Branching Out: Building Confidence

“If only I had more confidence, then I could do things like ______ and ________. My life would be more _______. Things would be better,” said plenty of people lots of times.

It was a theme for me too, for so many years, and it is a place I still occasionally find myself. I can still look back and see all of the ways that confidence, a shift in my temperament, would have helped me. It would have helped me in graduate school – seeing myself as just as deserving as my peers of my place in my program. It would have helped me in college and high school in trusting friendships and not needing so much affirmation through romantic entanglements. There is no question in my mind that more confidence would have changed my experience as a professional musician.

But I did not develop that confidence until much later because I had a fundamental misunderstanding about how confidence would come. I thought that at some point, someone in a position of some authority would recognize something good in me – would tell me that I was great at whatever. I would be acknowledged for the good things and THEN, having earned the needed recognition, I could be confident. The stories of Hollywood starlets being discovered at the lunch counter sounded just about right to me. Someone was going to find/see/acclaim my good qualities and then I could act with confidence, do things I dared not do otherwise.

It took me a long time to discover that my thinking was absolutely backward not on one, but two, counts.

In the first place I came to understand that true confidence has nothing to do with anyone else’s recognition of your gifts and good qualities, but lies in your own ability to see, claim, and appreciate those qualities.

bar-blue-business-533347Childhood lessons on humility made it difficult for me to recognize, claim, and celebrate my gifts. It was good to be good at things but not good to make too much of a fuss (or expect too much of a fuss) about them. The fantasy of someone else “discovering” me would let me get around the moral minefield of bragging – my genius would be pointed out by someone else. Aside from the obvious drawback that lunch counter discoveries of talent are rare indeed, they also put all of one’s sense of being enough in someone else’s hands. They put a tremendous amount of personal power in the hands of strangers.

The other thing that I had all wrong was the relationship between confidence and doing the things I wanted to do. I thought the confidence had to come first. It never occurred to me that I had the capacity to develop that confidence by taking action on my own behalf while I was still unsure, unsteady or even scared to death. I didn’t understand that waiting until I was “ready” to do the things I most wanted to do was really just me delaying BOTH those experiences AND the opportunity to develop my sense of confidence by taking risks, by taking action.

All of those steps I was delaying seemed too big to me, too scary. I was all caught up in a story that I didn’t have what it took to complete them, that I needed something else first. What I really needed first was a belief in my value as a human (worth conferred at birth by the way) and the willingness to act while afraid.

I needed the strategy of breaking big steps forward into tiny micro-steps so I could build confidence in my capacity and trust that 1) I will do what needs doing and 2) I will be okay even if those things don’t go well or create the results I am looking for.

adult-beautiful-close-up-936065-2I have those tools now. And I know I will be okay. I see that I have something to offer and I am building confidence every time I act in courage – taking steps when I am afraid. The fear doesn’t really go away if I keep reaching and growing but my increased confidence allows me to gather that courage and do it anyway.

Taking those steps, no matter how small, feels like reaching out with root and branch in a burst of self-supporting growth and bloom. It seems to me that the best parts of our life do this; they look like expansion and nourishment at the same time, and they are holy, sacred, and available to all of us. Even me. Even you.

On Being Heard

All my life I wanted to be heard. I wanted to be heard by the mother who was on her 4th child, the second “pleasant surprise,” and was just beginning to wrestle with the notion that motherhood might not be her only or most beloved goal. I longed to be heard by my father who for many years was largely absent due to work and then emotionally unavailable as his marriage crumbled. I craved being heard by my siblings who noisily jockeyed for position at home.

backlit-beach-clouds-289998I longed to be heard and had no idea that I always could be but that turning to everyone else was a losing game. I had no idea that what I needed was to sit quietly and tend my own inner flame, to hear the heart and soul whispers that I had no words for, to honor my own longing to be valued, to love and care for myself deeply and thoroughly.

My constant outwards reach for attention and affirmation took me to some places that in retrospect, well sometimes not even in retrospect, were pretty dark. I made choices that didn’t serve me because they promised some kind of attention that at least for a little while felt like love. I made pretty big decisions that I thought were destined to make me good enough to merit a seat at the grown ups’ table with all of the seemingly glorious benefits that conveyed. I self-destructed in myriad small ways in an attempt to prove that I was worth noticing, worth admiring, worth listening to, worth loving.

