On the wide-swinging pendulum of self-confidence, one end is demur, uncertain girls who don’t like to be talked to, looked at, or paid attention to in any way. And at the other end, there are bawdy, rash and raucous girls who suck up attention and flaunt everything they’ve got–never bothered by the exposure, nor satisfied that it is enough. Society’s pendulum has swung too far to the extreme (brazen) side and I fear that in seeking bulletproof self-confidence, we have lost the concept of self-respect. If it seems like I’m splitting hairs with these terms, maybe some examples will clarify–and think of what you know about the person, not just what they are wearing:
Every grocery store check out line I stand in fills my eyes and brain with tips and tricks for improving self confidence. Sometimes overtly– “Build your confidence NOW!”–but more often through articles about losing weight, being sexy, dressing the season, making friends, etc. Every article in “Women’s Magazines” is aimed at bringing women to some supposed peak of existence when at last we will achieve self-confidence. Unfortunately, this is a completely wrong pattern to follow, and doing so creates the brazen bravado that we see all around.
The real problem with society’s approach to confidence is that it requires us to outsource our validation to other people or external accomplishments. We become dependent upon praise, “likes”, and comparisons to determine how we feel about ourselves. When we do that, we lose power over our own happiness. And powerlessness ≠ confidence.
If you have been to a waterpark this summer you have seen the issue. You see young girls strutting around in their string bikinis, tossing their hair over their shoulders and looking like they are going to eat all the boys alive. And then you stand next to one in line and you realize that they are totally naked. They are just nakedly standing there right next to you and they are sucking in and tugging down wedgies and freezing cold. Why in the world have they chosen to go out in public and be so exposed? Would they honestly wear the same thing if there weren’t going to be boys there to hit on them? And would they want to be hit on so badly if they already knew that they were beautiful and precious and worthy of love? These girls strutting around the park naked are some of the most fragile and unsure creatures in the world.
Now take the same motivation and move it to Facebook or Instagram. Why are we posting some of our most intimate details, torso pictures, love letters, or just banal constant virtual vomit in a never-ending feed? Why would we put ourselves in such an exposed position where every moment or achievement needs public affirmation? Do we know how to feel about our meals and park days even without comments and likes? Do we like our new haircut? Or are we not sure until enough people tell us to like it. Where is the confidence in that? Where is our power to determine our own value?
How Modesty Builds Confidence
One of the main differences in my photo examples was that self-respecting women were dressed modestly, while self-confident women were not. Modest clothing is just an outward expression of a larger philosophy of life. Modesty is in conversation (topics and volume), it’s reputation, it’s what you project about yourself, and being modest is not the antithesis of self-confidence. I believe modesty is closely tied with self-respect and it is foundational to building internal confidence. We allow ourselves to keep private things private because we understand how precious and beautiful and worthy of love we are. We shouldn’t dress modestly because we are ashamed of our bodies– we dress modestly because we get how powerful and beautiful they are, and we honor and protect them and respect ourselves. Because No, Sir standing next to me in the waterpark, you do not have my permission to oogle me. Thank you very much.
Whether its your body or your awesome test score or your new love interest–you get to choose how to feel about it yourself. It’s not for the whole world to see, experience, touch or criticize. It’s entirely and serenely your business. Think of it as changing from a democratic decision process wherein you tally responses and votes from everyone around you about how you should feel about yourself, to a monarchy–you are the queen. You have full say, and you don’t need anyone else’s input. That’s how modesty keeps your life in your own hands. That is the confidence that I want for myself and my children. I want them to know their own worth, and keep that feeling of approval to a very small circle–them, their parents and God (and their husband, but not for many more years). They will be bulletproof if they can believe in themselves without relying on feedback from others.
Starting With Self Respect
There was a great article about this dichotomy of self-respect and self-esteem by Ellen J. Langer (the author of Mindfulness, a book you really ought to go and read right after you finish this article). Here is the meatiest part:
The person with self-respect simply likes her- or himself. This self-respect is not contingent on success because there are always failures to contend with. Neither is it a result of comparing ourselves with others because there is always someone better. These are tactics usually employed to increase self-esteem. Self-respect, however, is a given. We simply like ourselves or we don’t. With self-respect, we like ourselves because of who we are and not because of what we can or cannot do.
