"To be nobody but yourself, in a world which does its best, day and night, to make you like everyone else, means to fight the hardest battle any human being can ever fight and never stop fighting" - e.e. cummings
The first time I read the above quote, I was in eighth grade. It was the end of the school year, and my language arts teacher gave it to me on a printed sheet of 8.5 x 11" computer paper. She must have sensed that I needed the inspiration, judging by my bowl cut, glasses, braces, violin case and toolbox filled with art supplies that I carried to school every day for my extra-curricular activities. I spent Friday nights making structures out of balsa wood and then crushing them with weights with my Odyssey of the Mind team. My favorite outfit was a purple corduroy jumper paired with an olive green turtleneck, accentuated by my knobby knees and size 10 Doc Marten Mary Janes which I topped with a gray North Face fleece jacket that I'd paid for, in cash, with babysitting money in order to have the socially acceptable outerwear of my peer group. My parents drove me and my five siblings around town in a giant red Ford Clubwagon van that we dubbed "The Church Bus" for both its cavernous capacity and street credibility. (It instilled in me a deep love of walking and public transportation.)
It would have been so much easier to have just been cool. To have had the right looks, the right talents, the right hobbies, the right friends, the right clothes, etc. I'd tried (and failed at) all of the things that makes one cool in middle school, including preparing a solo acapella audition---with dance moves, might I add, because I was truly committed---for Show Choir where I was cut for lacking the talent to back up my stage presence. It was a series of crushing defeats that helped me to realize that I wasn't going to be beautiful or popular, so I might as well be smart and develop a good personality.
Mark Twain once said that the worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself. And it's a concept that I know well, from various stages of my life including the most pronounced as a 12-year-old testing the waters of my own innate abilities (like filming Richard Simmons-esque turn-of-the-century workout videos complete with hoop skirts and butter churning cardio moves) and inabilities (like all things involving hand-eye coordination) and considering where my strengths fit in a world where writing haikus and taking watercolor classes with middle aged women did not exactly lead to conventionally successful outcomes.
I remember feeling out of place and unsure of myself often as a girl, reinforced by experiences where I thought I had it all together and then learned that, in fact, I did not. For example, that time I showed up to gym class in FUBU socks that I bought at TJ Maxx assuming they were like Adidas or Nike and thought they looked sharp with my uniform. I was dismayed to learn that they were not anything like Reebok but instead a tough urban menswear brand that looked ridiculous on my knobby ankles attached to my 90 pound body. On me, those FUBU socks had the opposite effect for a brand that claims to make clothes “…for people who do not want to stand out but want to be seen.”
Sorry, where were we? Ah yes, that e.e. cummings quote that my middle school teacher gave to me, not realizing that it was going to be a lifelong gift of inspiration to be true to myself, no matter how hard that can sometimes be in a reality when you're wearing FUBU socks and getting shamed by a group of middle school boys.
The one thing you need to stop doing to be truly confident
This very long prologue brings me to the number one thing we must all stop doing if we want to be truly confident, something that took me far too long to learn. And it's this: stop caring about what everyone else is thinking.
This is going to sound a little suspect, but stay with me: no one's opinion really matters, no one's life is really that exceptional, and no one really knows what they're doing. There, I said it. And I'll add, no one's really ever thinking about you. Gasp! How is that possible, given how much I think about myself, and how much I think about what other people think about me? It's true. And liberating! Sure, you'll get the occasional critic or false friend who might judge you or gossip about you from time to time, but my mom once explained this kind of negative attention in the best way I've ever heard: "Anyone who says something bad about you behind your back wants something that you have, so you should take anything negative they say as a compliment."
Don't believe me? Think back to the last person you judged or gossiped about, and get really honest about what was driving the negativity. For me, it was a friend of a friend who started an amazing health foods business and I judged her for having a bland personality. In reality, I judged her because I was jealous of her outstanding entrepreneurial venture and unwavering belief in herself to go for it, because it was something that I personally would love to accomplish but haven't had the wherewithal to make the leap from my comfortable corporate job.
If you spend a lot of time caring what other people think, you also probably spend a lot of time judging other people and gossiping and engaging in other negative, confidence-destroying behaviors. And I know this from experience, as someone who spent a lot of time struggling with this kind of insecurity that kept me very far from reaching my full potential. Quite frankly, caring about what everyone else thinks is also a sad waste of time, considering how everyone is too busy thinking about themselves to think about you and if they are judging you, it's inconsequential at worst and a compliment-disguised-as-an-insult at best.
Thanks to my mom and amazingly weird friend group who accept all my flaws and the 23758493 self-help books I've read, I've been able to effectively stop giving an eff about the proverbial "they," and in tandem have been able to develop the tools to recognize and shut down judgmental feelings almost as soon as they bubble up. When I hear other people gossiping about or judging someone, I now read it as a glaring sign of insecurity and tend to feel sorry for them. (It makes me really want to meet the person being criticized because they're probably awesome-slash-doing something right!)
We spend most of our lives accumulating the expectations of other people: our parents, our siblings, our friends, our teachers, our culture, our social circles and communities, etc. Some of those expectations are good in that they encourage us to develop good character. Most of those expectations are entirely bogus. Here are a few personal examples:
- When I moved to a new city after college, a friend of my cousin's called me ugly and not that great, definitely not good enough to join her circle of friends
- When I first started working in management consulting, a manager with several elite Ivy League degrees told me that my print-editorial journalism degree from a mediocre state university in the Midwest wasn't good enough and would get me nowhere
- When I got engaged, some family members told me that it was unlikely that my marriage would survive because my fiancé was not Catholic
- When I started blogging and freelance writing, a few colleagues told me it was dumb, would limit my potential and I should quit or keep it really quiet
We all have experiences like these. For me, each of these examples helped me to build the strength to stop caring about what other people thought, because although I struggled with their expectations and judgments, accepting them as my own was not an option. There was no way I was going to absorb the belief that I was ugly and unlovable, or that I needed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a pedigree to succeed, or that I should dump my fiancé to find someone who could check the box on the "right religious background," or that I should step back from my love of writing. Looking back, I realize that each of the people in those examples were struggling with insecurity and fear, and probably trying to stay safe in whatever warped way they defined safety.
These glaring experiences also helped highlight some of the smaller, more seemingly innocuous ways that I'd been allowing other people's expectations drive my behavior, especially in how I spent my time and money.
Shedding the weight of other people's expectations freed me in more ways than I can list in one article. It liberated me from feeling pressure to invest in graduate school and bind myself to a corporate path, allowed me make life moves without reservations that have resulted in the most wonderful relationships I could have asked for, and helped me to clarify and stick to what I valued which tripled my income in less than five years. Not bad for an ugly, unlovable, under-educated, unqualified, and ill-advised 20-something, eh?
My point in sharing all of this is because I feel like it's an extremely common struggle, and I believe that peeling back the residue of other people's expectations that we've collected over time is essential to developing true confidence -- the kind of confidence that opens our minds, enables up to tap into what makes us tick, what makes us unique and separates us from the pack, and make ourselves as useful as possible to the world. It's funny how the things that set us apart are what we fear we'll be judged for - but they're also the ones we're meant to follow, not shut down. As Yoko Ono put it, "you change the world by being yourself."
The end! If you're still with me, I'd like to briefly address my months-long hiatus from this blog: I have no excuse, other than that I threw all blogging advice to the wind and took a break to focus on a couple of things that I'll eventually get around to sharing here with you. Thanks, as always, for reading! Hopefully you took something away from this post - I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.