“Where does confidence come from?”

I am walking down a busy Vancouver street with my friend MN when she casually tosses this weighty question in my direction.

I handle it about as smoothly as a dad does a basketball lobbed at him by his toddler at the exact moment he looks away to answer a question from his partner about what he’s making for dinner.

It hits me with a thud.

I pick it up gingerly. Hang onto it a few seconds longer than necessary as I recover from the surprise hit . . . unsure whether to toss it back, or put the ball away and direct our attention to an easier game.

We roll the ball back and forth for a bit. Trade errant thoughts without coming to any big conclusions . . . other than that we neither one of us think we are necessarily obvious candidates for high self-esteem, and yet both feel we have a pretty solid sense of our value.

That was in January 2012.

I was in Vancouver visiting MN and her partner, DN – friends from Ottawa who had moved west a few months after I had moved slightly less west to my current home, Toronto.

Dubbed my “coming out of retirement” trip, it was my last travel adventure before leaning fully into my #freshstart in Toronto.


Two days after arriving home from Vancouver, I turned fully the page on my Ottawa govie policy nerd career (ended seven months earlier when I volunteered to be laid off in order to find a more community-based career in the city I grew up in) by starting my current job in the Toronto charitable sector.

A lot has happened since that January.

I moved into an amazing half of a half of a house in Roncesvalles Village that I adore.

I made some awesome new friends.

Lost one or two who stopped showing up for me.

Confronted one of the most emotionally difficult situations my family has ever faced.

I embraced how much connecting with people, helping them to tell their stories, and supporting them in their journeys to loving themselves was not only something that needs to be part of my life, but something that I’m very good at.

And, I navigated one of the biggest shit-kickings my ego has ever faced . . .

Through all of this, MN’s question has lingered in the back of my mind.

Where DOES confidence come from?

Why do some of us have it, while others are completely lacking?

Why do some people think they have to do such a good job of faking that they have it, while others who actually don’t think that poorly of themselves possess a deep seeded compulsion to demonstrate humbleness to everyone they encounter?

Why do I possess it so strongly in some areas, but less so in others?

I haven’t been alone in pondering these types of questions these last 16 months.

Many a good friend or ally on my journey has engaged in fascinating, vulnerable exchanges with me on these quandaries.

And while I’m not sure I am any more capable of providing MN with a definitive answer than I was on that grey Vancouver afternoon, I am definitely ready to do more than just roll the basketball back and forth than I was then.

First, I think it’s important that to define what we mean by confidence.

Is it equivalent to self-esteem?

To loving one self?

I don’t think it is.

To me, confidence is about believing in your abilities or competence in a certain area.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, is more your overall sense of your value as a human being.

And loving yourself . . . well, my dears, I just think that’s a whole other island on the map that we navigate in our evolving relationships with ourselves.

Let me give you an example.

I am confident in my overall intellect. In my ability to lead complex projects and teams – particularly where writing, analysis or strategy are involved. I should be. I spent over seven years being coached and praised in these areas.

I was regularly promoted.

Told I was talented.

Told I wasn’t talented, and was then forced to work my way through not doubting my competence just because one person thought it was their job to knock me down a peg.

The nurturing that my confidence in this part of my self went through during those years has been a big contributor to my over all sense of value: to my self-esteem.

However, it has been just one part of that.

Which is why I think it is very possible to be confident in one (or some) areas of your life without possessing an overall high level of self-esteem.

True, it’s likely this confidence in one area may be a protective factor from struggling with extremely low overall self-esteem, but the two aren’t one and the same.

As for loving myself – accepting and embracing “me” in all my complexity of high and low confidence and self-esteem areas, moments, and narratives – to me, that’s a daily, and sometimes even hourly, choice.

It’s a way of walking in this world that, for me, at least, moves beyond “can I do this thing or that one” and “am I feeling good about who I am as a person” to unshakable love. Just, love.

Ok, so, now having defined confidence, I think it’s somewhat easer to explore how one builds, and maintains, it.

I believe my career example, above, is an important pathway.

External validation plays an critical role in the development of confidence – particularly in the early days of exploring a new task, characteristic or role.

However, I don’t believe that it’s a one-way street, that validation.

