Confidence in Relationships

by Randall S. Frederick

When he was in the Navy, my father was apparently quite popular with women when he was on shore leave. Throughout my life, he has grinned and told me about a seemingly never-ending series of ladies he dated, had sex with, was in and out of relationships with, and with whom he had one-night “never saw her again” stands. As a child, I was confused because I didn’t really comprehend his suggestive metaphors. As a teen, I was awed and, I openly admit, a bit incredulous. By college, I simply did not believe his stories at all. There were too many women by that point. But as I matured into middle adulthood, I began to see his charm. Though bald, overweight, unstylish, and not exactly handsome, he was and remains a shameless flirt. Last year when he was hospitalized for a pacemaker, I followed a radiologist outside the room to apologize for my father’s shameless passes at her. She laughed, “Actually, I thought he was kind of cute. Old men say some offensive things, but your dad is a charmer.”

A big part of selling is “the ask.” you can flim-flam and promote all you want. You don’t have to be brave to be a liar. What takes courage is being honest enough to drop the act and actually be confident. Do you have the confidence to charm, to ask this person out, and to suggest a time and place to meet up and stand there just as confident when they turn you down? Do you have the confidence to tell someone how attractive, smart, and funny they are and still get rejected? Many people, I might go so far as to say most people, don’t have that confidence. Not on a regular basis anyway. Liquid courage, maybe waiting until all the signs and signals are right, slowly turning up the dial of flirtation over weeks and months? These are generally the ways we gauge interest. And because these events, weighed over the course of an active life, seem so infrequent, we begin to fall into narratives that are not exactly true. We say things like, “Maybe I’m not interesting” and beat ourselves up. We take those failures and give them more significance than they are worth, personalizing and internalizing them. “I’ll always be alone. No one would ever want me. I’m too chubby, not educated enough.” We begin to first think, and then – what’s worse! – believe that our best days are behind us. We believe whatever negative thing we can come up with to justify our – and this is very simple – absence of confidence. You might even say that the average person spends more time tearing themselves down over something that took less than five minutes from start to finish, than they do building themselves up because of the achievements they’ve been building over the course of a lifetime.

So often, we lack confidence because we regard its possession as a matter of good luck. We don’t want to feel responsible, so we shrug it off. “Some people win the genetic lottery and have cause for swagger,” we tell ourselves. In fact, the opposite it true. Sure, some people are very confident for reasons that neuroscientists may one day uncover but in my experience (and take this subjective opinion with a grain of salt), truly confident people ignore the little things that would shut the rest of us down. These individuals simply refuse to accept their limits and, through stupidity or dumb luck or learning curve, carry on past the roadblocks.

Sources of Confidence

There are a variety of confidence builders. “Positive” confession or intentionality are popular, stocking our minds with consoling and invigorating arguments to confront self-loathing and boost our self-confidence. Many of us turn to friends who, at least at times, may very well be the worst source of encouragement because they want to prop you back up with superficial rebuttals, good intentions, and white lies (ex: “That shirt doesn’t make you look chubby! It’s so colorful and accentuates your eyes!”) that never even address the underlying cause for your concerns. (ex: The shirt doesn’t make you look fat. You are fat, even if your eyes are pretty.)

Instead of creating a list of mood boosters, I suggest the possibility that you need to reframe how you see confidence – not how to build confidence, but to acknowledge strengths and experiences you already possess and which can never be taken away from you. Yes, we can certainly keep a cautious eye on our tendencies to self-sabotage. We can minimize anxiety in public engagements by visualizing strangers sitting in the bathroom and, in so doing, ward off any intimidation we may feel. We can and should speak to ourselves in kinder tones. And yes, we can remember that the greatest thing we should fear isn’t messing up, but dying without having given it a go. I don’t want to rule those out. Those are great ideas to dwell on and put into practice. But what if we dug deeper and reframed some of the pillars upon which our confidence is built and saw that, in many respects, we’re strong and capable? What if, instead of temporary mood boosters, we focused on the experiences that have built us and which “a bad day” or an unkind word can never take away.

