Confidence redux

“When discussing confidence, for instance, I ask first what this confidence thing is that people want more of…I theorize that confidence isn’t something you feel internally, but rather a trait others ascribe to you when you’re focused and comfortable with what you’re doing. So you don’t need more confidence. You need less of something you already have in excess: caring what other people think about you.”  ~Augusten Burroughs, in 29 July 2012 New York Times Book Review.


In a recent post, I mentioned Madeleine Albright’s definition of a good leader as a person who is “confident but not certain.” It occurs to me, after reading Augusten Burroughs’ comments, that U.S. society tends to confuse self-confidence with self-esteem. And that his initial question is such a good one: what is this thing called confidence? Why is it considered to be such an excellent attribute? (Why do so many people bemoan their lack of it, or explain their “failures” to an absence of it?)

Many recent articles on parenting and child-raising complain that “we” have given our children too much of it, but I think that’s the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence. One can develop self-esteem even when there is no reason for it beyond the natural narcissism of human nature. But let’s go with Burroughs’ definition that confidence is something assigned to us by others when we are not worrying so much about what they think.

We can just go about being fairly competent, and others will find us confident; and if they don’t, but we are not overly invested in what others think, we will still be displaying confidence. And how do we gain confidence? By trying and failing, and by trying and succeeding, and by learning about the world in the moment without a freight train of anxieties looming behind us at all times.


Herewith, a brief essay I wrote in 1995 that speaks, in some ways, to this idea of confidence.


It’s the time of year when my brush pile gets enormous, and I am thinking about sticks. Late winter winds bring down boughs; I get out my loppers and pruners. I cut back the grapevines and later, the roses. I prune the deadwood out of viburnums and rhododendrons. When my children’s playmates come to visit, at the end of an hour at least one child is running around with a stick, building a secret door with pine boughs or poking garden soil with the end of a branch. Branches with foliage become fans, palm trees, wings, walls. Bare sticks are generally swords or longbows; but they can also be barricades, horses, banners. No child is ever bored who has a yard full of sticks.

Stick–it was one of my son’s earliest vocabulary words. I remember how, at 16 months, he wandered about the yard learning names for things. I had already taught him about litter when he started picking up cigarette butts and candy wrappers on the street: “No,” I said. “Litter. Dirty. Dirty thing.” Litter went into a trash can.

“Doorty,” he acknowledged, “Doorty ting.” Then a stick caught his eye, a twig smooth, slim, just the right size to hold in his chubby hand. He stooped, then looked up at me.

“Doorty ting?” he enquired.

“No, stick!” I laughed. He grabbed it and smiled eagerly, examined it and waved it in the air while exclaiming, “Teek! Teek!”

He toddled about gathering and discarding sticks, fascinated by each on in turn. I watched nervously as he started to walk down our garden steps. In each hand he carried a small stick, as if for balance. Steps were, for him, still a new obstacle to encounter in an upright position–I wanted to run over and grab his hand. But I was enormously pregnant at the time and running was out of the question. I didn’t even call to him, “Be careful,” fearing I’d break his concentration. I held back, taming the voice inside that reprimanded me–stop him, he’ll poke his eye out!

He reached the bottom of the stairs safely, looked back at me and, waving both arms, called, “Teek, Mama, teek!” I felt proud of his confidence in  his newfound abilities. I felt I could perhaps begin the long process of letting him go–just a little–to explore the world more freely, without my needing to be quite so protective.

My son still loves to play with sticks, to collect them. Sometimes when I see him hauling a great branch out of the brushpile I think of that April day six years ago and of the impact small events may have upon our lives. For that day was the first time I really recognized that the time had come to allow him to experiment with life in h is own way. And that I could safely let him start on that adventure.

It’s a small thing, to walk down steps unaided, grasping sticks. A small thing, but a basic one. The desire to hang on, the need to let go, the discovery of a careful balance–all these things begin early in our lives, and we seldom recall them. Yet they are as basic as sticks, as the first tools we learn to manipulate and use for all of our future imaginings.


photo ann e. michaelIt has been many years since I made those observations. And it is not so easy to step back, let go–allow children to make their own decisions, their own mistakes, to experience their own failures and allow them space to feel their own joys.

Raising children taught me a great deal I might never have learned otherwise. I’ve never reflected before on whether I was confident as a mother, but reading this old essay makes me believe that I was. Certainly, if Burroughs’ definition is accurate, I was “focused and comfortable with what you’re doing.” That’s how I feel when I am truly engaged with an experience–writing, teaching, gardening…

Uncertainties and failures abound. But so do successes.