Self-confidence is not just about trusting our ability to accomplish tasks. When we lack self-confidence, we doubt that we deserve love, success, comfort, joy, happiness. At our core, we doubt that we deserve to exist.
When children receive kind, caring, responsive attention, it reinforces that they are intrinsically valuable and worthy of taking up space. When children’s feelings are accurately reflected back to them, they learn to trust the validity of their inner experience. For example, “It looks like you’re really mad right now.” With congruence between their inner truths and outer responses, children develop a solid confidence at their core.
In contrast, violent or contemptuous behavior toward children is jarringly incongruent with their intrinsic value. In too many homes, feelings are ignored, invalidated, or punished. An angry child is met with, “Wipe that frown off your face!” or “Calm down, everything is fine.” Incongruent responses erode children’s trust in their own experience, leaving uncertainty and shame at their core.
Gaslighting directly feeds that uncertainty. “This isn’t happening,” during abuse. Constantly shifting rules and punishments, without admitting that they are changing. Accusing the child of being crazy, broken, or wrong for being affected by abuse and neglect.
Emotional neglect can be subtle and corrosive. When adults are too dissociated or depressed to mirror a child’s experience back to them, the child feels adrift, wondering what is real and how to get people to respond to them.
It is confusing and heartbreaking for children when they clearly signal their pain, but do not receive comfort and better care in response. They lose confidence both that their well-being matters, and that sensing pain means care is needed.
When we lack inner certainty about our right to exist, we wistfully try to imitate other people’s confident entitlement to take up space. We beat ourselves up for mistakes, real or imagined, as if they affect our intrinsic value. (They don’t.)
We directly or indirectly ask others if we are okay. We agonize over silence or unkindness, and constantly seek out the next bit of reassurance. Contempt eats into us like acid because there is no neutralizing inner certainty that it is undeserved.
We recognize nourishment when a mentor, practitioner, friend, or lover reflects us warmly and positively, even when something in us might also push that away. Each bit of external approval or kind witnessing helps us build a stronger sense of self and eventually internalize our own Inner Nurturer.
Everyone grieves at the loss of a warm connection with someone. The loss is more wrenching if they take our externally-based positive self-image with them. When we depend on someone else’s positive view of us, it leads to enmeshment and difficulty leaving if the relationship becomes abusive. Some abusive relationships start with intentional “love-bombing” to hook in people with shaky self-confidence.
Sit with doubt
We feel shame for being so vulnerable around external validation, even though we all have a need for kind reflection. We cannot make our missing confidence appear simply by deciding we “should” have it. We can sit with our doubts and shame, take in available nourishment and support, and let inner confidence grow slowly over time.
We can say, “Something in me doubts that I deserve to exist, and I say hello to that.” We can be our own kind witness and spend time with whatever we sense about that part. We can say hello to the part that criticizes the doubting, hurting part, and any other parts that have reactions to that part.
All parts of us are doing their best to help us survive. Many of them formed when we were young and had only a small repertoire of tools. When we learn about our emotions and provide our own accurate reflections, we begin to mend the holes left by inadequate parenting. “Something in me is mad right now.”
Not about us
When people treat us with contempt, cruelty, or indifference, they are saying more about their own internal state than about ours. Similarly, when we feel self-contempt, we have to be mindful not to project it unfairly on the people around us. No one intrinsically deserves contempt. While some damaging behaviors are contemptible, we want to minimize our use of contempt.
Self-confidence lets us keep our balance when others treat us badly. When we can stay even-tempered and kind, they have an opportunity to correct their behavior. We can also calmly communicate our boundaries. “We don’t do that here.” “I don’t like that. Please stop.” “Wow.”
Unfortunately, some people do not take the hint. It is not our job to be endlessly nice in the face of bad behavior. Self-confidence sparks anger and self-protective action when someone continues to mistreat us.
Make the leap
When we can turn toward ourselves with care in the midst of feeling doubt and self-contempt, we make space for healing to occur. We naturally need care from others to show us the way, and we also need to make the leap to assert, “I do deserve to exist.” Or at least, “I am going to treat myself as if I deserve to exist.”
- Robyn Posin’s post “Loving Your Self Unconditionally” reminds us that loving regard from others cannot reach us until we accept ourselves first. She continues that theme in “Love Your Self as You Are Right Now.” “The real cure, the only magical solution is simply and immediately to begin to practice treating our selves, exactly as we are in this moment, as if we already are entitled to be loved.”
- Lindsay Gibson’s book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents describes the effects of lacking emotional mirroring as a child, and suggests ways to handle immature parents as an adult.