And it all fell on deaf ears – not because my family doesn’t love me but because in the scenario I created I really kind of needed them to NOT love me. You see all of that approval and attention seeking wasn’t a reflection of a deficit of their affection, but a grim revelation of my own complete and utter lack of self-esteem. I hate to use that term because it makes it sound so, I don’t know 1970s. There was a whole movement about that, right? I may have more to say at a later time about THAT, but really that’s what it boils down to, right?

If I had enough self-esteem – a sense of self-worth, I wouldn’t need all of this outside approval for everything. I’m not saying I wouldn’t need any attention or interaction, I’m just saying I might not need so much (in quantity) and not getting it wouldn’t mean so much (like a reinforcement of basic flaws). All of that trying fell on deaf ears because my own ears were deaf to messages of approval. Even if they had approved or attended or given me applause, I would not have heard it because it wasn’t enough to drown out the voice of the critic in my head. It couldn’t be enough to make me feel like I was enough.

afterglow-art-backlit-556665I had forgotten you see. I had forgotten who I am. I had forgotten that like each of you I am a miracle. The moment of my conception was a moment of biological and cosmic interplay that has never occurred before and will never happen again. I had forgotten that it is perfectly normal for me to be “different” from whoever I am comparing myself to and to be grateful for that difference, even at times when its usefulness was not so clear. I had forgotten, in all of my trying, that I was okay. That I am loved. That I am whole. That my purpose here is mine and no-one else’s. I had forgotten that I am stardust.

And so I reached out for reminders. I begged for confirmation of my value. And in doing so I made choices that diminished my own magnificence by confusing it with other people’s desires. I longed for proof, always seeking it from the outside rather than starting the work within, the work of building trust in myself, of listening to the small still voice that says “Yes, you can,” the work of loving this body/mind and life as the container for all that I am and all that I can be here and now. That is the work I have undertaken in the last several years.

What comes from this work is a glowing fire of confidence and self-assurance, a quiet knowing of enough-ness, a tenderness for myself and all of my choices past and present, and a deep felt sense of really being okay. It’s okay. It’s all okay. I don’t need anything from you. I delight in your company. I delight in your you-ness. And here in this space I want to assure you that you are also a miracle, that you are stardust, that there is a small still voice inside of you.

If your need for love and affirmation is falling on deaf ears, I’d love to help you listen.

The Sting of Rejection

“No, thank you,” she said and even though I know better, I STILL felt a little sting, that sting of rejection. When I think about it in my wise brain, I know that not everyone will like everything I do. In fact, I’m quite sure there will be plenty of people who won’t like anything I do and my wise self tells me that’s okay. That last bit there, that’s the part I struggle with sometimes.

And I think that struggle is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that, just like most humans, I want to be liked. I want the things that I do to be liked, and I want to please the people around me. I am a recovering people pleaser (with the caveat that there are some people who I’ve never once tried to please and I’m sure they would have liked a little more than that). I think I’ve moved steadily from wanting to please others, be the good girl, shine like a little star sticker in a piano music book TO just wanting to not be actively disliked (like it’s okay if you don’t think I’m the bees knees, but please don’t hate me or be mean) TO realizing that how you feel about me is your business and I and everyone around me are best served by my staying out of that and being the best me I can be. Sounds like a nice steady progression, right? But just like any growth, the motion is not always purely linear. We can be mostly mature about something and still have flashes of 7 year old. I really still would like a gold star every now and then.

The second reason I think my reaction to being refused is interesting is because in that reaction I show that somehow I’ve made everything I do/create/write/make the same thing as me. If someone rejects, dislikes, doesn’t LOVE something I’ve put out in the world, they are rejecting ME (in this way of thinking). That’s ridiculous. When I turn the tables, I can think of plenty of people who make/write/create/share things that I’m not wild about even though I really like the people. I’m sure they have an audience for their stuff; I’m just not a member.

So given that my wise self knows better, why the sting of rejection?

How to not be hurt so much by rejectionAnd THAT is when it really becomes intensely personal, which is to say that it is ALL about me and what’s going on in my head. The sting of the rejection has nothing to do with the other person, and everything to do with what it triggers in me. What do I make that rejection mean?

“I knew it wouldn’t work.”

“I was afraid of this.”

“Nobody’s going to want this thing.”