Okay, enough fluff. Let me put it to you straight. So often, we think of confidence in terms of winning. Only successful people have a reason to be confident. Only attractive people have a reason to be confident. While those statements have a certain ring of truth to them, I’ve known “successful” people who were pathological liars, or who had drug and mental health problems. I’ve known pretty people to do some very ugly things. And I’ve also found that the “unpopular” people at the fringe work harder if not smarter, do it more cheerfully because they do not feel entitled to success, and don’t need so many pauses for thank yous and reminders of their value. There is an amusing irony here that the ones who “have” confidence are riddled with doubts, while the ones who “lack” confidence are often the strongest, more resilient and adaptable individuals. What I’m proposing is that you see these same ironies within yourself and use them to get ahead.

So let’s reframe a few key areas of who you are.

  • ForgivenessThe truth is, when we think about people that we admire, we have not seen enough the rough drafts of their lives. I tell my writing students that “screwing up, writing something that is boring and isn’t going anywhere? That’s the rough draft. It’s not wasted time or energy. You were testing things. Now move ahead and start revising.” When thinking about confidence, we might have been taught that “confidence” means never getting it wrong. Which is no where near the truth! Confidence comes from lots of failures and setbacks. Knowing where we got it wrong. How we got back up again. Confidence means forgiving ourselves for the horrors of our first attempts. One of the things I like to tell my students about is the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Long before he became President, Roosevelt suffered a terrible tragedy – the sudden and unanticipated death of both his mother and his wife on the same day. We imagine that the bolstering, loud, decisive Roosevelt was always this way and that, when faced with an obstacle, he bullied through. The reality is, when his mother and wife died, he gave his daughter over to a relative, boarded a train out West to nowhere in particular, and disappeared for a while. He disappeared. People made fun of him – his nasally voice, his garish clothes, his inexperience with animals and horseback riding, an inability to lead – but he learned. It took some time, but he learned. If you’re going to be fair with yourself, you’re going to have to forgive your mistakes. Instead of talking about how stupid you were to allow that bad thing (what it was) to happen, why not start talking about what you learned and who you became instead? To embrace the confidence within you, you have to forgive your failed attempts and also see them as part of the process of learning.
  • PracticeThe practice of confidence is too often neglected by serious people. They – and by “they” I mean “you and I” – spend so much time acquiring technical skills and so little time practicing the one virtue that will make those skills effective in the world: application. Whenever I am asked by aspiring writers what they need to do to get good, I always tell them the same thing. You need to write. That is the only way you will ever perfect your abilities; you have to actually practice and do it. When it comes to dating, you need to ask people out. Play the numbers game and learn from each failed experience. When someone accepts your request and you go out, use those things you’ve been learning and be a good date. When you are able to move from asking someone out, to going out, keep at it. Keep going out. Develop a relationship. Grow. Learn – about yourself, about your partner, about the things that stress you out and the things that annoy your partner. Learn everything, and keep getting better every day.
  • BalanceWe suffer because we tell the story of our lives in such punitive, harsh terms – turning ourselves into the enemy. There are always ways of telling very different, far kinder, and more balanced stories from the very same set of facts. Recently, someone asked me about the worst thing I have ever done. Because I was tired when they asked, I answered honestly and without a filter. They immediately rejected me and closed off the conversation. What I wish I had done differently is this: I wish that I had given the story of “The Worst Thing I Have Ever Done” in a balanced way. That I had continued on and told the good things that came out of those terrible things. That I had the courage not only to admit my mistakes and failures to someone else, but to also tell them about the positive qualities within myself that allowed me to “rescue” a terrible situation. The story, when it is all told, is very balanced – but too often we end the story prematurely in our minds. We can easily speak about the bad things, but it takes patience and that sense of balance to climb out of that pit and continue on. Sometimes, we think being honest means telling the worst parts of ourselves. That’s it. The truth is, being honest very often means sharing the balance of your life – the bad and the good as well. Very often, we need to do this with ourselves before anyone else – we need to tell those stories to ourselves in their entirety, the good and the bad. The worst things you have done, and also how those bad parts are weighed together with the good. If we are willing to do this for other people like our friends and lovers, why can’t we do it for ourselves as well?
