Throughout my life, I have heard the phrase “you just need to be confident” suggested to me, as if it is so easy to have when you live in a female body.
I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly when I began to hate my appearance, but it could have possibly started with a compliment. I was a sixth grader, awkward with frizzy bangs and mouth full of braces, coming out of my room in my bathing suit for a trip to the beach with family. I remember my aunt looking me up and down, her eyes lingering on my legs, and then she looked at my mom and said something along the lines of “you better watch out.” I remember feeling self-conscious and wanting to put pants on, uneasy about what she meant. It did not feel like a compliment. After all, nobody tells little boys that they have to watch out about their legs.
Maybe I started hating my body when I got my first bra before I started the 7th grade. I was flat as a pancake, but since I had to change in the locker room for PE my mom thought it was appropriate for me to get one. I remember coming home from JC Penneys with my ugly nude colored bra and my mom showing it to my dad, who then declared it was a slingshot. He began a game of pickle with my younger brother, throwing it across the room. I wanted to die. Having to wear a bra felt like an exile from childhood, and even at 12-years-old I knew life on the other side was not going to be all unicorns and rainbows for a female.
But who knows, really. Maybe I started to hate my body when I got my period in the 8th grade and had to sit at a table and guard the towels while everyone else had fun at the local waterpark. It could have been because I was not allowed to wear make-up like all of the cool girls did in junior high. Maybe I started feeling ugly because I couldn’t carry that Covergirl compact in my back pocket and put layers after layers of powder on my face like everyone else.
Whenever it started, and however it started, it began a lifetime of me fixating on everything I hated about my appearance. My abs. My thighs. My short torso. The frizzy hair and boring brown eyes. My toes. My teeth. The Mervins clothes in my closet. The only thing I never hated was my small breasts, because at least then I did not have to worry about men gawking at me.
The irony is that I never wanted to be just a body, yet I pigeonholed myself into an identity with self-worth measured solely by the perceptions about my body.
How does one “get some confidence” in a world that tells women we are too fat and too emotional and too weak and too this and too that?
In a world where women are not always invited to the table nor seen as anything more than desirable or undesirable to men. If I spoke up, I was a bitch. If I didn’t speak up, I was too shy. If I do this or that, will men like me? Because for a woman, we somehow learn by osmosis that men not desiring us is a death sentence, and subconsciously or consciously we seek to maintain our desirability. We women even tear our fellow women down, constantly engaged in subconscious Hunger Games.
Needless to say, I have struggled to find the conventional type of confidence.
Recently I was listening to the adult study at my Buddhist temple and they talked about having confidence in the system, or confidence in your path. It was another way of saying “have faith” without the baggage of the Christian connotation of the word.
It made me think.
I can’t tell you that I have confidence in the way that I look today, right now, here in this moment.
But I do have confidence in how I live my life. I feel I am moving at the right pace for me, doing what I need to do, and headed in an appropriate direction– even when I also feel like I am not exactly where I want to be.
My confidence is in the way that I show up in this world. I believe in working hard. Trying. Trying again. Trying and trying and trying.
I have confidence in my values and goals. There is confidence in my willingness to learn, the openness of my mind, and in the transparency of my vulnerability.
Confidence is tricky when you measure it by specific things, all or nothing. I am confident in certain areas, like my intelligence, career, and the way I can single-handedly run a busy household. I am not confident wearing crop tops, or in my tennis skills, or in my ability to use a round brush and make my hair look good.
But does confidence really have to be defined based on one thing about us, or can it be measured collectively?
I have confidence in knowing that if I watch what I eat and exercise, I will have a healthier body. I may not totally love my abs right now, but I have confidence in the plan I have chosen for myself, which is to join a gym, take a pilates class, regularly run, and watch my calories. I don’t always feel like I’m doing a great job in all areas every day or week or month, but I have faith in the plan and I am mostly satisfied with the average of my efforts.
I’m not going to stand up at temple and proclaim extensive knowledge in Buddhism, in front of people who grew up there, but I have confidence in my plan of attending service each week, raising my children in the organization, and continuing my own education of the practice. I believe in these values and how I spend my time supporting them.
Here is the toughest, toughest one for me.
In my 20s I started to worry that I would never find someone serious to marry. I really wanted kids and a house and the typical domestic fairy tale we are spoon fed at an early age to want. In college, I had my fair share of going out to bars and clubs and frat parties and also the typical banging my head against the wall in complete and utter despair about the universe apparently having nobody, NOBODY available for a person like me.
And then I met my future husband. At work. I literally never paid attention to him when I started the new job in the classroom next door to his. Not even a second glance. One day he lingered after a presentation I gave and that was it– we became instantly inseparable.
