I recently re-watched some videos of me doing musical theater in high school (lol yep), and started thinking a lot about confidence.
Looking back on that time, I remember feeling confident.
Granted a lot of my confidence came from self-objectification, but it also came from the fact that I understood myself to be funny, smart, likeable, and talented. Most days I felt like a “good person” (whatever that means) with a lot of potential.
I knew some people didn’t like me of course, and sometimes the teenage angst-cocktail of self-consciousness, shame, loneliness, and feeling misunderstood overtook me. But often I liked (and sometimes even loved) myself as a person.
It was weird to watch myself belting out “Hello Dolly” on stage looking so confident, because most of my self-concept was formed in my twenties, and couldn’t have been further away from confidence.
The quick version of the story is that after a traumatizing study-abroad trip at eighteen, I moved to NYC to pursue acting, and realized that everyone was much more talented, smart, and funny than me, and my confidence completely crashed.
The aftermath of my trauma combined with the jarring move from a small rural town to NYC had a huge impact on my personality. I had always been a pretty warm person, but I suddenly found myself being cold, defensive, anxious, angry, shut down, numb, and even outright nasty to people without knowing why.
I felt hijacked by some kind of dark and horrible demon, and it called into question my entire sense of self. I figured if this nasty, cold, numb version of me is me, then I must have just been lying to myself (and everyone else) before.
I didn’t know what other conclusion to draw than that my previously kind and positive self-assessment had been completely wrong. This fact was in and of itself embarrassing and shameful, because it meant that instead of being “confident” in high school I had been “delusional,” “vain,” and “narcissistic.”
Ugh. Nothing is worse than a woman who likes herself too much; nothing more humiliating than an overly confident woman.
I was mortified, and the shame just made my anxiety, anger, numbness, defensiveness, and nastiness worse. It rolled into crippling social anxiety, imposter syndrome, constant feelings of insecurity, and self-sabotaging behaviors. It rolled into devastating body hatred, a feeling that nothing mattered, and the existential crisis of deep depression.
The weird thing is that even while I felt completely worthless, I still also felt a kind of haughty superiority. I simultaneously hated myself, and also looked around and felt empirically better than everyone else.
The superiority was never based in anything real; it was sort of amorphous, and often directed at tearing other people down. For example, if I met someone beautiful I’d think “she’s not even that pretty,” and if I saw someone succeeding in a creative space I’d think “I could have done that.”
It was almost like feeling confident, except that my feeling day to day was one of self-loathing and disgust—made all the worse for having such nasty, judgy, mean thoughts.
Thankfully, I can look back now and say that I’m not a horrible monster of darkness, hatred, and delusion. I was just dealing with unresolved trauma and had completely lost touch with my core, true self. Over many years however, I was able to both tap back into that version of myself, and also tap back into the confidence it gave me.
I am funny.
I am smart.
I am talented.
Don’t get me wrong, tapping back into it wasn’t easy, and I’m beyond grateful to the years of therapy, coaching, and healing work that helped me get there. But it was fascinating to look back at these high school videos and realize that despite a decade-long hiatus in the middle, what gives me confidence and a feeling of safety and worthiness nowadays is almost exactly the same stuff that gave it to me when I was fifteen.
I started wondering about that bitchy “superiority” I felt after trauma, and whether it might have just been a sort of distorted version of my old confidence; a twisted and damaged version of my previously positive self-assessment.
This idea felt warm, and resonant… especially when I considered how many of my clients express something similar.
Countless clients express (self-proclaimed) delusional, narcissistic, ego-centric, superior thoughts of themselves, all mixed up with shame, embarrassment, anxiety, depression, and a feeling of total worthlessness.
This is especially true when it comes to body image and perfectionism. Often clients experience a sort of double-sided coin of shame and arrogance, in which they feel that they’re more attractive (or have more potential to be “perfect”) than other people, while also feeling completely worthless and disgusting.
I recently suggested to a client that perhaps her judgy “better than other people” thoughts (a massive source of shame for her, since she felt they meant she was heartless and “mean”) were actually just remnants of her core self; her core confidence trying to poke through the rigid walls of shame and trauma.
She said that resonated, and spoke of being a very confident and happy small child. When I asked her when that changed, she immediately spoke of a very scary situation that happened when she was about eight, after which she was filled with shame, self-doubt, a lack of self-trust, and a feeling of being “bad.”
Approving of ourselves is our natural state, but it gets disrupted (especially in highly sensitive folks) by trauma, fear, pain, and shame. It seems then that we would all like ourselves and feel confident if only we could identify with the selves that we are when we feel safe.
Unfortunately we live in a world where feeling safe is extremely difficult; where so many of us are dealing with traumas that affect our behavior, personality, decisions, identity, and body image without us even realizing it.
Not to mention the fact that we live in a world where liking yourself makes you unbearably vulnerable; where it actually feels safer to destroy yourself than let other people destroy you.
The truth is that once you’ve done the healing required to tap into true and authentic confidence, it’s never on a hierarchy of comparison—it’s just about you, and how you feel about yourself.
But that’s nearly impossible to access when there’s a bunch of trauma/fear/shame/pain in the way.
So what if instead of judging yourself for having such conflicting thoughts of superiority/inferiority, you recognized that maybe that’s your authentic confidence doing it’s best to shine through?
Maybe it’s the closest thing you can access right now to the honest self-understanding that you are smart, funny, talented, and worthy of good things.
What would it look like to start welcoming, re-framing, and even nurturing this part of you, instead of rejecting it as delusion, vanity, or ego?
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