  • Self-CareWe are so aware of the dangers of self-pity that we overlook the value of calculated moments of self-compassion. We need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious and fruitful life. Do you have failures and setbacks? Sure – so does everyone! But, as we have been working through these new frames of understanding, we have also had several successes. Sometimes, we need to step away from the pressures of expectation to remind ourselves of those high points and nurture ourselves. Self-care is not the same as the intense and frictious narcissism. Rather, self-care is slowing down long enough for the mind, body, and emotions to “catch up.” Last year, when my father had a pacemaker put in, he insisted on returning to life as he knew it immediately. I and other family members had to physically restrain him at times until he finally began the process of taking care of himself by resting, taking it easy, recouping, and changing parts of his diet that promoted a healthier way of life. He still enjoys being active. He hasn’t stopped that. But he has finally begun to practice a little bit of self-care each day to recognize where he is at in the life cycle, where he has been, and taking the necessary steps to maximize his life and take care of his needs on the way to where he wants to go next. If forgiveness is the mental and emotional exercise, self-care would be the physical end. Give yourself permission to get better.
  • AcceptanceOccasionally, I will tell my students “Men are idiots.” The room will laugh and I will insist, “No! Really. They are. And the reason I know this is because I’m one of them.” Again, the room will laugh and so will I. I openly accept that I do stupid things sometimes. Once we learn to see ourselves as already (and by nature) foolish, it doesn’t matter so much if we do one more thing that might look stupid. Failure won’t be news to us; it will only confirm what we have already gracefully accepted in our hearts: that we, like every other person on the planet, are nitwits. Accepting yourself and your limitations ahead of time helps cushion the impact of any blows you suffer from your own unique brand of foolishness. When bad times come, as they will, you’re better prepared to laugh them off and keep going. While this might sound “too simple,” the fact is you can expend the same amount of energy after a setback on building up as you would tearing down. Whether you devote that energy to tearing yourself down, or whether you devote that same energy to accepting yourself, taking the necessary actions to correct your mistake, and then moving on to something better is really up to you. Both are within your power. You decide what you want to do with that power. But, you also need to accept some truths about yourself. Don’t “accept” so much that you take on a false self. Rather, accept yourself, what you’ve been through, and the circumstances you find yourself in. This may mean you finally accept that your last partner had a mental or emotional health issue. It wasn’t about you. You didn’t fail them. They just needed something you could not give them – whether healthy or unhealthy. And that’s how it is. Accepting this is hard, absolutely. But it also means you are seeing the world for how it really is. Do you mind if I personalize this? I fell in love with someone last year and loved this woman for who she was, who she had been, and who she was becoming. But that did not stop her from leaving me. I sat around for weeks, even months, suffering over that. Instead of playing The Blame Game and cursing her name, I had to accept that the pain I felt inside me was part of the package – you love deep, you hurt deep. I still love this woman, and it’s not easy. But I had to accept that part of loving someone is feeling insufferable pain sometimes. Instead of tearing myself down, or tearing her down (which, let’s admit it, is what most of us do after a breakup), I accepted something else: Those are the terms of loving someone. And that is how I want it. I would rather feel this pain, the pain of losing someone I love, than to have numbed myself on something cheap and casual. I know who I am. I know what I want. And instead of feeling down about it, I can rightly locate my feelings and saddle them where they ought to be.
  • LuckWe should stop thinking that we don’t deserve success: the universe does not distribute its gifts and its horrors with divinely accurate knowledge of the good and bad within each of us. Most of what we win is not quite deserved – and most of what we suffer isn’t either. In psychotherapy, there is the concept of “magical thinking.” Often, magical thinking is an indicator that something is wrong. For example, if you see people that are not there or hear disembodied voices telling you to do things and no one else is hearing those same voices, both of these would be indicators that you may need to seek out professional assistance. However, all of us have attributed “hiccups” in the universe to God, to fate and destiny, or to luck. These are also expressions of magical thinking. The sober truth is sometimes good things happen unexpectedly and we don’t know why. Some people are lucky. When it happens to us, when we have a lucky streak, it’s an amazing thing! In my own life, when I stumble into a lucky experience, I make it a point to pause and thank God or the universe. In my last relationship, I felt so lucky to have met her even if things did not work out the way I would have hoped. I didn’t deserve her or the happiness she brought into my life (and I want be the first to say that)! I was lucky. And I recognize that. Which is why, the next time I’m lucky, I’ll be better situated to recognize it and express my gratitude.

