fact that the women I’m interested in are not approaching me, how to get dates with strong chemistry, how to find a romantic partner, etc. So I found myself trying to be confident in the queer clubs, at queer events, on every date. As an “androgynous”-presenting female, with perhaps a slight tomboyish look and a presentation of self-confidence, with confidence in my club and partner dance skills as well as my ability to physically please a woman, what I found amid the positive experiences was that the women I ended up with all preferred being the follower in some sense. While this is great for partner dancing, because I prefer leading there, it ultimately bothered me in other ways. I didn’t realize at first what this meant – I was afraid that I was just not confident enough, that they weren’t seeing me as confident enough, that they had unfair expectations of my being the leader in the relationship as a whole, of my taking the lead in sex even when I was a so-called virgin and they were far from it. It was unspoken, but I believe they were particularly attracted to what they perceived as my relative masculinity and confidence and sexual prowess in a sense. I also wanted to live up to that role, of the confident masculine; I believe they, and I, both subconsciously thought I should take a particular role in the relationship based on my relative appearance of masculinity. Over time, they’d express doubts in the relationship related to my lack of self-confidence. I would then feel bad and afraid that I was somehow inadequate for long-term or perhaps even short-term relationships.
Then I ended up with a transgender man. He is in many ways a stereotypical guy: he likes to lead the relationship as a whole as well as sex in general, he likes to primarily top in bed, he likes to carry things for me. Moreover, he has that stereotypically masculine self-confidence, and he clearly doesn’t care that much whether I am self-confident or not. He doesn’t see me as self-confident or not. He doesn’t value me or find me attractive primarily based on my levels of self-confidence, or at least not in any way that I should be particularly concerned about. He doesn’t find it a turn-off that I want him to take the lead, or that I am not as confident as or more confident than he is, generally speaking. He has another lover who he is engaged to and who he says is very shy.
I also struggled with trying too hard to be confident with women, such that I would just end up feeling anxious around some of them. One time I put so much expectation into one date with a woman I hadn’t seen in almost a year, and it crashed and burned in anxiety because I was increasingly mortified by my failure to live up to the expectation of self-confidence that I both created for myself and believed she wanted (still do). But the thing is, most people want us to be confident in them and in our relationship with them more than in ourselves, so I achieved the opposite of intention by trying really hard to be confident. I became less and less confident during that encounter, in a vicious cycle, and especially less confident in the relationship.
This happened at the same time as my relationship with this guy was just beginning. Together these two experiences catalyzed a critical realization: that I don’t have to be self-confident to date, have sex, or have fulfilling relationships. I don’t have to be the relatively confident one. I don’t have to take the lead in a relationship or in sex. In particular, I don’t like to take the lead in a relationship overall, to be the one driving the relationship onward by initiating most of the encounters, and that doesn’t make me a person with insufficient self-confidence. It is simply something that I prefer not to do, because it doesn’t come naturally to me in most relationships, and I doubt it would ever work in a long-term relationship. It would require too much effort and contrivance on my part. If you’re not naturally at least average at math or have a ridiculous passion for math, why would you ever want to pursue math as a career? It’s the same concept. Why try so hard?
It’s okay to be shy. It’s okay to follow. Shy people have long-term, healthy relationships, too. So do submissive women AND men.
The next date I went on with a new person was awkward, in my view, but it was minimally contrived. We both were shy and had never been with a shy person before. We had that one night of intimacy, which was a fun exploration of intimacy with another shy person. Anything beyond that brief and light exploration works poorly with us, because we are both shy and don’t like taking the lead in the relationship. That’s just how it is, and it’s highly unlikely to ever fundamentally change in a lifetime. (Like confidence, “shy” does not define us either, but it is a tendency.)
Contrary to what one woman I fell in love with once told me via quoting her immigrant mother – “shy is minus” – this is my unique confidence: to be confidently shy, where appropriate. To confidently follow in the ways in which I naturally prefer to follow. To be confident in my ability to find and maintain a healthy relationship as an often shy person. To be confident that my fears, anxieties, and shyness do not define me or my readiness for intimacy. To be confident that I don’t need to hide my vulnerabilities all the time to impress someone, and that doing so will undermine my self-confidence. To be confident that when a relationship is truly meant to be, it won’t take so much effort to begin with.
I am very confident in my current relationship with this guy, and it’s effortless. Furthermore, I believe it’s natural not to be confident in relationships when one is inexperienced in them. I have made a natural progression through the associated anxieties, even if I was a little bit of a late bloomer. And queer people tend to bloom later in this sense than straight folks, due to discrimination as well as the smaller dating pool.
This is my unique confidence: letting lovers come to me more, instead of putting too much effort into reaching out to them, but still making some effort and growing gradually more comfortable with expressing interest in people. Realizing that both reaching out to others and putting myself out there for them to reach are viable methods of finding lovers and friends, and that some times I may choose to emphasize one of these truths over the other. Right now I see benefit of focusing on the latter most of all, even though I’ve benefited from the former, and I want to see where this new emphasis leads me.
I am confident in many ways. I am growing in many ways. And I have many doubts, too. I am finite. I want to grow in confidence in many ways, but I also want to discover a unique facet of confidence with each step I take. I don’t want to just blanket myself in the identity of self-confidence. That’s limiting. I have faith in questioning, imagination, and the joys and benefits of exploration. Those will give me a more profound and worthwhile confidence in the end. The only reason we need faith, to begin with, is because of our finitude. We only need confidence/faith because there are things we don’t know and can’t control, because we are imperfect and must choose the best ways to navigate and employ our fears.
Everything we believe, and everything we do, comes with some element of faith.
This is my unique confidence: I will find my own way. It’s a process.