Consider an interesting test of self-respect. If someone compliments us, what is our reaction? If we are very pleased, it would suggest a certain amount of uncertainty about our skill. Imagine that somebody whose opinion we respect told us that we were great at spelling three-letter words, or that our pronunciation of vowels was wonderful. Chances are we would not be moved. We know we can do it in the first case, and we don’t care in the second. Because we were not evaluating ourselves, the compliment was unimportant. The more instances in which we don’t “take the compliment,” the less vulnerable we become to evaluation and insult.
Self Respect is absolutely the starting point for building internally-renewable self-confidence. Not your dress size or relationship status. Liking and loving yourself comes first. I have seen that the more I am gentle with myself and accepting of myself in all my quirks and proficiencies, the more happy and confident I have become internally. See how the magazine formula is completely backwards? First you like yourself. Then you go on and do amazing things.
There is a rather enormous piece of the puzzle which is something you won’t find in Cosmo, and probably the reason that their formula is failing. God’s love is an incredible power in a person’s life that makes them feel whole and valuable. M. Catherine Thomas has a great chapter about that in her book Spiritual Lightening. She explains that the closer we are to God, the better we understand and love ourselves. That is simply the key to self love and self respect. The same message is found in a darling children’s book, You Are Special, by Max Lucado.
If you’ve read this book, you’ll remember how the Wemmicks (little wooden puppets) gave each other dots or stars depending on how they acted or just the mood of the day, but for little Punchinello neither the stars nor the dots would stay put. They just didn’t matter to him, it only mattered what his Maker thought of Him. His self-respect made him impervious to the opinions and judgments of his peers.
(If you wonder if this could happen for you, pray specifically about this very issue–ask how God feels about you, and ask Him to help you feel happy and content with yourself. And continue to pray about the actual things you need help with! Not just the things you think you should say. Get personal.)
Building Self Confidence
So self-respect is the foundation, but I think that confidence is also essential: I love Ms. Langer’s idea that the more things that we can place into that category of “well, duh. I know I can do that,” (like spelling 3-letter words or pronouncing our vowels) the less we are moved by evaluation from others. Becoming more proficient in the things we chose to focus on will take away the uncertainty of how we feel about ourselves, which also takes away the power from other people to tell you how you should feel about yourself. Which brings me to an awesome interview that Mindy Kaling gave to Glamour Magazine (yes, yes, it’s ironic to quote Glamour in this post. They are the worst. Don’t do anything else they recommend.) She said that she gets her killer confidence from working. A lot. She knows that she has what it takes, because she has been willing to go for it and put in a lot of time and energy into becoming good at it. She is confident because she worked hard to be proficient.
People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster chambermaid on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man’s touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work. . .
We do a thing in America, which is to label people “workaholics” and tell them that work is ruining their lives. It’s such a widespread opinion that it seems like the premise to every indie movie is “Workaholic mom comes home to find that her entire family hates her. It’s not until she cuts back on work, smokes a little pot, and takes up ballroom dancing classes with her neglected husband that she realizes what is truly important in life. Not work.” Working parents have now eclipsed shady Russian-esque operatives as America’s most popular choice of movie villain. And to some degree, I understand why the trope exists. It probably resonates because most people in this country hate their jobs. The economies of entire countries like Turks and Caicos are banking on US citizens hating their jobs and wanting to get away from it all. And I understand that. But it’s a confusing message for kids.
The reason I’m bringing this up is not to defend my status as someone who always works. (I swear I’m not that Tiger Mom lady! I don’t think you need to play piano for eleven hours with no meals! Or only watch historical movies, then write reports on them for me to read and grade!) It’s just that, the truth is, I have never, ever, ever met a highly confident and successful person who is not what a movie would call a “workaholic.” We can’t have it both ways, and children should know that.
Because confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.
She’s another one who has got self-respect and the self-confidence nailed. She is suuuuper funny and smart. And we can focus on her brain and talent because that’s what she is projecting–modesty keeps her in control of her public image.
The Real Formula
- Self Respect is the foundation. Know yourself, love yourself, honor and protect yourself. Let God help you find that serenity and acceptance.
- Confidence should be an internally-renewable resource. You become confident naturally when you work hard at things. That takes them off the “insecure” side of things and puts them on the “I rock at this, and I know it” side of things. There is no bravado or showing off at that point. You will just know that you can do things, and feel confident in doing them.
- Most importantly, retain your power to feel good about yourself. Don’t put it in your friend’s hands, or strangers hands. Create your beautiful life and keep it in your own beautiful hands.