Those are just warm-ups; hang on for the big guns…

“Why can’t I get this right?”

“Why did I think I could do this?”

“I’m nowhere near good enough to pull this off.”

“I think I’ve made a huge mistake.”

“Maybe I should look into grad school…”

And still better…

“Nothing I do works out.”

“Everyone else has it all worked out. I never will.”

“There must be something wrong with me.”

“I am not enough.”

If I let it, my brain can go from offering someone my work to crippling self-doubt in three steps. And the most important part of that sentence is the first part, the “If I let it.” A mentor of mine refers to the unobserved brain as a toddler with a knife. That brain will think and think and think and think, and it will think you into very safe corners that you most likely have no desire to inhabit, if you let it. If you choose to let your brain interpret the world as it chooses rather than the way that you choose.

When I choose to observe my descent into self-doubt, I can see it with compassion. And then, I can challenge it. “Really? One ‘no’ is evidence of your lack of worth?” I get a little loud with my brain sometimes. Other times: “There, there. I see you’re upset and I know this all feels big and real, so go have a cry if you need to and then we’ll talk about what’s actually going on here. Just take a minute. I’ll wait.” There will be plenty of opportunities to use both of these approaches.

Rejection is not deathBecause rejection comes in so many shapes and sizes. And it can mean everything or nothing. It is so rare that the person who delivered it is still thinking about it at all, because to them, it was just a “no,” a “no” that they have a right to deliver, to express, to use to dole out their time and talents in the way that is best for them. It was just a no.

You’re okay.

The “If…. Then…” of Relating to Other Humans

“If I don’t take care of this…”

“If I don’t get it right…”

“If I decide to just be myself…”

“If I choose what I’d actually like to do…”

“If I say what I really think…”

“If I wear the clothes I want to wear…”

“If I hurt his feelings…”

“If I do anything less that A+ work…”

Then what?

What if they don't like meThen they will all find out who I really am? Then they will all find out I’m not perfect? Then they can choose not to like me anymore? Then they will know the thing I’ve always known, inside, that I’ll never fit in, I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll never be safe just being myself here. Then they will know and I will know that they will know and that will be so painful.

But my dear darling THIS is already so painful. I know because I was a master of the double life. I discovered early in my teenage years that my grades were the barometer that my parents used to discern whether or not I was “okay” in the world. If I kept my grades up, I could get away with a LOT. And the longer I kept my grades up and did all of the things that a high-achieving student would do, the more trust they gave. More weekends away, fewer questions about my destination and my company, more really bad explanations for things accepted without further question. I had parties (big parties). I smoked cigarettes in the car. I skipped classes. Even now I’m uncomfortable writing this because there are family members for whom some piece of that might be new information. I took full advantage of the freedom that was given to me.

And the whole time, and for many years after, I was stunned by the fact that nobody was calling me on it, that nobody was catching me, that nobody actually KNEW what was going on and tried to stop me. I had built a double life. I was really good at it. I tried to fool them, and it worked. So yay! Yeah, not so much.

Not so much because the whole time that I was enjoying my secret life, what I really wanted was for someone to know me. I felt so lonely (maybe just in a 17 year old girl way, but it seems deeper, even in retrospect). I so wanted to be all of the parts and have it be known, even if there were consequences. I so wanted to ditch the fear that if they found out they wouldn’t love me anymore. My double life made me complex and cool to my friends and still allowed me to win gold stars with my family. I got all of the “awards” I was looking for and it just didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter because what I was hung up on was how they felt about me. All of my secrecy and all of the entertainment I provided for my friends was to ensure that they all felt good about me. The entire “If… then…” world that I had built up failed to acknowledge the depth of feeling anyone had for me (like they actually love you kid, even if you screw up or aren’t cool). And to make matters worse, not one bit of all of that effort did anything about how I felt about myself.

imposter sydromeIt’s easy to see this in a teenage story, because we have myths about how insecurity is a natural part of being an adolescent, that somehow just dissipates as our bodies mature. But the truth is that for many of us this “if… then…” way of relating continues long after we reach the age of majority. We make so many decisions based on how other people will feel about us. We act in ways to shore up public opinion, as though we will appear on page 6 if we get it wrong. We fear that we will be fired if we make the smallest error at work. We’re sure that our upcoming presentation might be the breaking point when everyone will find out how unqualified we really are. We just know that if we relax and show our true selves that we won’t have any friends left. If… then…

I’ve been deconstructing some of my if then thinking over the last couple of years. And I want to tell you a few things about that:

  • I’ve never been fired, even when I make mistakes or tell the truth.
  • I still have friends, maybe even more friends, certainly deeper friendships.
  • I’m not so very tired after every social engagement. I’m still an introvert, but I’m not working so hard all of the time.
  • I feel free to try new things, risk things personally and professionally because I’m not so worried about what everybody else thinks.
  • Paying more attention to what I think of me has been the greatest gift I could possibly give myself.