Confidence in dating will take time, primarily because your inner self is a sensitive thing. When you seek approval from someone else, you are especially vulnerable. Having a strong sense of self, working that out and building muscle on the bones of your identity, will take time. Acknowledging the context from which that sense of self has been built makes you resilient to whatever happens – whether favorable or otherwise. But, the good news is, anyone can have confidence.

I saved the best bit for last, I think.

When I was fourteen, something happened at school that destroyed whatever bravado puberty was trying to force upon me. My stepfather, who was especially emotionally abusive to me (sidenote: we once got into such a savage fight that I was thrown across a room and used a kitchen knife just to keep him from touching me), had worn me down a great deal. His favorite thing to call me was “Punkass N*gger Shoeshine Boy.” The term would roll off his lips with arcane pleasure each time he spoke them. This was the kind of home I grew up in – emotionally disabling, always fearful of physical or sexual violence, and all under the umbrella of secrecy and the image of a “good” family with “loving” parents, lest anyone report him to the law. But you know what? That wasn’t what broke me. I’m able to laugh now, but on the last day of Eighth grade when I was fourteen, a boy in my school said he was going to rope me. Cody, who was older and taller than I was, had already won a truck at a rodeo and quite directly told everyone that the only reason he attended school was because his parents would not allow him to rodeo unless he kept going. All the same, Cody teased that he would rope me on the last day of class and that’s exactly what he wound up doing. He held me down, tied my hands behind my back and looped them together with my feet. Then he proceeded to pull my pants down. It all happened so fast that, before I knew it, other students collected outside to witness this. My teacher, Tanya Rains, joined them. And then – in the growing sound of the commotion – two other classes flooded onto the walkway to join in the laughter. Bawling with embarrassment, I turned to my teacher and asked why she was laughing? Why wasn’t she stopping him? “Because it’s funny!” she choked out between giggles. There I was, naked from the waist to the knees, hands and feet tied behind me, flailing on the concrete as all of my classmates pointed and laughed.

These “points” sound great, but – I’ll be the first to say it – maybe too simple. Sometimes, we can’t talk our way into confidence. I share my story of the pantsing to show you that it takes time and persistence to keep going and come back from some humiliating experiences. Yes. It does. In  no way do I want to make confidence look cheap and easy because it’s not. Not at all. However, confidence is an achievable and realistic goal. I’ve watched it happen in my own life and, collecting the stories of friends and loved one over the years, I’ve seen people come back from nightmares to do great things.

I’m not asking you to “talk” your way to greatness or “fake it ‘til you make it.” I’m asking you to cognitively restructure your life and, by pursuing honesty and balance, see the whole picture. I am not that teenager anymore and you will not always be the victim, or even the survivor of terrible things. You can write new stories for yourself.

One of my best friends was told in 4th grade – by a teacher, no less – that she was “just stupid” and because she wasn’t good in math “better find a good man to take care of you.” She now has a doctorate and while her husband loves her very much and is her biggest cheerleader, he does not “take care of her” in the traditional sense. Or I might offer this: One of my best friends was raped in college. She spent years crying over that night. She did all the right things to take care of herself. She went to therapy, tried to “deal” with it, tried to “stop thinking about it.” But while she was “dealing” with it, it never went away. She couldn’t get past it or deal with it. There were good days, there were bad days, and there were awful days where the memories overwhelmed her. But she was also finishing her education. Working. Making new friends who understood her – including me. Years removed now, she sees that all of those feelings of self-blame and anger with herself (“Why did I drink so much that night? Why did I let him into my apartment?”) were not the whole story. That night did not and does not define her.

Maybe you have had a similar experience. Maybe you went through something else entirely, something worse. Whatever the case, I share my own anecdote to say while other kids grew into puberty with confidence, I didn’t. I wore a profound sense of shame and fear well into college. And yet, I’ve still dated amazing women – smart, funny, and strikingly beautiful. Like my father, friends have asked what my secret is. How could I, a chubby guy with strange hair, get the attention of women well beyond my league?

Confidence. I knew where I came from. I knew who I was, knew what I wanted and where I wanted to go, and yes. I suffered many setbacks. The difference is that, to the best of my ability, I kept going. I kept telling myself I had survived worse. So what if an attractive woman turned me down? So what if a girlfriend dumped me? I’ve lived through worse. And it’s because of luck, acceptance, and a healthy sense of forgiveness that I am able to keep going, keep learning, and have a strong dose of confidence whenever I date someone.

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