Confidence is sexy. Don’t ask me where I learned that, it’s just one of those things “everyone knows.” Surely you’ve learned this too, either in conversation or directly. As a person who’s never had much self-confidence to speak of, I can’t tally the number of times well-meaning friends have instructed me to simply “Be confident!” as though that is actually helpful life advice. They act like there’s a switch, but no one has told me where it’s located!
I don’t ever remember being confident, but I know at one point I must’ve had some self-esteem. I know this because I used to see myself as a “gift.” When I was fairly young, couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old, I played this very silly game with my parents. I would crawl into the laundry hamper and put the top on it, then instruct my father to take the hamper and deliver it to my mother. Upon delivery, I would pop out, “surprise!” and my mom would play along, smiling all the way. Sometimes I even said, “I’m your present!”
But it didn’t stick, somehow. I have some theories as to why I lost that confidence (trauma), but the bottom line is I don’t actually remember what it felt like to be confident. I can’t imagine it. The reality of my mind is that even a mildly awkward social interaction will leave me feeling stupid and inadequate and involve a barrage of vitriolic self-talk (things along the line of what a waste of space I am, for example, usually including profanity). And if I actually do embarrass myself? Oof. Then it’s all messaging about how I should go lay down and die somewhere. I still get the urge to beat my head against the wall sometimes, but I learned many years ago that that sort of behavior isn’t acceptable.
That’s always how it’s been for me: I learn quickly because I have to. Like many autistic folx, observing human behavior is a special interest of mine: one necessary for survival. Even when I was operating under the assumption that it was merely clinical Depression holding me back, I had to figure out which behaviors would be overlooked and which ones will land you in a counselor’s office or, worse yet, a psych ward.
I’m fortunate–I only found myself carted off to the psych ward once, but once was enough. It was less than 24 hours, but being held there against my will, a few things became clear: the workers didn’t really see us as people as much as problems, if I wasn’t going to be able to care for myself the state would care for me, and I did NOT like how the state would care for me.
One could say I was “scared straight,” in that scenario, as much as I have control over my neurodiversity, and I’ve been mostly able to stay under the radar since then. I know there are a lot of us occupying this space in healthcare limbo, where we’re “well” enough to keep from being committed or guarded over, but struggling enough that we could really use some help (that we’re unlikely to ever get). Autistic people and people with mental health problems alike are lauded for appearing “normal,” AKA neurotypical (NT) because that is what makes NT people most comfortable. But what about our comfort, heck, our needs as neurodiverse people? It’s great that my coworkers feel better when I’m smiling and sitting perfectly still, but what about my need to stim or just feel my feelings, whatever they are?
Honestly, it’s only recently occurred to me that most people probably do not internally berate themselves at length on a continual basis over the smallest of offenses. I mean, we all have our moments, but most of us aren’t thinking about that awkward thing we said 5 years ago. But I am. I’m still thinking about it. I hope I didn’t make that woman feel bad…
So I’ve known for a very long time I’m not “normal,” as it were. I knew I dressed strangely and wasn’t attracted to boys long before I knew the word for “queer.” I knew most people didn’t have crying spells like I did long before I knew the word for “depression.” And, on some level, I’ve always known my brain worked differently, even when I didn’t realize “autistic” applied to me. I also know that I inherently make some people uncomfortable with my mere existence, but I still don’t have a word for that.
So as someone with a dearth of confidence, I began to wonder, where does one get confidence in the first place anyway? Are we born with a finite amount? Is it a refillable resource? Do you find it internally, externally, or both? There are so many things I don’t know about this self-esteem stuff. I could use a wise, old cat with a quest scroll to point me in the correct direction right about now.
I’ve had “positive affirmations” suggested to me by friends and professionals alike as a tool for growing confidence, but the problem is this still assumes a certain amount of confidence to start off with. You have to have a seed to grow it, right? If you have none, like I do, “positive affirmations” are nothing more than an exercise in futility. I’ve mentioned this before, but being asked to stand in a mirror and saying positive things about myself makes me outright angry (and this is notable, as I am not quick to anger). Once, a friend forced me to stand in front of a mirror until I said a nice thing to myself. I won that stand-off some 40 minutes later. (Think about that–I chose angrily moaning and groaning for 40 minutes over saying ONE nice thing to myself. It’s practically demented, isn’t it?)
I imagine that some external validation helps, though. I know lots of people who would describe themselves as “developers” in that they say they like to help “build up” people and develop their professional skill sets, but practically speaking, I can’t say I know anyone who established self-confidence this way. All the same, I see a lot of lip service as far as “building up” others goes, not a lot of execution. Sometimes I think we’re afraid to build each other up, afraid we’ll get left behind somehow if we do. It’s sad.
Most folx I can think of that are confident derive said confidence from some material achievement: career, wealth, fame, family, etc., but aren’t we all supposed to have some inherent sense of self-worth from a young age? Maybe that’s just part of being neurodiverse, for all I know. Part of me hopes I’m not alone, for the obvious reasons, but I wouldn’t wish my brain on anyone else, even my worst enemy.
I’ve lived most of my life without much confidence, part of me thinks I could get away without it the rest of my days. The problem is, other people will follow your lead. If you’re confident, people believe you have good reason to be and treat you accordingly. The same is true, unfortunately, if you treat yourself like crap. It’s not totally unreasonable–after all, shouldn’t the person who knows us best be ourselves? Of course, this does not take into account the harshness of the critic, and too many of us are unreasonably harsh critics when it comes to ourselves.
I’m going to encourage you, though, not to treat people the way they treat themselves: treat them with the kindness and consideration every living creature deserves. If you see someone tearing themselves down, try to help them build themselves back up. It’s so easy just to dogpile onto someone, but maybe stop and reconsider the next time you see someone who’s feeling small. Don’t make assumptions. Sometimes, a few kind words makes all the difference. Do me a favor, and please don’t hate me just because I hate me. I’m working on it.