For as much as we need the compliments, encouragement and rewards that we get from others in order to trigger us to being able to trust our competence in a certain area, we also need to know how to accept that feedback.

And this, I believe, is where a lot of us fall down in the confidence department.

True, there are many who stumble in their development of confidence because they don’t have enough positive reinforcement in one or more area of their lives. And to those people I say: the universe loves you. It just hasn’t figured out how to show it to you yet. And also: big hugs.

So, yes, lack of validation can be a barrier to developing confidence.

However, I also think there are a lot of people who stumble not due to a lack of external validation, but due to an inability to hear it.

How many of you have ever heard an expression that goes something like, “ten people compliment you and you brush it off, one person insults you and it stays with you for days?”

So, why are some of us better able to hear validation than others? Why does an “A-“ on a Math test mean the world to one person, and represent a disaster to another?

I think a lot of it has to do with expectations.

Which can be both a good and bad thing.

High expectations can drive you to achievement as you seek excellence in one or more areas of your life.

Or, they can drive you to low self-esteem and serve as a significant barrier to even contemplating something as transformative as loving yourself as you chase after results so ambitious and vague that you can’t even name them.

I’ll use my career as an example, again.

At the age of 16, I barely had any notion of going to university let alone that I would one day get a Master’s degree. In fact, when my third year political science professor suggested I consider applying for graduate school by way of a note on my final paper, I had to go and ask her what, exactly, graduate school entailed.

When I finished my Master of Arts in January 2005, all I wanted was to find a secure government job where I could use my writing and analytical skills to help make peoples’ lives better.

By 2008 I had helped to write my first Cabinet document.

By 2010 I was an Interim Policy Director with a staff of 25 overseeing some major health policy initiatives.

I was able to hear the validation of my competence during those years in part because it so surpassed my expectations for myself that it was impossible not to pay some attention to it. Don’t get me wrong, I also faced massive bouts of imposter syndrome . . . but I got past it.

Which brings me to my second thought on hearing validation. I also think it is perhaps in some ways a learned skill – and one that is to certain degree tied to not just who and how we were brought up, but what position we were taught to occupy in this world.

I have rarely walked into a meeting where I was not immediately aware of being either the youngest, or one of the few non-white people in the room.

Now, in theory this positioned me to be one of the less powerful people around the table. Except that . . . I somehow came fairly quickly to the perspective that, “if I’m here, it’s not an accident. It’s cause I’m smart. I have things to contribute. And if it is an accident, well, I’m gonna have my say before they kick me out.”

(Just want to note that having worked almost my whole career so far in the social services sector, I was rarely the minority from a gender perspective, but I definitely think gender socialization also plays a huge role in our ability to hear validation . . . just so happens this was not the focus of my experience as a young, brown govie policy nerd).

Why did I react to my perceived powerlessness in this way?

Well, I suspect it may have had something to do with having had enough validation of my intellectual competence before landing in those meetings to carry me through a few years of “faking it ‘til I made it.”

Probably also came from a fear of being seen as a non-performer to colleagues, bosses and mentors, who, for the most part, assumed that if I was being paid to occupy a certain position in those meetings, I would step up and get the job done, irrespective of any self-doubt.

The factors contributing to my reaction are no doubt multiple, and I’m sure would be different for each person in a similar situation.

The point I’m trying to make is that we all have certain deep seeded internal barriers that can all too easily nudge us into believing that we don’t belong at the table, and into being unable hear the positive reinforcement being given us. We need to be aware of their existence so that we can set an intentional course to knock those effers down.

Told you don’t matter cause you’re brown? Knock that shit down.

Abusive parent / teacher / soccer coach told you you’re not valuable? Work through that baggage.

Cause it ain’t cool that so many of us it find it so much easier to believe our critics than our champions.

I have many more thoughts on all of this . . . and I realize I introduced a few stories that I never returned to (like my ego shit-kicking, or the fact that there are some areas of my life where my confidence is much (much) lower than in the example I used repeatedly in this post (who me in need of some self-validation? Hmm . . .) But, it’s late and I need to get some sleep so I’m not a zombie tomorrow, so I’m gonna stop for now with this final thought.

The universe loves you.

It may or may not have figured out how to tell you this yet.

But, just in case it has . . . make sure you’re positioning yourself to hear it.