I was talking recently with someone in his early twenties who is going through a young man’s existential crisis.
He recently started a new job that he doesn’t much like and he’s been struggling with a lot of anxiety and depression.
He’s a sensitive, spiritual kid who has always felt different from other people. He has a hard time making friends and being in social settings. Now he’s working in a big, sterile corporate environment, surrounded by people who are mostly older than him, and he feels out of place.
Every moment that he’s at that job, he told me, he feels paralyzed by anxiety. All the people there seem to have their act together. They talk, they laugh, they go to lunch together. He doesn’t know what to say to them. He is sure that before long he will be found out and exposed as a fraud.
Talking to him, I felt I was speaking to a younger version of myself. When I was his age I was riddled with anxiety and self-doubt. I had just gone through a depression that had ripped away my faith in myself and left me shaken to the core. I felt like a skinned animal, my nerves exposed to the elements.
When I told him my story – how I came from that dark place to an unshakeable confidence in myself and my place in the world – my acquaintance was surprised. He had always thought that self-confidence was more nature than nurture.
How could he become more confident? he asked. Like me? Like the people at his work? Like normal people?
I counseled him that, first of all, he should avoid the comparison game. There is no surer route to unhappiness than comparing yourself to people who you believe are smarter, richer, happier, more confident, or otherwise better off than you.
Everyone is different and everyone’s journey is different. There is no divine yardstick for what is “normal” when it comes to confidence or anything else. We all walk at our own pace.
Second, I said that he shouldn’t think that just because people at his new company appeared to have their act together that they really did.
We all wear masks. We put them on in different situations to hide things that we don’t want others to see while projecting the face of the person we wish we could be.
Nowhere, in my experience, are more masks worn than in our work environments. We get dressed in the morning and put on masks of being competent, of being knowledgeable, of being together and on top of our game, when very often we’re not feeling that way inside. And then we get home and put other masks on, for dealing with our spouses, our children, our neighbors.
“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau wrote. We live those desperate lives behind masks of feigned confidence intended to conceal our inner pain to the world.
So be careful of appearances, in other words.
The third point I made to my young acquaintance is to be conscious of the difference between true confidence and false confidence.
False confidence comes from the ego. It is one of the masks we wear, a projection made by the ego of what it wants the world to think of it.
In his little masterpiece True Self, False Self, M. Basil Pennington writes of “the construct of the false self.” The false self is formed in our developing years when we fall under the illusion that we are not loveable in ourselves and that our self-worth is based on the three-legged stool of “what I have, what I do, and what others think of me.”
These three very powerful factors – possessions, achievements, and others’ opinions – begin to drive our thinking. We see the world as an us-vs.-them competition. We enter ourselves in a mad NASCAR race of life to get more, do more, and be more than the next guy.
There’s no winning this race, of course, because there are always more things to get, more achievements to do, more opinions to change. And since the goal keeps getting moved, we’re never truly content or peaceful.
Men are particularly prone to getting caught in the trap of the false self. We base our identity and self-worth on what we do: our careers, our work, our professions.
But here’s the thing about basing your confidence on “what I have, what I do, and what others think of me.” All of those things could be taken away. That’s why so many men give up on life when they lose their positions of power, privilege and reputation. It’s because their self-confidence and self-worth were based on false premises.
True confidence, on the other hand, doesn’t hinge on outer things like possessions or achievements. Nor does it depend on what others think of us.
True confidence comes from within. It comes from overcoming inner challenges, getting to the other side of those challenges, understanding how we got there in the first place, and realizing the inner strength that drove us to victory.
True confidence comes through mastery of our inner worlds. It from becoming aware of our self-defeating beliefs and habitual ways of thinking, confronting them, and rewriting the old scripts that have unconsciously been holding us back.
False confidence is insecure, because it is built on the skin-deep veneer of ego.
True confidence is deep, because it is built on knowledge, understanding, and experience of the world within.
When we reach the point when we understand that we create our own reality, that our outer circumstances are products of our thoughts and beliefs, we truly begin to move into our inner power.
Then nothing can shake us. That’s true confidence.
So my message to my young friend:
Go inward. Become an inner warrior.
Let go of the comparisons, the vain strivings of the egos, the false promises of the false self, and have the courage to plumb your inner landscape.
Once you do that, you will have the roots of a redwood tree.
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