Are you living a double-life? Maybe yours doesn’t have house parties and hidden cigarette butts – maybe yours looks more like putting things off until you’re sure you can get it perfect; maybe yours looks like constantly putting your own needs on the back-burner so you won’t seem selfish; maybe yours looks like waiting for the other shoe to drop at work, at home, with friends. Aren’t you tired of it all?

What would happen if you just decided to be a little more yourself? Dipped a toe into the water of telling the truth and doing what you want? Maybe it’s time to find out.

Are You A Heretic?

We don’t hear this word much anymore, despite the significant play it’s gotten in the past. In days of yore (whose?), being called a heretic could end with some kind of jail sentence on a good day. Now? I can’t remember the last time I even heard the word. Well, until Sunday when there was discussion of the anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s okay. I promise I’m not about to go all history teacher (even though I was one) or theologian (even though I’m married to one) on you. It’s that heretic word that I’m interested in. And I’m interested in it because my very scholarly minister told us that heretic, translated in the ancient Greek, just means one who chooses. Huh. All of this trouble in our collective history over people who choose.

Are you pleasing people?I started thinking about that yesterday and I was immediately aware of how many of my clients experience discomfort, shame, family conflict and oceans of self-doubt because they are choosers. These are women who have decided that the script that society provides for all of us doesn’t work for them and so they have chosen (as one so aptly put it) to live off-script. They have chosen to consciously do something different. They’ve chosen not to marry. They’ve chosen not to have children. They’ve chosen to outpace their partners financially. They’ve chosen to be the working parent while a partner stays home. They’ve chosen to change career paths, pursue higher education at inconvenient times, become yogis and healers. They’ve chosen to leave marriages that other people think are just fine. They’ve chosen to stop giving a crap about tablescapes (yes, that’s a thing) and perfect dinners and what the neighbors think. They’ve chosen to do them instead.

There is no death sentence awaiting them. They won’t be burned at the stake for deciding not to marry or have children. They won’t be jailed for choosing to pursue the arts as a profession. They won’t be interrogated for having a messy entryway. But they will feel the weight of discomfort. And in my experience, they will believe that the discomfort comes from the judgments that other people will have about them. “My parents really want me to be married.” And maybe they do. I have no idea. “My parents want grandchildren so bad they can taste them.” That’s gross, but I get it. “My family can’t believe I’m leaving him.” Yes, there is perhaps judgment out there.

What matters, though, is what we do with that perceived judgment.

One of my marvelous mentors, Martha Beck, (I almost left out the comma so that marvelous mentor Martha would just flow better – it’s a sickness) has a sentence that I just love for these kinds of situations. Actually she has more than one, and I’ll share the two that are top of mind right now in case one works better for you than the other: “I respectfully don’t care,” and: “They just get to feel that way.”

These sentences represent one way that we, as choosers (I say “we” because I can assure that anyone who has the title of “life coach” is a chooser for sure), can respond to these judgments, complaints and discomfort in others when we encounter it. We can respectfully not care and we can acknowledge that they get to feel that way.

Making Hard ChoicesHow does this help? This helps because it keeps us from confusing their discomfort with our own. It keeps us honest about the location of our difficulties when we walk down the chooser path. In my experience, it is not the judgments that others have of my choices so much as my reaction to all of that that causes me to suffer. It is only when I take their judgment and turn it into crippling self-doubt or insecurity that I have a problem. It is only when I use those judgments as stand-ins for my own self-judgment, self-criticism and fear that I get into trouble.

