“How do you do it, Meg?” a recently-single girlfriend asked me. She’d just been ghosted (a painful initiation back into the dating scene after nearly a decade) and was understandably discouraged by the process.
“How do you keep putting yourself out there after being burned over and over again? How do you spend so much time alone? How do you have the confidence to go on so many dates, then deal with the frustration and pain of it all?”
People point out my alleged confidence often, and it still surprises me after spending so many years crippled by fear and self-loathing. I struggled with eating disorders for nearly a decade, lived only within the bounds of my (highly uncomfortable) comfort zone, and orchestrated everything in my life to avoid rejection and failure. Yet today, I shamelessly share my most vulnerable parts with the world. In recovery from my eating disorders, I gained half my body weight, but am more confident in a swimsuit now than ever. I take risks I couldn’t have fathomed in the past — most notably moving to New York City without knowing a soul, and leaving two well-paying jobs to pursue my precarious dreams along the way. I make YouTube videos and host a podcast and attend parties and networking events solo. And yes, I go on a lot of dates and experience rejection a lot.
So how did I go from being fearful and self-loathing to having said confidence? A game-changing skill called self-compassion. It’s a research-supported tool that can free you from anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and that critical inner voice most of us have. And it’s the secret to confidence in your abilities and in yourself.
And it’s the secret to confidence in your abilities and in yourself.
Self-compassion isn’t about positive thinking or believing everything will be perfect (or that you’re perfect!). It’s about acknowledging you’re a flawed human being, just like everyone else, and that’s okay. It’s recognizing that failure and mistakes are inevitable parts of the human experience. It’s about making space for all the difficult feelings (such as disappointment, anxiety, rejection, embarrassment, guilt), and responding to them internally with what you might say to a friend. So, how does this create confidence? In order to understand, let me elaborate on what saps confidence and breeds insecurity: anxiety.
Anxiety grows out of uncertainty and the fear of having an undesirable experience. For example, we don’t know what’s going to happen on the date, in the interview, during the presentation, or when we take off our bathing suit cover-up. Cue anxiety: we fear internal and external judgment if we fall short of expectations, and the accompanying shame, humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, and disappointment. Now, a misconception is that the way to handle this is to achieve absolute certainty that things will go well; however, this is a naïve and unhelpful way of approaching things (and why it doesn’t work when someone tells you to visualize things going perfectly), as we can never totally predict and control outcomes. Life is messy and uncertain, and unless we want to spend our lives trapped in our comfort zones, we have to learn how to cope with unwanted outcomes.
Life is messy and uncertain, and unless we want to spend our lives trapped in our comfort zones, we have to learn how to cope with unwanted outcomes.
This is where self-compassion comes in: instead of naively believing everything will always go well, we learn how not to fear the messy stuff. How, exactly? Let me illustrate: imagine you’re a about to give a presentation, an understandably anxiety-provoking experience. In the first scenario, you know your boss has high expectations, and if it goes poorly they’re going to tear a strip off you. They’ll tell you what a failure and an embarrassment you are, and say you should never present again. Anxiety-provoking AF, right? In the second scenario, you know your boss has realistic expectations, and if the presentation goes poorly they’ll be understanding and comforting. They’ll empathize with your feelings of disappointment and shame, tell a story about a time they bombed a presentation, and help you recognize where you can improve for the next time. Visualizing each scenario, in which do you feel more confident? In which are you more likely to go through with the presentation, taking advantage of an opportunity for growth and stepping out of your comfort zone?
Self-compassion is being that supportive boss, or friend, or coach, or partner with ourselves. It’s a) having realistic expectations for ourselves (which decreases anxiety and increases confidence); b) permitting the bubbling up of uncomfortable feelings without judgment; c) knowing the human condition is to err, be imperfect, and feel the aforementioned uncomfortable feelings; feel discomfort, and d) responding to ourselves with understanding and encouragement.
Be patient with yourself in the process — it’s like learning a new language and feels foreign and frustrating at first. However, the more we practice self-compassion the more natural it feels, and the more confident we become — because we know whatever happens we’ll be able to support ourselves through it. So if you’re looking for confidence in all areas of your life, focus first on your relationship with yourself!