You get married, you might have kids, and then life is supposed to be on autopilot for your relationship status. I never thought I’d have to go through the drama of believing the universe was all out of options for me– again. I truly thought I dodged that bullet!
Oh hey, turns out life doesn’t exempt you from ANYTHING.
When my husband unexpectedly died and left me as a 34-year-old widow with three young children, I did what we all do in these terrible, life-shattering situations: I panicked. I delved into toxic self-hate. I writhed on the floor of my rock bottom and convinced myself that I deserved this bad karma. It was probably because of something I did. I was deficient. Nobody would ever want me. I’m damaged goods. I’m loathsome. On and on and on.
If you told me I should have just gotten some confidence, I would have asked if you ever watched your husband’s eyes roll back– and then I would have told you to come back with your advice when you had.
Eventually my feelings began to simmer down. My anger cooled. Slowly. Time always helps.
You see, when we are right in the middle of the boiling point of our feelings, no amount of logic makes sense to us.
Even in my despair, I knew logically that life would get sorted out. Paperwork would get done. My kids would get older. I would feel better. I would move on. Terrible days don’t last forever. I knew what I had to do: put one foot in front of the other. Small steps. One after another. I knew all of that.
But I didn’t want to see it or hear about it.
Just get some confidence!
Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) we are battling paralyzing resistance in our bodies and minds.
How do you get confidence when you’re broken on the ground, smashed by life? How do you get confidence when you see everyone else married and you’re the only single parent at an event? How can you be confident when everything you worked for in life gets taken away? Or if you were born into shitty circumstances? How do you feel confident during your lowest lows?
We reach a new level of consciousness when we develop an observing ego that can examine feelings with perspective and objectivity, and in turn help us organize and compartmentalize our feelings. We may not be able to change the intensity of how we feel, but we know what to do. We know when to feel our feelings, how to respond to them, and also when it is time to let them go.
Letting go is important.
We can’t stop feelings. The only thing we can do is identify what they are teaching us and use that knowledge to make us stronger. They aren’t a sign of weakness. They are a sign of living.
When I finally met someone who I really liked this past summer, it was difficult when I had to embrace the realization that the relationship would have to end– no matter how much I wanted it to work, and how much I liked this person. The circumstances were such that it wouldn’t be a healthy situation for any of us. The timing wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to drag it on. I was only able to make this decision with the confidence gained from my personal journey. 20-something me would have kept it lingering. 30-something me had too much invested in her journey and too much faith that she deserved something better.
Experience and confidence did not make me feel any less sad, lonely, depressed, angry, or remorseful about the decision. I felt like garbage for a solid three weeks. But I knew I could survive, because I had already survived three hard years as a widow, and I had faith in my ability to persevere. I knew I could move forward. I knew I would move forward. I trusted that there would be more opportunities. This strength came from surviving my lowest lows.
As a 20-something, I had no confidence in my personal journey. I couldn’t see beyond the immediacy of a particular feeling in a specific moment. I was scared of loss. I was scared of pain. I clung to the notion of a happily-ever-after, all or nothing.
Now I know from experience that pain and loss and joy and happiness are all interconnected. We are meant to embrace it all during this journey called life. The only other option is to resist and have more suffering, and I refuse to accept that.
I have spent a lot of time analyzing who I am. It has helped me embrace what I am not.
I know that I am a highly sensitive person. I am all-in or all-out, but the interim and transitions can be excruciatingly painful for me because of my propensity to feel every little thing and over-analyze situations.
I used to hate myself for being this way. Now I feel like it is one of my greatest assets if strategically harnessed.
I have learned to trust myself. I have faith in my ability to survive. I lean on my track record of surviving 100% of my former problems in life. This journey– on this heavily treaded path– has been forged with my own two feet. Those feet move with a stubborn determination to live well with what I have right now, yet still reaching for better– a balancing act between gratitude and aspiration.
I keep moving. I wallow. I might wallow more than most. But then I make myself get up and move.
This forward motion has saved me.
I may never love my abs, my floundering chess skills, or the fact that I am a 37-year-old widowed single mother who still hasn’t found another suitable partner. HOWEVER, I absolutely know what I bring to the table. I know how I show up to the world. I know what I am working towards.
I have confidence in my journey, even though I do not fully understand it, nor can I fully conceptualize it.
But it’s my journey.
I don’t need permission to be here– the universe gave it to me at my birth.
I have worked on being able to love this journey. The good, the bad, the ugly, the unforeseen, the pleasant discoveries, and even the misdirection and pain. All of it.
Brene Brown said, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”
Either way, we have to choose.