Shining a Light on Confidence

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. - Marianne Williamson


As a child, I knew nothing about confidence. Whether I had it or not, I didn’t care. I just knew that I was mostly a shy, easily embarrassed child who occasionally liked to put on plays, dance ballet and be in the spotlight every so often. 

Admittedly I wanted recognition, but no more so than any normal child. Growing up in a family of six where time and attention from parents was sparing, I knew I had to do something to stand out. I was drawn to the theater in high school and then in college. Taking on different characters allowed me to be noticed, to feel confident, and receive instant approval without taking a big risk. 

I didn’t realize until halfway through college that my heart wasn’t really in the theater, and that I was just using acting as a way to mask the discomfort I felt at simply being me. I didn’t know who I was yet, and was still a long way off from finding out.

As a young adult, I really didn’t suffer too much from the effects of lack of confidence. I had attended fine schools and did well. I joined the Peace Corps and flourished in Sub-Saharan West Africa for three years. In my mid-twenties, I married a man of a different race, religion, culture and language from my own. While this had its challenges I never questioned my ability to handle it.

Then when the marriage ended and I became a single mother, I didn’t think it was beyond my capacity to raise my daughter on my own. Was this confidence I was exhibiting? If it was, I wasn’t aware of it at the time. This was just my life playing out.

As people often do, I defined myself by my accomplishments, good decisions, and examples of survival to reinforce my self-esteem, all of which emboldened me to be adventurous in life. But I wouldn’t say my confidence was unshakable. I still didn't know what confidence was or where to 'find' it if I needed it.

I began to feel a lack of self-confidence from my work experiences. I typically chose jobs similar to the way I chose relationships; not really asking the right questions to find out if I was a good fit for the job and it for me. Not long after accepting a new job and learning the duties I found myself losing interest and motivation to advance.

Similar to my poorly chosen relationships, I tended to stay in jobs longer than I should have, hoping things would improve. I’d be in meetings where my mind would wander—and I would wonder—"What am I doing here? Is this all my life's about?" 

I made careless mistakes in my work or I didn’t push myself beyond my job description so other people got the promotions and interesting assignments. I often dreaded being asked to give presentations because I’d have to pretend I both cared about and had full knowledge of the subject matter, and I feared it would be obvious that I had neither.  

I began to feel competitive with and even resent my co-workers. I compared myself to them and concluded that I wasn’t smart enough to do the job, or that my boss just didn’t like me and I let those thoughts dominate, rather than realizing the work itself was no longer right for me, and perhaps wasn’t from the start. But the damage to my self-confidence had already been done.

Because I defined myself by my accomplishments, all evidence was pointing to the fact that I was not accomplishing much of anything. I spiraled downward in a cycle of self-judgment and low self-worth, bordering on depression. The only way out was to find the right work for me. I knew there had to be something that I could do that utilized my talents and abilities, and that when I found it I would no longer question my value. So I made the decision to do just that.

Fast forward six months from that pivotal moment, when I decided to follow my heart and become a coach. Not only did I finally find what it was that had been missing all along, I realized that all the negative emotions I’d been feeling in my work life had everything to do with being in the wrong work, and nothing to do with my competence. 

I also learned that it wasn’t about other people thinking negatively about me, but about me projecting my negative self-beliefs onto them which reflected back onto me, like when you point a mirror at the sun, and the sun reflects its light off the mirror.

As soon as I embraced who I was truly meant to be, I no longer had to fight desperately for recognition or approval from others to justify my existence. I was doing what I loved, and this gave me genuine feelings of joy, fulfillment and an unshakable inner confidence.

So many good things followed from there. I stopped looking to others for approval and validation. I stopped straining to make my boss and my co-workers like me. Being around them and working with them became a pleasure. My competitiveness and jealousy dissolved completely.

What I came to understand about confidence is that it’s not something outside of ourselves to be acquired. It’s not ‘a thing’, and no one else can give or take away anyone’s confidence. There are no books to read, no workshops to take and no need to travel to faraway places to ‘find’ ourselves or our confidence.

When confidence seems lacking, what you’re really experiencing is the presence of some other feelings instead; feelings such as fear, worry, anxiety or self-doubt. It’s the presence of these negatively-charged emotions that lead you to feel the absence of confidence. But the truth is, confidence is always available to each and every one of us all the time, anytime we want to access it.

Accessing it is really just the practice in which we notice, and then clear away, whatever negative thoughts or emotions block or obscure the natural self-confidence from shining through, and remembering it’s always there for us, inside us, independent of anyone or any circumstance.

Reminding ourselves that it’s within us, even when we feel like no one cares and everyone else has it easier, it’s in those challenging moments that we are called upon to practice confidence; to practice knowing and believing that we’re OK, just as we are.

And to shine our light so that others may shine theirs.