If I can, instead, acknowledge that they get to feel how they feel and that I don’t have to care about that I save myself one layer of discomfort, and I push myself toward the emotional honesty that comes with saying: “Sometimes being a chooser is hard. I am tired. I am afraid. I worry this won’t work out.” I push myself toward allowing the feelings that come with doing hard things and releasing them. I push myself toward a place where I can acknowledge what I’m thinking and all of the ways I’m getting in my own way. And once I’m there, I can make a different choice, because that’s what choosers do. I can use my choosing skills to acknowledge my own strength. I can use my choosing skills to acknowledge how far I’ve come on my path. I can use my choosing skills to make my own evaluation of how it’s working, knowing that at any time I can make a different choice. I am free.

If you feel like a heretic sometimes, if you’re a chooser and see the holiday season coming at you – full of opportunities to give everyone evidence of all of the ways you aren’t measuring up, take stock. Remember that the opinion that matters most is yours. Work on that one instead of trying to prove to everyone else that you’re okay. They’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. You can still be happy. You can still be free, even if you’re a heretic.

A Passport to Your Best Life

A friend shared with me that he is in the process of renewing his passport. He shared that he was being particularly careful as some of the rules regarding travel, even with passports, have become more strict, more complex. He also reflected on the number of people in the world who can’t travel freely. It all got me to thinking about this idea of a passport.

What does a passport do? It allows you to go to places that are otherwise unreachable for you. It allows you a measure of freedom that would not be available without it. It also marks a plan, even if it’s only a vague desire, to move – to travel – to change and be changed.

emotional maturityWhat do passports communicate? They say that we are who we say we are. They authenticate our identity (yup, we checked, it’s her). They indicate that you ARE (at least in your home country) free to move about at will. They suggest that you are not a known threat of any kind. And they give a sort of unofficial nod tot he idea that you can be trusted in a new territory. No official would ever suggest that the passport does that – it would be claiming far too much in the way of responsibility should something awful happen, but that’s pretty much what the assumption is. You have a passport, you must be okay at some basic level and you can be trusted to be in a new place.

I love to travel (not the the actual act of the travel, which I detest, but the being in new places). I like to make lists of places I’d like to go and occasionally re-order them according to something that has shifted for me. I like to imagine the circumstances that would make it possible for me to check one of those boxes. I like to experiment with the idea of being in other places, of being the curious and willing foreigner.

When it comes to my own life, however, my imagination and my curiosity sometimes fail me. When I imagine being in new circumstances and spaces, I often draw a blank (which I think is just total brain shutdown). I talk myself out of the appeal of those possibilities. I don’t even get to the point of imaging the circumstances that would make those new spaces habitable, enjoyable, as exciting as a foreign city.

Being BraveAnd I think, really, it’s because I haven’t yet administered myself a proper passport. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to new experiences in life, we are the ones who administer our own passports. I hear you arguing with me, well at least some of you. I didn’t used to believe this either. I put my parents in the uncomfortable position of being the passport office for a long time. I sought their approval (and they are very different, so pleasing all 4 is no small feat) for each plan, every idea, all of the notions that I experimented with. I wanted them to make me strong enough from the outside that I could be brave on the inside. I wanted their approval to form some sort of exoskeleton that I could use to shield myself from the pain and difficulty of trying new and hard things.

stop people pleasingThis version of me, the one who was not yet ready to write her own passport, didn’t meet the criteria. I could not be trusted in new territory. I was not read to administer and sanction my own great adventures, so I didn’t take many, and the ones I took were pursued in a pretty random fashion without any confidence or self-assurance. I never committed fully, and so never achieved the things I set out to do. I was not who I said I was because I was always trying to be the person I thought someone wanted to have around. I was not free to do anything because I was paralyzed by self-doubt and loneliness (because of never being myself). I was a known threat, at least amongst the young men I tried on during this period. I could not be trusted in new territory. If only there had been a guard at the beginning of each adventure checking my criteria and sending me back to improve my game before I got started.

But this is how it goes I suppose. We just keep getting to the edge of the nest and hoping we’re not so high up that it kills us when we don’t fly so well. I think emotional maturity is our internal passport office. When we take responsibility for our own happiness, when we pursue our own goals in order to please and satisfy ourselves, when admit what we want and commit to it fully, then we get a passport.

Then we are who we say we are.

Then we are free to make changes and move at will.

Then we are not a known threat to others, or even to ourselves anymore.

Then we can be trusted in new territory, because our capacity grows as we learn to meet our commitment.

What new lands await you?

Are you ready to give yourself a passport?