The Trouble With Confidence

One of my responsibilities as a writer is to keep up with the various books that are topping the self-help list.  The past few years, they have tended to fall into two categories:

1. Get It Together! or 2. Embrace Your Imperfection!
B

Both of these messages can be true and important, but they reflect a tension that exists in mainstream culture. We’re supposed to be okay with being exactly where we are, but we also must be constantly moving forward. These messages also focus solely on the individual, missing an important point: to be human is to be in relationship with others.

I once had a client who, like most of us, exemplified the tension between these two competing messages. Cassandra grew up in rural Georgia and was the oldest of four children. She described her parents as blue collar workers who were often anxious about money. Like many oldest children, Cassandra was achievement-focused. She worked hard in school, got good grades, and loved to debate her peers.

Cassandra took out student loans to pay for tuition when she was accepted into her dream college. After four years, she was able to land her dream job of working for a congressperson in Washington, DC. She pushed aside worries that the low-paying staffer job would delay her ability to make a dent in her student debt. Wanting to fit into the professional world of Washington politics, she also racked up significant credit card debt building her wardrobe and furnishing her apartment.

Fast forward ten years, when Cassandra came to therapy stressed about money, a recent breakup, and her desire to abandon the uninspiring PR job she had taken to meet the costs of her lifestyle. She told me that she wanted to be able to think more flexibly and shake off a constant desire to compare herself to others.

If I were a therapist who used cognitive behavioral techniques, I might have focused on the thought patterns that made Cassandra feel stuck and anxious and “caused” her to overspend, job hop, and jump into relationships to feel secure. Thoughts like:

  • I should be working harder.
  • Other people have it figured out.
  • I’ve failed at being an adult.

But when I listened to Cassandra, I heard a person who was extremely confident. She could provide perfectly valid explanations for every decision she had made. She was quite skilled at justifying to herself and others her reasons for borrowing money from her parents or why her coworkers were simply intolerable. I knew that trying to debate a former debate team champion would get us nowhere.

When writing about his scale of differentiation, Dr. Bowen described how this kind of dogmatic certainty can reflect a lack of emotional maturity:

“If relationship system approves, they can be brilliant students and disciples. If their expectations are not met, they assemble a pseudo-self in point by point opposition to the established order.”

Confidence is often a sign of the pseudo-self at work—confidence can rise or fall depending on how people respond to us and how much anxiety is in a system. I think this is why I prefer the concept of maturity over the idea of confidence as a therapeutic goal. Unfortunately, in the mental health marketplace, I can’t think of a less sexy word than maturity.

Confidence is seeing the world from your small corner and believing your perspective is THE reality. Maturity is the ability to zoom out and see how everyone else is also acting like their corner is the reality. By zooming out, you are less likely to act defensively when people disagree with you or excel above you. You are also much less likely to pathologize or shame yourself, which frees you up to take responsibility and problem solve.

So Cassandra’s work wasn’t to try and convince herself that she was just as valuable a human as everyone else. She didn’t need to GET IT TOGETHER or EMBRACE HER IMPERFECTION. Instead, she started paying attention to her relationship systems. After she drew a map of how anxiety was passed around her office, it didn’t shock her as much when people acted predictably. When we talked about patterns of functioning in her family, she could see her behaviors in other relationships reflected through these experiences. Cassandra also began to describe past romantic relationships in a way that was less about the flaws of her exes and more about the reciprocal functioning between two people.

By describing her relationships like a scientist rather than a victim or a perpetrator, she was using the front part of her brain, the part that solves problems. Over time, Cassandra begin to develop a set of guiding principles for how she wanted to manage her finances and manage herself in her relationships. Having these handy, she was a little less likely to give into what “felt right” in the moment. She also began to see that creeping thoughts of failure or self-comparison were a useful barometer for her anxiety. They didn’t need to be challenged or disputed. They were simply a sign that her focus had drifted to that love and approval we all crave. Her task was simply to direct her focus back to her principles as much as she could.

This week I’d like you to think about the difference between living a confident life and living a mature one.

1. How can you see self-doubt as a sign of increased anxiety or relationship-focus rather than a sign of weakness?

2. What are ways you can direct your thinking back to what you believe and value?

3. How can you stay flexible in this thinking by considering facts or experiences which challenge those beliefs?

Confidence is great, but it is as variable as the relationships which grant it. How can you pursue a life of maturity that reflects your best self, even in anxious times?

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